Go not gently

HM_ARC_003757-001Opéra de Montréal’s 2016/17 season is a bit hard to decode.  There’s quite a lot to like but it still fills me with a vague sense of unease.  It just looks too much like the kind of thing one would expect about two seasons before a company announces it is shutting up shop.  There are four regular opera plus a show which is billed as an opera but looks more like a Pink Floyd tribute concert.  Another Brick in the Wall is a three hour long, one singer work by Julien Bilodeau based on Roger Water’s The Wall and is part of the 375th anniversary celebrations for the city of Montreal.  It gets twice as many performances as each of the other four operas in the season.

The other four operas include three from the Greatest Hits list; Aida, Don Giovanni and La Bohème, plus Dialogues des Carmélites.  All are directed by “safe pairs of hands” of the uncontroversial North American neo-traditionalist persuasion.  Three of the four feature the sort of cast fellow blogger Leslie Barcza advocates for; young Canadian singers with established Canadians where role age demands it.  I love that it means major roles for the likes of Gordon Bintner (Don Giovanni), France Bellemare (Mimi) and Lucia Cesaroni (Musetta).  Then I look at the almost entirely eastern European cast for Aida; a work where it would be much harder to cast emerging artists, and I get a bit jumpy.

To me, veteran (and several times victim) of umpteen corporate mergers and downsizings this looks uncannily familiar.  Fire the established professionals and replace them with cheaper youngsters and off-shore to areas with lower labour costs where possible.  It’s been the corporate mantra for years and I’ve seen it spread into opera.  One, for now nameless, Canadian company has become notorious for double casting shows with the B cast getting fees that only the most desperate will take.  It’s another flavour of the same thing.

So, we have a combination of cost cutting at the expense of the singing proletariat and artistic conservatism.  Maybe it will put enough (aging) bums in the seats of an oversized, not terribly attractive venue, to keep the lights on for another few seasons but it looks a bit desperate.  Isn’t this what Ottawa tried?

9 thoughts on “Go not gently

  1. I have to say that with the benefit of the distance of being on the other side of the Atlantic that this actually looks like quite an interesting season and certainly better than they would have put on a decade ago. Yes, the choice of directors could be more innovative – how I’d like for OdM to import say Tcherniakov or Bieito’s Dialogues but let’s face it, a house that depends on subscriptions and donations is unlikely to take the risk sadly which is a shame as I think it’s a risk that could pay off. The focus on Quebec-trained artists is something that is extremely welcome and mounting a Dialogues where all the publicized singers are either from Quebec or were trained in the province is something to be proud of. For a company that puts on 4-5 mainstage works a year, 3 Italians plus 1 French and a world premiere isn’t too shabby. I agree with the casting of the Aida but overall I don’t get the sense of doom that you do. It might be the distance though and only time will tell who is right. Certainly the Elektra I attended there recently was very full and the audience was youthful.

    • I wasn’t trying to suggest IMMINENT doom. Rather to suggest that this looks maybe like the kind of slide into conservatism and cost-cutting that ends up being like the proverbial frog being brought to the boil. I agree with you that’s there plenty to like.

      • Certainly but I fear this conservatism is pretty widespread. One need only look at the current season at the Royal Opera House or next season in Paris or at the Liceu to see that theatres are increasingly playing it ‘safe’.

  2. While I understand your point, I’m not quite in agreement that this season marks the death knell of OdM! For one, I see they’ve done a complete re-design of their website which is always a good sign for any organization I’d say. As far as casting goes – the Don G cast looks extremely strong. Young Canadians mostly yes, but truly, the cream of the crop! Two of the sopranos, Layla Claire and Emily Dorn are really top notch. Claire now sings at least once a season at the MET and Dorn…well, that’s interesting. Such a strange coincidence as yesterday someone else alerted me to Dresden Opera’s new season which I perused, and kept seeing this “Emily Dorn” prominently featured in many different productions. I didn’t know who she was, and assumed “American”. With the OdM announcement I saw her name again, as Donna Anna and recognized her immediately as Emily Duncan-Brown [thinking she got married?] who I heard and sang with [chorus!] with Opera in Concert, probably 6 years ago or so. I remember thinking at the time how impressive she was, but she sort of disappeared from the local scene…but has obviously done very well and is ensconced in Dresden! All to say, the Don G is very strongly cast. I’d say the same for the Poulenc and the Puccini – the singers are very, very accomplished young Canadians. Marianne Fiset (Blanche in Dialogues) has sung Manon at Paris Opera for goodness sake! So happy to see Lucia Cesaroni finally getting cast here in Canada! As for the Eastern Europeans in the Aida – well, as you mention it would be very difficult to cast those roles with Canadians and those singers further up the pecking order who sing these roles (Radvanovsky et. al.) are probably not in OdM’s budget range. I’ve heard some pretty impressive Verdians in Prague and Budapest so it’s not surprising Montreal is looking to that part of the world to cast their Aida. And the Pink Floyd – well, yes, it will probably be quite popular, hence the additional performances. They did Starmania a few seasons back, so The Wall has a precedent. I’m not familiar with most of the directors they’re using – their names suggest they are from Quebec and I’d imagine are known there, possibly more from the realm of straight theatre?

    • Not the death knell for sure. But, to my mind a bit worrying. The pink Floyd thing actually amuses me immensely. It will no doubt be presented as “contemporary” and “relevant” when it will likely appeal to a demographic at least as old the opera audience! The original music is ten years older than Nixon in China.

      • HA! You’ve got a point there. I’d imagine their “Starmania” appealed to the same demographic – it was huge with Quebec youth in the late 70s I think. A show that certainly didn’t crossover into English Canada at all. Only know about it as someone close grew up with it in La Belle Province. It does seem that in order to keep things ticking over in Montreal, they have to stick to quite traditional rep and productions. It has always intrigued me that in fact, the opera audience in Toronto seems slightly more adventurous and robust than in YUL, but maybe that’s just a view from afar so to speak? It’s an interesting point to ponder though…

  3. Not sure how you concluded that those east Europeans cast in Aida are equal to the off-shore cheap labour? It’s a pretty iffy qualification. You seem to be presuming that, since they’re from that part of the world, they are going to be a lesser, cheaper cast?

    There’s a whole lotta EEeans at every level of operatic casting pecking order, including the very top with Beczala, Netrebko, Kwiecien, Gubanova, Kassarova, Spicer, and on and on. I fail to see why this group of EE singers http://www.operademontreal.com/en/shows/aida are qualified as THE sign of doom and decline?

    Btw, Francois Racine has been revival-directing Lepage’s Bluebeard-Erwartung around the world, which certainly recommends him to me.

    • So I definitely wouldn’t say “lesser” but I think it’s pretty well established that, aside from a handful of A listers, pay rates in the former Soviet bloc are less than in the “west”. There’s still a distinct differential between Fest contracts in Germany; east and west. I could be wrong and I wouldn’t have gone where I went on any one piece of data but, taken as a whole, the Montreal announcement worries me.

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