Please note: Information in this Winnipeg report was accurate as of publishing in our Fall 2020 issue released in September 2020.
Manitoba has dodged many COVID-19 bullets affecting most of Canada since mid-March, but its number of second-wave cases is now on the rise in lockstep with other provinces and Winnipeg’s four opera companies have not gone unscathed.
One of the most significant losses to date was the cancellation of Manitoba Opera’s local premiere of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, originally slated for November, as announced by MO General Director & CEO Larry Desrochers on Jun. 29th. This followed the abrupt cancellation of its nearly sold out, three-show run of Carmen in April, with Desrochers once again making the gut-wrenching, but inevitable decision to halt rehearsals shortly before opening night.
However, MO will continue to present opera in various formats throughout the year, while maintaining its educational programming and outreach activities, either online, live or a combination of both. Some of those plans include a “Celebrity Opera Storytime” for children, while its popular “Opera Primer” live lecture/demonstration series will morph into pre-recorded “Opera Insights,” hosted by local opera singers. These digital initiatives come with the added bonus of accessibility to Manitoba’s Northern and rural communities.
Notably, MO launched its inaugural Digital Emerging Artists Program in August, a four-week, online professional development program for emerging artists, selected through nationwide video auditions. Core faculty included world-renowned, Winnipeg-based sopranos Tracy Dahl and Monica Huisman; mezzo-soprano Marion Newman (Toronto); and tenor John Tessier (Edmonton). Participants honed their skills with intensive daily vocal lessons, master classes, and workshops, culminating in the creation of a professional audition video to help the singers take next steps in their careers.
On Nov. 7th, MO will launch a revised 2020/2021 season with “The Sopranos of Winnipeg,” a showcase of some of Manitoba’s finest singers: Andriana Chuchman, Tracy Dahl, Lara Ciekiewicz, Monica Huisman, Lara Secord-Haid, Lida Szkwarek, and Andrea Lett. The 75-minute live concert will also feature a scaled-down, 40-piece Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The concert will be live streamed as current pandemic measures have altered original plans to allow for a reduced, live audience.
In a departure from the proliferation of free opera content currently being offered online, the MO concert will be a paid-for, ticketed event. “The fee is not nominal,” says Desrochers, “but it will [be] different and less expensive than if you attend something live, because we want to protect the artistic content that we create, and the value of the live experience.”
The fate of MO’s Tosca, scheduled for April, will be decided closer to the date. Eliminating its deficit last year has proved paramount to MO’s ability to survive, and ultimately thrive. They even ended the 2019/2020 season with a surprising, small surplus as the company essentially re-invents itself. As Derochers states, “I believe we have a responsibility to provide some kind of service and value to the community, and although it will look a little bit different, that’s what we do, and will continue to do.”
Manitoba Underground Opera
Manitoba Underground Opera had to postpone its entire 2020 summer festival. All performers who were engaged for 2020 will be offered the same roles next season. The 2020 season included what would have been company premieres of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict; a double bill of Ana Sokolović’s Svadba with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle; a ‘promenade’ recital held at Winnipeg’s historic Dalnavert Museum and, a multi-stop, five-week touring production of John Davies’ children’s opera Goldie B. Locks with expanded geographic reach into Northern Manitoba.
In lieu of the cancellation, the company released a nightly series of bite-sized digital snippets from Green Envelopes, a pastiche of art song and text written and directed by MUO Artistic Director Brenna Corner. Its story concerns two young lovers, Anna and soldier Danny, who communicate heartfelt desires through World War I-era letters while singing offstage. Set around the time of the 1918 Spanish Flu, the piece is uncannily well-suited to today’s physical distancing measures.
Flipside Opera has taken advantage of the global ‘pause’ to reflect on its own artistic mandate and future direction. The nine-year old company is rebranding with a new name: Flipside Opera and Art Song Collective. Founding artistic director/soprano Judith Oatway says it signifies more inclusive programming.
“We believe art song can be equally exciting, dramatic, and tell relatable stories that are captivating” says Oatway. “There are also so many contemporary composers to choose from now, and it’s exciting to be able to introduce new audiences to their works.”
Little Opera Company
When asked about plans for the upcoming season, Little Opera Company Artistic Director Spencer Duncanson succinctly replied: “Survival!”
The troupe will offer a pre-recorded mixed bill in November featuring excerpts from Winnipeg-born composer John Greer’s A Sarah Binks Songbook (The Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan) sung by soprano Jessica Kos-Whicher and directed by Rob Herriot.
The program also includes Melissa Collom’s Bon Appétit! inspired by renowned chef and effusive TV star, Julia Child, featuring mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Hoyt-Surdha, and Jake Heggie’s At the Statue of Venus, sung by soprano Karen Santos. The latter work is based on a libretto by Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally, who perished from COVID-19 complications on Mar. 24th.
Duncanson is also hoping to present the Manitoba premiere of Heggie’s Three Decembers, as well as Jonathan Dove’s The Walk from the Garden, telling the Biblical story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. Both shows were shelved last April with new spring dates to be determined.