Vancouver Opera’s production of The Merry Widow opens Oct. 20. (photo by John Grigaitis)
“I am thrilled that The Merry Widow will open our 58th season,” Kim Gaynor told the Independent. “The Merry Widow has only been produced twice before in the history of Vancouver Opera. We have a terrific cast, and director Kelly Robinson also directed our smash-hit Evita in 2016.”
Gaynor, a member of the Jewish community, is general director of Vancouver Opera.
“Franz Lehár, the composer of The Merry Widow, always used Jewish librettists for his operas – in this case, Viktor Léon and Leo Stein – although he was Roman Catholic,” she noted. “The cultural milieu in early 20th-century Vienna was made up of a significant Jewish contingent. And Lehár’s wife, Sophie (née Paschkis), was Jewish before her conversion to Catholicism upon marriage, which was a common practice at the time in the case of a ‘mixed’ marriage.”
Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die Lustige Witwe), a comedic operetta, is set in Paris at the turn of the last century. In the Vancouver Opera production, soprano Lucia Cesaroni will be making her role debut with the VO as the wealthy widow, Hanna Glawari, who tries to win the heart of Count Danilo, played by tenor John Cudia.
In the past year, notes the show’s promotional material, Cesaroni “also debuted with acclaim in both soprano roles of La Bohème, as Mimi with Pacific Opera Victoria and Musetta with l’Opéra de Montreal.” She last performed with the VO in West Side Story in 2011.
Cudia has performed in two recent VO productions: as Cassio in Verdi’s Otello (2017) and Juan Peron in Evita (2016). Among his credits, he is the first and only actor to have performed both as the Phantom in Phantom of the Opera and Jean Valjean in Les Misérables on Broadway.
The VO production of The Merry Widow plays Oct. 20, 25 and 27, 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 28, 2 p.m., at Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Tickets range in price from $50 to $175 and are available from the VO at 604-683-0222 or vancouveropera.ca.
A scene from Vancouver Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin. (photo by Trudie Lee)
“I’ve sung a lot of Russian, and I love it,” Jewish community member and opera singer Leah Giselle Field told the Jewish Independent. Field will have a lot to love at this year’s Vancouver Opera Festival, which starts next weekend.
Russian White Nights, the second annual Vancouver Opera Festival, celebrates Russia’s luminous midsummer nights. Among the festival offerings is Eugene Onegin, based on the classic of Russian literature by Alexander Pushkin, which was turned into a lyric opera with a libretto co-written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with K.S. Shilovsky. The festival will also feature the première of The Overcoat, an opera based on Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story, as well as Requiem for a Lost Girl, an original chamber musical collaboration that explores themes around homelessness and violence towards women.
According to the press material, Eugene Onegin – which plays April 29 in the afternoon, and the evenings of May 3 and May 5 – promises “breathtaking music [and] choreography, lavish orchestrations and compelling arias.” Field will be playing the role of Larina, the mother of the two main female protagonists of the story, Olga and Tatyana.
“The libretto includes portions of the original verses of Pushkin,” Field said, noting that the score is one of her favourites. “Tchaikovsky originally thought it would be blasphemy to make Pushkin’s poem into an opera, but eventually he agreed. I love the Pushkin poem the opera is based on as well – it’s so environmentally evocative, it is so Russian, and it takes you into right into that environment.”
A number of Russians feature in the cast, including baritone Konstantin Shushakov (Onegin), soprano Svetlana Aksenova (Tatiana) and tenor Alexey Dolgov (Lensky). This new production has been created in collaboration with Calgary Opera and is directed by Tom Diamond and conducted by Jonathan Darlington. Eugene Onegin will be sung in Russian with English surtitles projected on a screen.
In addition to Eugene Onegin, Field will participate in a chamber music performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk-Poetry Op. 70 on May 4, 5 p.m., at CBC Studio 700. This song cycle was written in 1948 by the Soviet composer, who initially wrote eight songs that were meant to reflect the hardships of being Jewish in the Soviet Union. In order to disguise this sensitive material, Shostakovich added three more songs depicting the “great life” Jews had under the Soviet regime. Despite these efforts, the censors were not fooled and refused to approve the work – it could not be performed until after Stalin’s death in March 1953.
On the lighter side, Field will also appear in a family-oriented original adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a student performance co-produced by Vancouver Opera and Delta School of Music on May 5, 1 p.m., also at CBC Studio 700. The production is one of four offerings aimed at children and/or teens on the festival’s Family Day.
Vancouver Opera general director Kim Gaynor, also a member of the Jewish community, is in her second season at the organization, which she came to after years working the festival circuit in Europe. Gaynor told the Independent that she has modified the Vancouver festival quite a bit from its first year, trying to take a more “out of the box” approach. This includes a more diverse and daring program with a mixture of classical and contemporary works, and the inclusion of chamber music. The festival will also include three films: the silent film Man With A Movie Camera on April 28, the 2001 CBC production of The Overcoat on April 29 and 1965’s Dr. Zhivago on May 1.
The festival starts on April 28 with an outdoor celebration at Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza that features Russian cultural performers, food trucks, market vendors, a circus presentation, a movie screening and a patio bar. Festivities that day will get underway at 2 p.m., and a highlight will be the re-creation of the pinnacle of white nights celebrations in Russia that evening. A 40-foot schooner with scarlet sails will serve as the stage for acrobatics, music and custom-designed projections on the 22-foot-high sails in a performance suitable for all ages. Scarlet Sails will also be offered April 29 and May 3 and 5.
