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Victoria victorious: the little company on a Pacific island sounds big in the Canadian scene (Pacific Opera).

Nestled unobtrusively between a natural-foods store and a hat shop, the small blue doorway to the offices of Pacific Opera Victoria is not one of the more prepossessing sights on picturesque Government Street. But the "little opera company on an island in the Pacific" (artistic director Timothy Vernon's favorite description) is a star of the first magnitude in the West Coast arts firmament.

It wasn't always that way. Even under Vernon's charismatic direction, it took nearly a decade for the company, formed in 1980, to find its stage legs. Gradually, however, and in the face of adversity, productions that would do any opera company proud began to proliferate. These have included the Canadian stage premieres of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1993), Von Weber's Der Freischutz (1994) and Italo Montemezzi's once-popular verismo rarity, L'Amore dei Tre Re (1996), which attracted aficionados from all over the continent. Beethoven's Fidelio (1988) and Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail (1992) were the subjects of acclaimed television programs aired on PBS, the CBC and the Knowledge Network. And, as a statement of faith in the regeneration of operatic art, con'temp'aria, the first festival of new opera ever held in Canada, created a wave of interest that surged across national borders to the opera would beyond in June, 1995.

All along, it has been Vernon's clear vision that has been the catalytic and nurturing force behind the company's artistic success. The British Columbia-born, Vienna-trained conductor-composer-director had been involved in the production of a couple of operas in Victoria in the late `70s. He joined the newly formed company right at the outset, even though there was no salary at first and he had no proven track record in opera production.

"It was an opportunity for me as much as it was an opportunity for the company," reflects Vernon. Obviously, despite the lack of pecuniary reward, something about the freshness and audacity of the venture appealed to him. "I'm a Victoria boy and, naturally, I love the place," he explains. "I did have the sense of making something at home, and I did see the opportunity. Victoria, although perceived as very conservative, actually has a considerable root to its cultural community, and has had a history of involvement and support at a level that has a certain sophistication."

Indeed, over the years, the company has enjoyed the enduring support of the Victoria community and the largesse and insight of several boards of directors, in addition to competent and hard-working support staff, all of whom Vernon acknowledges with profuse thanks.

Pacific Opera, in turn, reaches out not only to Victoria but to the larger Canadian musical community as well. In a country where most Canadian performers must go abroad to achieve recognition, POV's mandate has always been to engage Canadians wherever possible, at every step of the production and performance process. Because of this, there have been primarily Canadian singers and (so far) exclusively Canadian stage directors and lighting designers in the company's productions.

As a result, Vernon can point to a number of artists who had their groundbreaking career moments at Pacific Opera. Two of the three Canadian tenors (Richard Margison and Michael Schade), for example, sang their first big roles on the POV stage. Vernon still chuckles over the fact that the third, Ben Heppner, was engaged to sing the steersman in the 1989 The Flying Dutchman but had to cancel six months early to sing Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger at La Scala in Milan. "Of course I let him go," laughs Vernon, "but I just didn't have the moxie to say that he had to come back in two years and sing the same role in Dutchman for the same fee we'd agreed on."

Other singers who have appeared with Pacific Opera include Theodore Baerg, John Fanning, Joanne Kolomyjec and Sandra Graham. They all sing there willingly, in most cases repeatedly, and often for fees less than they might have commanded elsewhere.

One of the reasons for this is the aesthetic appeal of Pacific Opera's performing venues: Productions are staged in either the McPherson Playhouse or the Royal Theatre, both beautifully restored, turn-of-the-century theatres. With seating capacities of 800 in the McPherson and 1,450 in the Royal, they are much smaller than virtually all North American opera houses.

This means directors can realize a wealth of visual and interpretive detail that is lost in a larger house. There is a striking immediacy to the performances, and the singers don't have to push to make themselves heard. Canadian baritone John Fanning, a veteran of several Pacific Opera productions, is grateful for this. "I think there's a lot of big cities that would kill to get those gems of theatres," he says. "What makes the Mac so special is its intimacy. My first big role was there, as Figaro in The Barber of Seville, and it was so easy to communicate all the little asides and things. On top of that, it was real fun to have the audience as a kind of confidant--they were so close."

Vernon, however, is all too aware that these theatres also have their drawbacks. Because of the small stages, sets can't be rented or loaned from other companies but must be custom-made in-house for every production. Neither theatre has a really suitable orchestra pit, and the limited seating capacity restricts audience size and therefore the ticket revenue each performance can generate.

Nevertheless, all Pacific Opera's accomplishments have been on budgets that are minuscule in comparison to those of larger companies. The budget for the current season, for instance, is $1.2-million, which, when compared with the $1-million Vancouver Opera spent on one production alone (its magnificent 1995 Peter Grimes), is really small potatoes. But, in truth it can be said that seldom in Canada's operatic history has so much been accomplished by so few on so little as at Pacific Opera.

It is fortunate that the company thrives on such slender resources because, despite the current wealth of vocal talent in Canada, there is a dearth of wealth as far as arts funding is concerned. But through adroit financial management, POV has operated in the black for the last six seasons, although at times, it has been close to the wire: The 1994-95 season, for one, eked out a mere $500 surplus.

In fact, it is financial constraint, perhaps more than any other factor, which limits both the artistic and physical growth of the company. Pacific Opera's general manager Jeffrey Ouellette demonstrates shrewd insight into Victoria demographics when he points out, "Victoria has very specific revenue-generation issues. We are not a city with industry--the industry is the provincial government. We are not a city where there are national corporate headquarters, let alone regional headquarters. Funding decisions are made in centres other than Victoria. So the number of companies or institutions that we can approach is reduced. For instance, you have the airlines sponsoring athletic events to the teeth--and then, when I call ..." The note of discouragement in Ouellette's voice as it trails off is palpable: There is money out there, but companies too seldom choose to support port the arts with it.

Yet, in the face of government cutbacks, corporate downsizing and private purse-string-tightening, Vernon, the eternal optimist, has the chutzpah to envision company growth. Pacific Opera expanded to three operas a season in 1988, and is extending cautious feelers into the hostile financial environment to determine in which direction, if any, the company should develop further.

Vernon is characteristically candid. "What I want to do is move the core of the opera company into the month of August and produce what would be the first Canadian opera festival on an on-going basis. Plans are to start in 1998, but there would be a transition over several seasons." Ouellette, however, parries quickly, stressing that the idea is still tentative and that there is great need for caution--and timing. "We're looking at the possibility of producing opera during the summer, but we would not be entering a festival situation in 1998. We can only expand when we have the revenue streams to provide for that growth."

Ouellette's pragmatism meshes well with Vernon's enthusiasm, and if its past track record is any indication, the little opera company behind the unobtrusive blue door on Government Street will find innovative solutions consistent with its artistic integrity and vision.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Robert Jordan
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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