Viewpoint: Is Canadian opera headed for another shutdown?

by | Dec 23, 2021 | Featured, News

For live performance in Canada—and here I’m including Canadian opera, ballet, ‘straight’ theatre, orchestras—things were looking cautiously optimistic since the start of the fall season. Canadian opera companies like Vancouver Opera and Manitoba Opera put on shows at their large, mainstage, venues; the National Ballet of Canada returned to Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with a wonderful double bill; the Toronto Symphony Orchestra produced some truly innovative concerts; training programs like the Glenn Gould School got back onstage…I mention these last few examples in particular as I was very happy to see all of them, live.

However, as of yesterday the news wasn’t good at all. The National Ballet announced their cancellation of all remaining performances of The Nutcracker (multiple shows between Dec. 22-31) and closer to the Opera Canada purview, Toronto Operetta Theatre has decided to postpone their celebratory return to live performances, Oscar Straus’s A Waltz Dream, which they had been busily rehearsing. Opéra de Montréal has ominously posted a ‘ticket sales suspended’ notice for its upcoming January La traviata. My inbox today was full of news of other closures: Mirvish Productions have canceled the much-anticipated, early 2022 run of Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt citing the huge challenge of importing the London production; the Shaw Festival has stopped remaining showings of their Christmas-themed Holiday Inn…Toronto’s Gardiner Museum of ceramics is closing down…and no doubt one could list similar closures from across the country.

The spread of the omicron variant is already proving to be seriously rampant. There can be little doubt all of these organizations are doing the right thing in protecting their artists and audiences. But one has to question where all of this is going in the long term. During the first round of lockdowns…the effect on the performing arts was devastating…but there were forms of government support for artists and the organizations that employ them. Is this type of help going to be extended or reinstated if this lockdown drags on? Early announcements indicate there might be some help but will it be enough?

And we need to closely examine why the effect of these shutdowns is so much worse in Canada than they are perhaps in Europe, or even the United States. Omicron is wreaking havoc in the big European opera centres as well. In Austria, all the theatres were shut down for two weeks in December after having more or less fully re-opened at the start of the 21/22 season. But they are up and running again now, despite infection numbers still being high. The level of state subsidy in Germany, Austria, France, Czech Republic etc. seems to allow for a sort of quick shutdown/quick reopening scenario we could only dream of in Canada.

Canadian opera companies put on 3-6 operas per season. If a company like Edmonton or Calgary Opera have to cancel their upcoming Jan/Feb 2022 shows…they lose one third of their season…and for some, 2/3 of their season if they didn’t mount a fall production. The National Ballet’s Executive Director, Barry Hughson, was admirably blunt in a recent piece by Opera Canada contributor Joshua Chong in the Toronto Star: “Performing at 50 per cent capacity for a full season of performances at the Four Seasons Centre is not economically viable in any circumstance…A ‘normal’ season sees average attendance at 85 per cent to achieve a break-even budget.”

This gets to the kernel of the issue for Canadian companies: it is just so expensive to mount productions on any scale, that performing at reduced capacity is simply not viable at current levels of government and private financial support, and with current house rules. With these latest shutdowns, company administrators must be seriously wondering about how to go forward. Up until now, special funding has probably allowed many companies to keep paying their staff and in some cases, their artists. But continually not being able to put out the product that constitutes your main income is not sustainable.

I will end with the artists…opera singers and ballet dancers must continually be in a state of intense training in order to perform at the level expected at a major, professional opera or ballet company. We have asked them over the course of almost two years to keep up that very expensive, time consuming training with the hope that things would get back to ‘normal’. Maybe this latest wave will pass through quickly, and hopefully less seriously, than have alpha and delta. But this ‘system’ of ‘shut it all down’ in the Canadian context given current levels of support and limited work opportunities for artists at the best of times, cannot be the answer if this pandemic remains pernicious.


Gianmarco Segato is Editorial Director of Opera Canada. 

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