Best Opera of the Decade: Opera Canada’s Definitive List

by | Dec 23, 2019 | Featured, News

As this long decade comes to a close, we at Opera Canada look back at the best operas of the decade. Cataloging 10 years worth of opera from across the world is no small task. So we reached out to our contributors, and asked them to reflect on their favourite opera of the decade. Not all were the biggest show in town, and not all are even Canadian, but each touched our writers in a deep way, showing their affective potential. For that alone they are worthy of praise.

Westward Bound

Robert Jordan (Vancouver, BC)—Without warning, Seattle Opera’s 2011 production of Massenet’s Don Quichotte popped into my mind when asked for best opera production of the decade. The company went all-out on fantasy, slavishly honouring the spirit of Cervantes as well as Massenet’s perfumed musical take. Throw in Canadian bass-baritone John Relyea as the Don himself, alongside Donald Eastman’s brilliantly evocative sets—even a live horse and donkey onstage—and you have yourself a compelling fantasy world, with genuine pathos never far beneath the surface. Why this charmer of an opera is not staged more, I cannot fathom, but I am grateful for what will probably be this lifetime’s one and only chance to experience it live onstage—and in such a terrific production.

Robin J Miller (Victoria, BC)—Pacific Opera Victoria began its current season with an astonishingly assured account of Puccini’s Il trittico that brought me to tears. And yet I must give the honour of best opera of the decade to a creation that, while far from perfect, lays bare not only the power of opera to make us feel, but also its ability to make us think. Co-commissioned by POV and City Opera Vancouver, with a libretto by Métis-Dene writer/actor Marie Clements and music by Brian Current, Missing deals with contemporary tragedy: the many Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered along B.C.’s Highway of Tears. The production had great dramatic and visual power, but it is the reality of that ongoing tragedy that makes this opera a must see, for all Canadians.

Stephan Bonfield (Calgary, AB)—I have been fortunate to witness several memorable productions this decade. But what topped them all in superlatives was Ghost Opera, this year’s unforgettable Banff Centre co-production with Old Trout Puppet Workshop and Calgary Opera, brilliantly set to a contemporary score by Veronica Krausas. It was aesthetically the most beautiful opera I saw this past decade, and featured puppeteers projecting through life-size Classical Greek creations alongside companion singers. The world these performers created using doll proxies was emotionally overwhelming, so real in its characterizations that it paradoxically brought opera more to life than I thought possible; so much so that by Act II’s finale, I had to weep.

Best Opera of the Decade

Scene from Banff Centre’s Ghost Opera, 2019—Photo: Don Lee


Bill Rankin (Edmonton, AB)—Picking a singular best opera to define a decade feels an impossible task, especially given Edmonton Opera’s track record. The decade began with their vivid re-imagining of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado in 2012, drawing inspiration from Japanese anime, with a colour palette that screamed youthful sass. In 2015, Simone Osborne took her first crack at singing a compellingly insane Lucia in Donizetti’s revenge tragedy. And also on the dark, dark, darker side, in 2017 the company presented a strikingly good production of Strauss’s Elektra, with soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs creeping with murderous dreams of matricide.

Holly Harris (Winnipeg, MB)—I will never forget Manitoba Opera’s Nov. 2014 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, chosen to commemorate the opening of the Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Set in 1989 Cold War Germany and directed by MO’s General Director/CEO Larry Desrochers, the show featured a strong cast, including Saskatchewan-born soprano Ileana Montalbetti in the title role and Canadian tenor David Pomeroy as her political prisoner husband Florestan. But the real stars where the nearly 100 real-life former refugees now making their home in Winnipeg, who flooded the stage as the MO Chorus sang its climactic finale, “God tests us but does not desert us.” This raw, deeply authentic moment has yet to be replicated on any stage in the city, moving many to tears.

Turning East

Leonard Turnevicius (Hamilton, ON)—With Barrie Kosky in the director’s chair and German comedic actor Max Hopp as John Styx, you knew you were in for a rollicking romp at the Salzburg Festival’s production of Offenbach’s L’orphée aux enfers this past summer. Hopp handled all the spoken dialogue as the rest of the cast mouthed their words, shading his voice and interpolating all manner of vocalized sound effects that added to the hilarity of this merry send-up. Victoria Behr’s wild and wonderful costumes, Rufus Didwiszus’s set, and Otto Pichler’s outstanding choreography, together with Kathryn Lewek as Eurydice, Joel Prieto’s Paganini-maned Orphée, and Enrique Mazzola’s Vienna Philharmonic made for Regietheater at its brilliant best. What a blast.


