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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 2

Time for a Summer Opera Festival in Montreal

by Wah Keung Chan / October 13, 2008

Nagano’s Festival Bel Canto in Knowlton is a misstep

On August 24, the Canadian Vocal Arts Institute (CVAI) presented a stage version of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale to an audience of 700 at University of Montreal’s Salle Claude Champagne, their first time performing with an orchestra. Production values were great for a graduate production; most of the leads were veteran participants at CVAI and graduates of the Atelier lyrique of the Opéra de Montréal.

This performance, the only opera presented in the city last summer, shows that it is high time Montreal offered opera in the summer. And why not? Ever since attending Seattle Opera 13 years ago for its regular summer Ring Cycle and Glimmerglass Opera 11 years ago, I’ve wished that Montreal would host its own opera festival. One could imagine a structure similar to that of Glimmerglass, combining an academy with outstanding young professionals. Such a company would also give performing experience to the next generation of singers and musicians – Glimmerglass Opera North, in a sense. Summer opera would also be a great form of outreach. During the summer months, students are out of school, and they usually attend the city’s pop music festivals; this is the best time to turn young audiences on to opera and classical music. Also, an opera festival would boost tourism; both Seattle and Glimmerglass constantly sell out well in advance.

A synergy

Before Orford experienced a financial crisis last year, its summer opera program produced several outstanding productions; Ariadne auf Naxos and Wozzeck come to mind. Once it gets back on track, the festival should transport its Orford production to Montreal. Let’s also invite Agnes Grossman’s annual production from her Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy. Although my idea for Glimmerglass North predates the existence of CVAI, I don’t see why we couldn’t have CVAI as the academic component feeding singers for secondary roles in the professional productions.

Festival Bel Canto

While CVAI was taking place, over at Knowlton maestro Kent Nagano was leading a trimmed down OSM and a world-class cast in Bellini’s Norma. The problem was that the acoustically challenged tent accommodated only 600 to 800 people. LSM’s correspondent Paul E. Robinson reported (see facing page) that the festival was a general success.

Still, there is a feeling among some music lovers that the concept of the festival is not in step with the times. Historically, the MSO has held their summer season in July with the Lanaudiere Festival and Mozart Plus, as well as playing in the parks. To accommodate Kent Nagano’s July commitments at the Munich Opera Festival (see Joseph So’s report), the orchestra members took their vacation in July and fulfilled their services in August. Since they played Lanaudière only once, the orchestra was scrambling to keep the musicians busy in August. Why didn’t the orchestra hold this festival in Montreal?

Paul Robinson reports that the idea of playing in Knowlton was worked out at Marco Genoni’s country home. Bombardier apparently became a sponsor in short order. Proponents would point out that other orchestras such as the Boston Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra have summer homes in Tanglewood and Saratoga, respectively. However, the American model doesn’t apply here since a significant part (50%) of the OSM’s budget comes from public funds ($8 million), whereas American orchestras rely largely on private donations. The presentation of a major work for a select few at an inaccessible venue also runs counter to Nagano’s efforts to popularize classical music by collaborating with the Montreal Canadiens and Celine Dion. Furthermore, Lanaudière has been the MSO’s summer home; built with public money, it is accessible by shuttle from Montreal. Given the dissatisfying acoustics for this summer’s performance, there is sure to be talk of building a concert venue in Knowlton, and then we have to ask what will happen when Nagano leaves.

As demonstrated by the MSO’s past performances of Tannhauser and Tristan und Isolde, plus Joseph So’s report from Munich, Nagano excels in opera; arguably he is better at conducting opera than the orchestral rep. Unfortunately, there is no chance that Nagano will ever conduct an Opéra de Montréal production. Let’s hope Montrealers can benefit from more opera conducted by Nagano by bringing Festival Bel Canto to Montreal. That, however, will require some political will.

Visit www.scena.org/blog/Labels/Nagano.html for LSM’s full reports on Munich and Festival Bel Canto.

(c) La Scena Musicale