The Vancouver Opera Festival runs to May 6. The full program and more information can be found at vancouveropera.ca.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Caitlin Wood and Alex Lawrence star in Vancouver Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. Jewish community member Leah Giselle Field performs the role of Marcellina in the production. (Emily Cooper Photography)
I am thrilled and honoured to have been chosen to lead Vancouver Opera into a new era,” said Jewish community member Kim Gaynor when her appointment as general director was announced prior to the start of this season. “Vancouver Opera already has a long history of excellent productions and a well-deserved reputation for innovation under Jim Wright’s exemplary leadership.”
As part of its vision for the future, Vancouver Opera is holding an inaugural opera festival April 28 to May 13. The event features a variety of vocal offerings for audiences, as well as workshops and other activities.
“Opera seasons are planned years in advance, so this festival was planned long before I joined VO,” Gaynor told the Independent. “However, I have brought 10 years’ experience managing the Verbier Festival in Switzerland and I am using this experience to shape the festival-going experience here. For example, we will have lots of opportunities to follow the development of young singers, and for audience participation, two things which were very popular in Verbier.”
Her resumé prior to managing the Verbier Festival includes managing director and co-founder of Austria’s Festival Retz, administrator of London, England’s Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition and head of marketing administration at London’s Royal Opera House. She has worked at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, L’Opéra de Montréal and Canada Council for the Arts.
Gaynor, who was born and raised in Ontario, returned to Canada from Switzerland last year, arriving in Vancouver in September. She was here in time for another recent Vancouver Opera innovation – the smaller-venue, family-friendly production of Hansel and Gretel in November.
“Hansel and Gretel was a huge success with people of all ages,” said Gaynor. “The whimsical, enthusiastic performances from our young artists and the wonderful puppets charmed everyone who came. I heard so many stories about young people being literally on the edge of their seats throughout the whole performance, and this could lead to a lifelong love of opera. One thing I learned was that the intimacy of the smaller Playhouse theatre really appeals to audiences. They want to be nose-to-nose with the performers – up close to the action.”
The upcoming festival will offer more opportunities to get up close to the action, including a performance at Vancouver Public Library – called Opera Tales – featuring singers from VO’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, who the audience will have a chance to meet after the show. One of these singers is Jewish community member Leah Giselle Field, who also will be performing the role of Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro. (For more on Field, see jewishindependent.ca/fairy-tale-reimagined.)
Among the other festival offerings are a video installation by artist Paul Wong, performances by vocal stylist Ute Lemper and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, an evening sing-along with the Vancouver Bach Choir, a film night, master classes for young singers, forums and discussions, preview talks and happy hours.
“We believe that the festival format will attract a new and younger audience who likes fast and furious action, because there will be something going on all the time during the 16 days of the festival,” said Gaynor. “At the same time, we are convinced that our main-stage operas, Otello, Dead Man Walking and The Marriage of Figaro, will appeal to our traditional audiences, who may only want to attend for an evening or two. In our next season, 2017/2018, which has just been announced, we are offering a season and a festival, starting with the ever-popular Turandot in the fall and closing the season with a spring festival.”
Further explaining why the festival concept is being embraced by VO, she said, “Festivals are, by definition, a celebration and people, in general, love to celebrate. We will not only be celebrating opera, but the human voice and all of its expression, from throat singing to choral. Festivals offer the chance to mingle and meet lots of other people who share the same passion. This chance to come together with like-minded people creates an atmosphere which is hard to create in a normal season. But I don’t think festivals are a more attractive model, just a different model, and VO is in the mood for change.”
One of the attractions of moving back to Canada was that Gaynor would be closer to her mom, who lives in Oakville, Ont. One of the appeals of moving to Vancouver was the opportunity to be outside. While circumstances have made that difficult so far, she has found other fun things to do around town.
“Honestly,” she said, “it seems like it has either rained or snowed every day since I arrived (until about two days ago)! I am normally a person who loves the outdoors, so my highlights have been discovering the North Shore mountains and walks along the Seawall with my dog (a 3-year-old border collie). That was before I broke my leg badly at the end of January falling off my horse! I am also finding some great spots for brunch in my neighbourhood around Main and 12th, and have been discovering all of the fantastic cultural organizations in town.”
Gaynor was born in Hamilton, Ont., but the family moved to nearby Burlington when she was six months old.
“We lived almost in the country in Burlington, in a house with a big yard with a small forest behind. More importantly, we were less than a kilometre from a horse farm, where I discovered my passion for riding. My father was a passionate amateur pianist and we had a baby grand piano at home. I got my love of classical music from him.”
Gaynor’s father was a Holocaust survivor.
“My father was one of the 10,000 Jewish children who escaped from Western Europe to England on the Kindertransport,” she said. “He lived in London from 1938 until 1954, when he emigrated to Canada and met my mother, who is not Jewish. He even changed his family name, which was Geier, but sounded too German in postwar Canada and that, combined with his accent, was a handicap. So, he took the last name of his movie star idol – Mitzi Gaynor. Unfortunately, he died quite young, only 53 years of age.
“I know my father’s life was in every way coloured by having lost his family in this way but, like many Kindertransport children, he spoke very little about it to his children. I learned much later, after his death, that a part of his family escaped Austria and made it to Palestine. I was able to find them and went to meet them in 1996. I have often wondered how life would have been different if I had been born and raised in a Jewish family in Austria, or in London. But I have close ties still to the family who adopted my father in London, and to his relatives in Israel and this has enriched my life immensely.”
While she doesn’t “practise any religious traditions in a formal way,” Gaynor said, “I feel quite close to Jewish culture and traditions because of my family and friends, but also I have participated many times in Jewish celebrations, weddings, a few bar mitzvahs and even a bat mitzvah. I also remember some very poignant things from my childhood, such as my father criticizing my mother for not being able to make good matzah ball soup. Clearly, he had some things he missed from home!”