Some thoughts about emerging trends

Airline Icarus SoundstreamThere are, I think, some really interesting trends emerging in the classical vocal scene in Toronto. On the one hand there’s the consolidation of the Neef/Debus era at the COC that has taken the company from decidedly provincial to being a first rate international opera capable of offering us, its audience, the best singers, directors and conductors in the world. I know that not everyone welcomes that change but it seems to me infinitely preferable to death by musical and dramatic sclerosis. But that’s not what this piece is about. What I wanted to explore was what’s happening at a more grass roots level. This probably need to be taken in two parts; opera and art song, though curiously the cast of characters overlaps in some interesting ways. This piece looks at opera.

If one can’t afford a large orchestra and chorus what are the options? I think essentially there are three:
• Take an existing work and reduce it in scope by cutting and replacing the orchestra with, say, piano.
• Take an existing work and recreate it. “Transladaptation” as it is sometimes called.
• Produce a piece that calls for forces that you can afford.

There’s a lot of the first in Toronto and I get the impression that for a long time it was the preferred, perhaps only, way that opera got done on less than full scale in Toronto. There are long established outfits operating here; Voicebox, Toronto Summer Opera, MYOpera etc. I think it’s a fair enough approach when you need a work for young singers and it can work quite well with the right work. By which I mean something that’s not too heavy to start with where the “oomph” won’t be missed so much. Where I really question it is with big, grand operas. The point of a two hour Götterdämmerung with piano accompaniment escapes me. It’s like a decaff skinny latte with artificial sweetener. I think there’s a distinct trend away from this mode of production but time will tell.

I rather like “transladaptation” and it’s come a long way since Against the Grain’s early efforts at the Tranzac (home of the original out of tune piano and a tin cup). The Ivany adaptations of the Mozart/da Ponte trio and LooseTEA’s recent Disassociative Me are great examples of how to recreate in a way that seems to respect the spirit of the original rather better than the Procrustean approach.

The third approach has been curiously rare in the city, except for Tapestry, but they are in a niche all of their own. Now I think I see the beginnings of a move in this direction. For now, it’s mostly new work (Airline Icarus, M’dea Undone, L’Homme et le Ciel etc) though for the first time we are seeing contemporary chamber works from outside Canada appearing (Julie, The Devil Inside). There are financial reasons why new work predominates. The assorted bureaucracies that funnel a small fraction of our tax dollars to the arts have their own agenda and “new, Canadian” pushes their buttons. This space really interests me because there is a really rich lode of chamber opera, mostly from the 20th century, that has hardly been mined here and, from a pure aesthetic perspective, why wouldn’t one want to see works realized as the composer intended rather than in makeshift, budget versions?

If there is a trend towards, slightly more expensive, chamber opera the question of sustainability must be considered.. Any opera company or similar organisation needs funds and an audience and here it’s clear that there is a huge gap between the COC and pretty much everyone else. Just in the sphere of government funding the COC gets over $6 million p.a. In German terms that’s derisory but to a small company in Toronto it’s, literally, beyond the dreams of avarice. I have conversations with directors about how $5000 to $10000 would make a project much more feasible Governments like big, splashy programs. (It’s why we get the Pan-Am games but there’s no money for participatory sports programs.) There’s a similar imbalance in private sector funding so thank heavens for Roger Moore! Perhaps with a new government and promises of new money for the arts there will be more willingness to take risks (or maybe all the new money will just go to francophone Quebec).

Audiences raise some similar questions. The COC has a core audience of about 10,000 people and sells the odd ticket to many times more people than that. The “opera audience” in the region may be as high as 50,000. The typical small company (i.e everyone except COC and Opera Atelier) show (even the most successful) sells less than a thousand tickets. That’s a huge disparity and one I can’t really explain. It’s clear that different kinds of shows attract different audiences. With all the smaller companies the “friends and family” component is significant as is the hardy band who seem to be at everything. But beyond that there is lots of variation. My sense is that the older approaches are living off a decidedly aging audience base whereas some of the newer stuff is starting to pull in a younger crowd. I don’t have data to back this up but I don’t think one needs a detailed statistical analysis to spot the difference between the crowd at Voicebox and that at FAWN. The “new” audience at the COC (and they pull in over 20,000 new punters every year) is getting younger so maybe there is a reachable base that’s more inclined to try new things in this space.

In summary, I believe that there’s an artistically relevant niche that needs to be filled. There are signs of growing activity in that niche but there are real financial and audience reach issues that need solutions to make it viable.

Next, some thoughts about art song and recitals.

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