Scene from Salzburg Festival’s Orphee Aux Enfers, 2019—Photo: Monika Rittershaus


Joseph So (Toronto, ON)—One can judge the “best” opera of the decade on many criteria, but I believe the most important is its emotional impact on me as an opera lover. On that basis, I would choose the concert Trio Magnifico starring Anna Netrebko, Yusif Eyvazov, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky that took place at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on Apr. 25th, 2017. Given Hvorostovsky was terminally ill it was a miracle he fulfilled his Toronto engagement, which turned out to be his penultimate performance. I can’t tell you how deeply moving and unforgettable it was to see him bravely giving his all, urged on and buoyed by the love from his public and his two colleagues on stage—bravo! 

John Gilks (Toronto, ON)—The most exciting thing about the last decade has been how much really good new opera it’s been possible to see. There were taught psychological thrillers like Brett Dean’s Hamlet, which owed much to Canada’s operatic export of the decade, Barbara Hannigan. We rediscovered Claude Vivier with Soundstreams’ Musik für das Ende and Against the Grain Theatre’s haunting Kopernikus. Dean Burry’s Shanawdithit and Brian Current’s Missing proved that opera can still address important societal concerns, while James Rolfe’s The Overcoat showed comedies are alive and well. None, however, had greater impact on me than George Benjamin’s Written on Skin which, even in semi-staged form with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 2015, was absolutely chilling.

Catherine Kustanczy (Toronto, ON)—Boyars and cossacks; velvet reds, glimmering golds, majestic blues; pomp, pageantry, ceremony: director Ivo van Hove threw all this firmly out the window in his production of Boris Godunov for Opéra national de Paris in June 2018. Mussorgsky’s original version was presented without intermission, proving an effective partner for the production’s simple design and bleak video projections. Van Hove’s vision was a powerful and highly disturbing meditation on the nature of power, ambition, family, and the ties that bind, distort, and choke. The cast were rightly supported by a richly visceral, momentum-fueled reading of the score by conductor Vladimir Jurowski. This was—is—a Boris for all time, but most especially for this one.

Scene from Opéra national de Paris’s Boris Godunov, 2018. Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Natasha Gauthier (Ottawa, ON)—Sure, I’ve seen bigger, more extravagant productions. I’ve heard more famous singers in much more prestigious venues. But I can’t recall an opera this decade that gave me as much pure joy as Opéra de Montréal‘s intimate 2018 revival of Ana Sokolović’s a cappella kammeroper Svadba. From Sokolović’s captivating, highly original style, to the warm, sympathetic performances by the all-female cast, to the cozy immediacy of L’Espace Go theatre, Svadba connected on an emotional as well as an artistic level. It left me beguiled, optimistic, and wanting to call my best girlfriend for an all-night talk. 

Lev Bratishenko (Montréal, QC)—In 2012 UofT Opera’s Student Composer Collective premiered Rob Ford: The Opera, written by four young composers, Massimo Guido, Anna Hostman, Adam Scime and Saman Shahi, with a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano. This was before Toronto Mayor Ford had reached full infamy so it only had to explain why he hated bicycles and libraries so much. There was a cathartic zest in the air that night, and perhaps a whiff of sulfur? The audience had not come for opera, but for ideas and shared relief. I haven’t felt anything like it since.


Best Opera of the Decade

Scene from UofT Opera’s Rob Ford, 2011—Photo: Richard Lu


Irène Brisson (Québec, QC)—What sticks in the memory most for this soon-to-end decade is a production from its very birth at the 2011 Festival d’opéra de Québec. Audacity and imagination guided Artistic Director Grégoire Legendre ever since the Festival’s inaugural year, when he programmed Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables in the famous staging by Robert Lepage. The ‘swimming pool’  churning with nearly 70,000 liters of water installed in the orchestra pit for singers to wade through, all while handling puppets, made Nightingale truly unforgettable!


