Victoria, BC
Downtown Victoria, BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Please noteInformation in this Victoria report was accurate as of publishing in our Fall 2020 issue released in September 2020.

Health measures in Victoria, BC

British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry enjoys near-rock star status in this province, and rightfully so, but she sure does know how to ruin a great idea.

Near the end of July, Pacific Opera Victoria’s Artistic Director Timothy Vernon and CEO Ian Rye were about to unveil the company’s latest plan to bring live opera performance back to Victoria. This involved mounting two riotously funny companion chamber operas (which shall remain nameless for fear of another company shamelessly pinching the idea) at the company’s Baumann Centre. Patrons who bought tickets in mid-September for a recorded, online version would receive advance access to tickets for the real thing, if it happened that POV would be able to offer physically distanced live performances in October.

It did not so happen. Henry had issued a new directive: if live music is provided during an indoor event, a physical barrier must be installed between the performers and the patrons that blocks the transmission of germy droplets produced by the performers.

With director, singer, and musicians already booked––and complicated plans in place for a run of 14 performances hosting 35 audience members in cabaret-style seating––this new public health directive was a blow. For live audiences, the new setup would be like watching an opera inside a fishbowl. It would also fatally hamper the live streaming the company wanted to offer.

“We felt this would not be the experience we wanted our audience to have,” said Vernon. If the company was going to offer opera online only, it wanted the right product and a true, multi-camera, ‘film’ experience.

“One of the operas we had planned to do is just 18-minutes long, and was perfect for the kind of live performances we assumed we were going to be able to present. But not really perfect for film.” Instead, Vernon is considering other chamber operas for the company’s new ‘film first agenda,’ including Canadian composer Elizabeth Raum’s The Garden of Alice. He is also considering selections for “in-person possibilities in outdoor settings next summer.”

Calling the shots

On May 21st, POV became the first performing arts organization in North America to formally rule out any kind of mainstage 20/21 opera season. Rye had already informed his opera world peers that this decision was looming a month earlier:

“Many companies were still crossing their fingers that their summer festivals were happening, and I had to announce to them that, in this tiny little corner of the world, under the provincial health officer’s orders, there will be no large gatherings and no large opera productions for the foreseeable future,” Rye said. “It changed the discourse across the continent because everybody knew in their gut this was coming, but we confirmed it.”

While careful to call it a postponement rather than a cancellation, the announcement still shocked some of POV’s artists, donors, and subscribers. There was a lot of disappointment, but also tremendous support. Many who had already bought their 20/21 tickets are holding on to them, “so we know they’ll be there when we come back,” said Rye, and the company is luring on-the-fence subscribers with a unique, risk-free deferred payment plan: commit now to secure your seats; pay only when it happens.

Supporting artists

Throughout the crisis, the company has also been working to support past and future POV artists in whatever ways it can, including hiring young singers to do pop-up events around Victoria through the summer, and making paid opportunities available for creating online content. Much of that content––including Acoustic Afternoons, Inside Opera chats, Lunchbox Opera interviews and recitals, and Listening Party Podcasts––will migrate back to pre-pandemic, live attendance soon.

When POV does finally return to mainstage activities at the Royal Theatre in Victoria, it will resume where it abruptly left off, with Carmen, which had been scheduled for April 2020. That will be followed by Death in Venice and Don Giovanni.

“We are so committed to those projects that we’ve already re-engaged the artists we originally booked,” said Rye. “We paid them compensation for loss of work right away, and have now given them right of first refusal for the engagement when productions are rescheduled, at the full fee. Our shops are also busy building all three shows right now, so we are in full operation.”

Unfortunately, Wagner’s Die Walküre, which had been scheduled for this fall as a cornerstone of the company’s 40th anniversary celebrations, is a COVID casualty: “It’s so enormous that we’ve had to take a step back,” said Vernon. “To do Die Walküre requires a long, complicated negotiation with the Victoria Symphony, who play for us…but there’s no guarantee that we can simply take that format and apply it to our next season. The symphony will have made its own plans by that time.

“The orchestra needs a good two years of notice to make itself available for something that requires so much time. And we just can’t do that now,” Rye added. Carmen, however, is another story. “Once it comes out of the shop, we can mount it in eight weeks,” said Rye. “When Bonnie Henry calls and says ‘open the theatres!’ we’ll be ready.”

You can find season previews like this one from across Canada in our Fall 2020 issue. To receive more exclusive content, help support our writers and Canadian artists by subscribing here.