Monday, 5 October 2015

Vancouver Opera Gets it Right With a Classic Performance for the Modern Patron

Soprano Simone Osborne "Gilda" in Rigoletto
Photo Courtesy of Vancouver Opera


At the beginning of the evening, when audience members were asked how many of them were attending the Opera for the first time, many, many people clapped in response to the question. Whoever is responsible for community outreach and new audience development at Vancouver Opera is doing their job well. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre was very nearly sold out, and newcomers to the opera were treated to a spectacular performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto. Director Nancy Hermiston says “It is 'Grand Opera' at its best!'”

Rigoletto had its premiere in 1851, and remains a timeless classic about love and revenge. Dan Paterson,Vancouver Opera's technical director, notes that many modern versions of Rigoletto have been performed in the past fifty years or so, but says that Vancouver Opera chose to present a more traditional version set in 16th Mantua. The sets and props were supplied by Utah Opera and were originally designed by John Michel Deegan and Sarah J. Conly. Built in 1987, and refurbished in 2001, the sets were outstanding, and perfect for this production. Lighting designer John Webber's contribution ensured that audience members always focused their attention on the right portion of the massive set.

Often in the spotlight during the performance was Gilda, the daughter of Rigoletto. The role was played perfectly by soprano Simone Osborne, who convincingly displayed the the wide range of emotions her character experiences during the course of Verdi's famous work.

According to the “Instant Expert” section of the program, “Rigoletto was the 9th most performed opera in the world from 2007-2008 to 2011-2012.” It also notes that “Verdi wrote the bulk of the score in 40 days.” How many people can claim that 40 days of work result in such an enduring masterpiece? The facts and trivia found in the “Instant Expert” section give newcomers to the opera something to talk about during the intermission. It is just one of the many ways Vancouver Opera seeks to make the experience of attending a performance comfortable for those just learning to appreciate the art form. Another way is the "pre performance talk" which is always informative, well researched, and entertaining.

Subtitles are also projected on a screen at the top of centre stage. While this feature allows one to follow along, in English it is the one feature I have yet to appreciate fully. I find it a literal pain in the neck and each performance become distracted trying to think of better ways to project the subtitles, or a better location for the screen. There is no doubt a better way read the subtitles than I am doing, and perhaps it is a skill that some audience members have perfected. If so, including in the program “tips on how to make the most of subtitles” might be appreciated by several people. By the end of the performance I concluded it is likely the best way to project the subtitles; I also envied those who didn't have to rely on them.

In reading the subtitles, it struck me how few words are actually involved in this opera and how much meaning is packed into each one. Every word sung by baritone Gordon Hawkins was filled with emotion. Regular attendees of Vancouver Opera may have recognized him from his last role with VO as Scarpia in the 2013 production of Tosca.

One minor intrusion into the emotional performance of Hawkins was the audible noise of what sounded like velcro when he opened the sack containing the body of the dying Gilda. During Osborne's time in the body bag, she convincingly played the part of a corpse. I looked to see her breathe, and no movement could be detected. The touching moment of Rigoletto opening the sack to lift up her body was broken momentarily by the apparent sound of velcro. It serves to demonstrate how easily the audience's attention can be broken, and might also serve to demonstrate how our attention was otherwise held steady throughout the 2 hour and 40 minute performance.


As usual, the customer service at Queen Elizabeth was excellent; the theatre spotless and well maintained. It was nice to enjoy a Red Truck beer prior to the performance. It was good to see the theatre offering beer from this local microbrewery, which is gaining a good reputation for their support of the arts. It was also nice to see audience members encouraged to share their photos of the evening on Instagram. Vancouver Opera's performance of Rigoletto is an excellent example of how to engage the modern opera patron. It seems to me all of the traditional stuffiness associated with opera has been replaced with audience engagement, good service, and a modern approach to understanding what today's arts patron wants. I hope all arts companies across the country take note of what VO is doing well. If you want to engage the modern audience, you can still present them with the work of the masters using a traditional set. What we want is to be entertained, well served and well informed for the time and money exchanged in order to see a performance. Vancouver Opera gets it right again. Nice work; can't wait to experience more opera this season!

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Stay tuned for posts on Kathrine Weiss and Simon Henley