Best Opera of the decade

Scene from Canadian Opera Company’s Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018—Photo: Michael Cooper


Daphna Levit (Halifax, NS)—Halifax’s 2012 Scotia Festival of Music production of I Will Fly Like A Bird, a tribute to Robert Dziekanski composed by John Plant to words by J.A. Wainwright, has haunted me for almost a decade. Dziekanski was the 40-year-old Polish man who died in 2007 after being tasered by the RCMP at Vancouver Airport while his mother awaited him on the other side of customs. Musicians separated singers Clayton Kennedy and Marcia Swanston on stage by mere feet, much as Dziekanski and his mother were on that black day. The sometimes jarring music soared and swelled between them, moving us through five distinct scenes from Gliwice in Poland to Kamloops, BC. This was a brilliant, bold portrayal of a contemporary tragedy.

South of the Border

John Bender (San Francisco, CA)—In a bold move this December, San Francisco Opera General Director Michael Shilvock appointed 39-year-old Eun Sun Kim, a South Korean who led a triumphant Rusalka here last June, as Music Director. Immediately, she will be involved in future planning for the company, but for the present time that powerful staging of Dvorák’s fantasy by David McVicar, with lead roles from Rachel Willis-Sorensen, Brandon Jovanovich, Kristinn Sigmundsson, and Jamie Barton, lives on as the most memorable in many seasons. Kim led the orchestra in a propulsive, richly energetic account that compelled emotional engagement, and earned her her coveted spot at SFO.

Patrick Dillon (New York, NY)—There’s a special niche in my heart for Wexford Festival Opera, a place that has introduced me to dozens of hitherto buried operatic treasures. Barber’s Vanessa wasn’t new to me when Wexford presented it in Oct. 2016—I’d loved this opera since my teens—but it was a revelation, and brought the joy of seeing this neglected American masterpiece vindicated across the Pond in a riveting production by young Rodula Gaitanou. There was wonderful work by Canadians Carolyn Sproule as Erika, and James Westman as the Doctor; by Claire Rutter in the title role; and by veteran Rosalind Plowright in a formidable turn as the Old Baroness. This Vanessa shines in the feather-crowded cap of festival artistic director David Agler’s long tenure, perhaps as the brightest plume of all.

Vanessa - Best Opera of the Decade

Carolyn Sproule (Erika) in Wexford Festival Opera’s Vanessa, 2016—Photo: Clive Barda

From the Old Country

Victoria Stapells (Seville, Spain)Designer Michael Levine and director Deborah Warner put together an extraordinary Billy Budd (Benjamin Britten) at Madrid’s Teatro Real in the winter of 2017, winning ‘Best New Production’ at London’s 2018 International Opera Awards. The Toronto-born scenographer constructed a forest of swaying ropes over a platform that opened to take us below decks to the cramped crews’ quarters, strewn with dangling hammocks. Incorporating the chorus into his set, another Levine trademark, the show saw 90 men scrubbing the decks, hauling water, and engaging in battle in an impactful performance that left the audience almost smelling the grit and sweat on stage.

Denise Wendel-Poray (Paris, France)—My choice for best opera of the decade is Bérénice by Swiss composer Michael Jarrell. In Oct. 2018 at Opéra national de Paris, the dramatic material—Jean Racine’s 1670 play—was grist for the limitless talent of Barbara Hannigan for whom the title role was written, affording her the opportunity for one of her best performances ever. Bo Skovhus was staggering as Titus, Claus Guth’s staging was gripping, and conductor Philippe Jordan injected the work with as much passion and pathos as he would Verdi or Strauss. Judging from the audience response, it could become a 21st-century hit. 


Best Opera of the Decade

Scene from Opéra national de Paris’s Bérénice, 2018—Photo: Monika Rittershaus


Brian David (Ipswich, UK)—There have been some fine new operas heard in the UK in the past decade—those by George Benjamin stand out—though in terms of productions, revivals have generally outclassed fresh efforts. An exception was the long-awaited production of Die Zauberflöte by André Barbe and Renaud Doucet, set in an early 20th-century Viennese hotel and unveiled at the 2019 Glyndebourne Festival. Teeming with wit and invention, and overflowing with theatrical magic, it was both enchanting, very, very funny, and the best opera of the decade.

Angie Bell

Angela Bell is Opera Canada’s Digital Media Specialist. She has held digital and PR roles with various businesses including the Walt Disney Company, Sullivan Entertainment and Toronto International Film Festival.



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