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Arthur Kaptainis on the determined plans to bring Opera de Montreal back from the brink.

ONE DEFINITION OF A CONCERT WORTH CROSSING THE street to hear: Maria Guleghina, Neil Shicoff and Bryn Terfel performing Act I of Tosca and substantial excerpts from Carmen and Aida in Notre Dame Basilica, the glorious mother church of Montreal, all led by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, himself an international commodity slotted to be music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. What made this benefit event of May 6 doubly startling was that it was organized not by L'Opera de Montreal but by two former OdeM board members for the greater good of Concordia University and the Orchestre Metropolitain. In some cities, the social elite is solidly behind the opera. One of those cities is not Montreal.

It was not the only springtime slap in the face for the beleaguered company, strongly rumored last summer to be in its death throes. When the Canada Council announced its $33-million Supplementary Operating Funds Initiative in April, only $80,000 was earmarked for OdeM. Compare this dime dropped into a baseball cap to the $3.3-million handed the Canadian Opera Company and the $1.77-million that went to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. "I would have loved to have more money," OdeM Managing Director Pierre Dufour, commented, "but we're not surprised, considering the position the company was in last fall."

Yet as the end of the season approached, the OdeM was alive and even kicking. In May, Dufour predicted that the $1.9-million debt would be down to $900,000 after receipts were in for Don Giovanni, the last of four 2006-2007 productions. The first three--Il tabarro with Suor Angelica, La traviata and Lakme--had attracted 92 percent crowds to Salle Wilfrid Pelletier, the 2,800-seat main auditorium of Place des Arts. "Things could always be better," Dufour says, with the usual caution, "but I don't know many cultural organizations that have worked on its deficit as quickly."

The comeback started bluntly last August with the dismissal of more than half the staff. Already whippet-lean at 23, the team became skeletal at 11. Cuts were not only from the bottom up, but from the top down. Artistic Director Bernard Labadie, who believed in alternating his La traviatas with the occasional postmodern Ariadne auf Naxos and La clemenza di Tito, had already left in disgust after the board forced the cancellation in 2005-2006 of the COC's Stravinsky double bill of Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms, one of Labadie's tentative attempts to modernize the company. Next, David Moss, the managing director with a theatre and pop-music background, was shown the door.

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How can an opera company function with neither an artistic nor managing director? Simple. Promote the powers behind the thrones, the people who do most of the work anyway. Make Dufour, the careful and soft-spoken production manager, the managing director while he keeps his old production portfolio. Then make Michel Beaulac, for years the company casting man and the mind behind the popular annual Gala concert (upwards of 40 singers belting out arias and ensembles), the artistic director. It was a sage move: this perfectly bilingual Montrealer had long been the can-do Figaro of the company, equal both to scouting good voices on a budget and conceiving new productions. He even prepared drawings in the glory days of former managing and artistic director Bernard Uzan. Who says an artistic director must be a conductor? Leave that hang-up to orchestras.

Fundraising, meanwhile, moved heartily forwards. Chairman Alexandre Taillefer, a young video-game entrepreneur, was expected to attract new money, but proved equally adept at returning Power Corporation to the fold as the sponsor of Lakme and La traviata. He was also instrumental in reeling in the Desjardins finance giant as the sponsor of Don Giovanni. While the old malcontents might organize their benefits, a new board member, Edward J. Winant, has donated $100,000.

Happily, there were no cuts in audience interest, although with four productions there were fewer seats to sell. Puccini's Il tabarro and Suor Angelica went well, substantially on local talent, and an economical (rather than lavish) new production of La traviata designed by Claude Goyette and directed by Jacques LeBlanc (both Quebec theatre notables) did not dissuade audiences. Yali-Marie Williams, a Puerto Rican soprano, made her successful company debut in the title role. Delibes' Lakme, in a retro-conservative co-production with Opera Australia, also packed them in, with local songbird Aline Kutan performing the requisite calisthenic miracles. Then Mozart's Don Giovanni, substantially in the postmodern conception initiated by Labadie, occasioned the return of the former artistic director, with no hard feelings and a mostly Canadian cast. Direction was entrusted to Rene Richard Cyr, a star in the francophone theatre world.

Next season is even more conservative. Verdi's Un ballo in maschera will be the new Traviata, in an "abstract" new production by another local theatre celebrity, Jean Bard. Richard Margison, the biggest name on the season roster, will take the role of Riccardo and soprano Manon Feubel, another Canadian with Verdi credentials, sings Amelia. Gregory Vajda conducts. Gounod's Romeo et Juliette keeps the company's French credibility alive in a production seen as long ago as 1986. Local favorite tenor Marc Hervieux will be heard with Maureen O'Flynn, an American soprano who has toggled the role at the Metropolitan Opera with French star Natalie Dessay. Jean-Yves Ossonce, a French newcomer, conducts.

Rossini's surefire Il barbiere di Siviglia gets a "heritage" production dating from the 1970s. Jacques Lacombe conducts mostly fellow Canadians, including Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, last season's Don, in the title role. Puccini's Madama Butterfly, probably the most-performed of all operas in Montreal since the early 20th century, features Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura in her North American debut in the title role, with American tenor Richard Troxell, who has played the role on screen as well as stage, as Pinkerton. Nezet-Seguin conducts. The conservative production is again from Opera Australia. The season includes a double bill by the Atelier Lyrique: Ravel's L'heure espagnole and Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari's Il segreto di Susanna. Alain Trudel, once known as a virtuoso trombonist, conducts this production in the intimate (and glorious) Monument National. The annual gala is scheduled for Dec. 2.

No company has yet bit at the highly transportable La traviata, but Dufour maintains that it is still early and the rentals will come. He is optimistic because the revival of the company is based on the support from the entire community. "I say that with a capital C," he adds. "There is not one key, but many--the single-ticket buyers, the subscribers, the donors."
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Title Annotation:Letter from Montreal
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:1085
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