Feature: Opera Navigates a Rocky Road at Banff Centre

by | Jan 1, 2019 | Featured, News

Banff has undergone a major physical transformation over the past decade, including opening the new Shaw outdoor amphitheatre and the sleek, Jack Diamond-designed Kinnear Centre for Creativity and Innovation, and giving their hotel rooms a hip Scandinavian makeover. Even the name has been officially rebranded to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, reflecting a wider outlook.

There have been positive strategic changes too, especially to the centre’s relationships with the area’s Treaty 7 Blackfoot, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuut’ina Nations. In 2017 a new Director of Indigenous Arts was brought on board (director, playwright and actor Reneltta Arluk) and Banff has significantly expanded its Indigenous leadership and governance programs.

However, when I visited in July 2018, I felt that the optimism and sense of forward momentum represented by all these shiny new structures and initiatives belied an underlying anxiety rooted in layers of chronic challenges.

First, there’s Alberta’s uncertain political climate. The New Democrats are sympathetic to artists in principle, not least in their capacity as lower-income, left-leaning, activist voters. Anecdotally, however, the provincial NDP government has tended to shy away from investing in largescale,“high art” projects, wary of any whiff of elitism that might alienate their base (B.C.’s NDP government has also balked on committing funds to a long-awaited expansion of the Vancouver Art Gallery).

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to imagine a conservative politician today donating millions to the arts, as the legendary Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed did. At Banff, I observed one dinner conversation between Rosemary Thompson, the former CTV journalist who left the National Arts Centre last year and is now Banff ’s VP of Marketing and Communications, and the political columnist and writer Paul Wells. They contemplated the potential threat to the Centre’s public funding posed by Alberta United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney and his more populist brand of ideology.

Siman Chung (Orphée) & Company XIV Dancers in Banff Centre’s Orphée+. Photo: Don Lee

Another apparent source of friction stems from the sheer number and variety of programs offered at Banff. While art will always be a priority, it’s clear that the Centre has broadened its definition of ‘creativity’ in an attempt to remain relevant and generate income. A visit to their website shows a bewildering menu of offerings. In addition to year-round programs in opera, music, theatre, writing, visual arts, Indigenous arts, dance, and media production, not to mention all the accompanying technical subspecialties from costume design to set building, there’s the triennial international string quartet competition, the annual Mountain Film and Book Festival, an extensive menu of courses under the umbrella of the Leadership program, and convention and event hosting services. In theory, this diverse environment leads to rich interdisciplinary exchanges and insight. In practice, it can stretch limited resources too thin and create specialized, jealously defended silos.

By trying to be so many things for so many people, Banff runs the risk of straying from its original, flagship focus as an arts incubator; the kind of place where composer André Ristic and novelist Cecil Castellucci could retreat from the world to work on their hockey-themed Opera Noir, which Ensemble contemporain de Montréal premiered earlier this year. Or, where composer John Estacio and his creative team had the luxury of spending a full 15 months developing Filumena before its 2003 premiere at Calgary Opera. As Estacio notes on his website, “this is a kind of ‘insurance policy’ for new work of scale, and helps to mitigate the risks of presenting new opera, which for many Canadian producers, is the greatest impediment to their commitment to new work. It also gives young performers the chance to be up close and personally connected to the creative process.”

During the summer months, for example, the Centre faces a dilemma: capitalize on the high tourism season by promoting a wide assortment of concerts and public events, or provide an educational environment for young professionals to perfect their craft, without feeling pressured to deliver a finished product and sell tickets. I spent a week at Banff this July during the Opera in the 21st Century program, and left with the impression that organizers couldn’t decide if they wanted to be a summer music festival in everything but name, or a summer institute. By trying to do both, Banff fell somewhat short on both fronts.

In 2014, Against the Grain Theatre’s Joel Ivany was named director of Banff ’s opera program. Ivany has already brought his Uncle John (Don Giovanni), The Rape of Lucretia and Kopernikus to the mountains. This year’s opera program included Ivany’s Dora Award-winning Orphée+; a semi-staged outdoor concert version of Bernstein’s Candide directed by Laura Tucker, and Chamber Werx 2018, in which Amiel Gladstone gave nearly 20 art songs an elaborately detailed theatrical treatment, with costumes, sets and lighting.

A scene from Banff Centre’s Chamber Werx. Photo: Don Lee

This ambitious agenda took place in a single week and shared many of the same cast members. Several of the singers and musicians participating in Opera in the 21st Century expressed frustration and disappointment at the hectic, exhausting schedule and focus on spectacle, which they said was unconducive to the type of patient study, reflection and pursuit of excellence they had hoped to get from their Banff experience.

“I thought I would come to Banff and I would be able to do a deep dive into specific repertoire,” soprano Tracy Cantin said. “Instead I’ve been in technical rehearsals every day, with barely any time to go over the music. I could have stayed home in Toronto and done that. It’s frustrating to be here and not have the  experience you thought you would have.”

The resulting performances were decidedly mixed. Gladstone’s Chamber Werx project was certainly pretty to look at, with the 20 or so singers moving around in different wistful vignettes, dressed in romantic, candy-coloured, retro costumes, all sequins and waistcoats and 1950s luncheon hemlines. There was fine singing too—from tenor Jean-Philippe Lazure, playing a rueful village publican for Gurney’s “Ludlow Fair;” countertenor Shane Hanson in Purcell’s “Cold Song;” mezzo Jamie Groote in a tender Britten “Highland Balou,” and Cantin in a watery, bath time setting of Debussy’s “De fleurs.”

But overall the concept felt precious and overwrought. Song selections were unrelated to each other and their staging more often than not deliberately confused their meaning. Gladstone set Rachmaninoff ’s “Zdes’ khorosho”—an ode to the peace of being alone in nature—on a plane, with the soprano standing on a seat during takeoff to sing while waving her arms about dramatically. Anyone unfamiliar with the song—which would have been most of the audience— would have thought it was about goodbyes, or possibly the agonies of economy air travel.

Katharine Dain (Cunegonde) in Banff Centre’s Candide. Photo: Don Lee

Ivany’s Orphée+ was fresh from its five wins at the 2018 Dora Awards, and the Banff audience, some of whom had come up from Calgary for the evening, was full of anticipation. Those who had come for the much trumpeted “burlesque spectacle” weren’t disappointed. But I found the louche trappings out of place in this chaste, restrained opera, where the lovers never even share a passionate duet, let alone a kiss. The preening burlesque dancers of Company XIV were intriguing for the first few minutes, but then the choreography got tedious and repetitive.

There were other issues with the Banff production. Miriam Khalil replaced Baroque specialist Mireille Asselin as Eurydice. Khalil’s big, dark soprano, while always attractive, isn’t well- suited to this repertoire. Another substitute was Etta Fung, a Hong Kong-based soprano and aerialist who took over Marcy Richardson’s award-winning role as Amour. Fung’s discipline is silks while Richardson’s is hoops; Fung was visually impressive, but the voice was small and the technique not always secure—even when she wasn’t hanging upside down.

After the intense rehearsals for the more complex Orphée+ and Chamber Werx, preparations for the semi-staged Candide felt like an afterthought—rushed and disorganized. I was supposed to attend a dress rehearsal on Saturday, since I had to leave Banff before the Sunday night show. What I saw seemed to be quite far from the finished, confident product one would expect at this stage in the process, with soloists, chorus and orchestra being asked to repeat sections and go over their cues and transitions again and again.

“I thought this was supposed to be the last run-through,” I said to a group of waiting singers. “Yeah, so did we,” one quipped. The annoyance was palpable.

A scene from Banff Centre’s Orphée+. Photo: Don Lee

To write anything negative about the Banff Centre feels almost unpatriotic. There’s no doubt it’s a special place. The magical, grandiose setting makes it easy—too easy—to get lulled into a sense of permanence, of noble ambitions and ideals. You pull open your curtains every morning and look out at a view so reliably breathtaking—every angle like a “See the Canadian Rockies” vintage railway poster come to life— the hotel should pipe a permanent Richard Strauss soundtrack into all the rooms. You take a stroll from the campus to the town and half expect to see Julie Andrews come running up the pine-scented path, a gaggle of blonde children yodeling in harmony behind her. Outdoor amphitheatre concerts echo down the valley and into the peaks as the summer twilight lingers long past 10 p.m.

But for the opera program to thrive, Banff needs to offer participants more than just stunning alpine vistas, fresh air and smiling staff. What I heard from the singers is that they would like to see a more disciplined program, one focused on process, exploration and development rather than on immediate results. Quality of performance over quantity. More time and opportunities to interact with other disciplines and points of view on campus.

A string quartet program and a literary journalism retreat led by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean were happening at the same time as Opera in the 21st Century. I saw little co-mingling between the three groups, who broke off into cliques. A more organized effort to facilitate exchanges—maybe a public Q&A session involving all three areas—would have gone a long way to breaking down these natural barriers.

If Banff could do a better job of harnessing its multidisciplinary environment, including its access to Indigenous communities and their resources, it might offer opera artists an experience as distinctly Canadian as those glorious views.