Canadian Viewpoints 1The timing could not be more perfect. Just last month The WholeNote editor David Perlman threw down the gauntlet. The challenge: to begin the work of rallying a team of cross-country WholeNote correspondents. The initiative started in the last issue with Ian Alexander’s coverage of music on Vancouver Island. I am picking up the narrative trail at the next stop on the journey from “sea to shining sea” in Vancouver, where in just a few short weeks, Opera Conference Vancouver will be under way.

Opera Conference is an annual international symposium on opera, this year hosted by Vancouver Opera in partnership with OPERA America,, and Opera Volunteers International. The theme of this year’s conference is “Opera: Out of Bounds.” It has a few meanings, one of which is a play on words. Every year, OPERA America holds its annual conference in a different host city, and 2013 marks the first time in over ten years that the conference is being held outside the boundaries of the US, not seen in Canada since 2002 in Toronto. Most if not all of Canada’s opera companies will be there May 6–11, joined by another 400 delegates from opera companies across North America and the world.

More significantly, the theme “Opera: Out of Bounds” reflects the sector’s growing imperative to expand the definitions of opera beyond the Euro-centric traditions of the art form and extend its reach beyond the walls of the opera house. Through diverse programming over three days, the conference will explore strategies and deliver learning for connecting with new communities and new audiences, and creating greater value and civic impact. There could not be a better place for such a conference than Vancouver, one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada, with 52% of the population speaking a first language other than English.

There will be opera too — and lots of it. Running concurrent with the conference is Vancouver Opera’s production of Tan Dun’s Tea: Mirror of the Soul, in its Canadian premiere. Tea: Mirror of the Soul, an extraordinary fusion of Western opera and Eastern myth, from the Academy-Award-winning composer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, will be performed three times over the conference schedule. Vancouver Opera will also present Naomi’s Road, a 45-minute opera designed for touring to schools and community venues. Based on the Joy Kogawa novel of the same name that details a young Japanese girl’s experience as her family is interned during World War II, Naomi’s Road is taken from one of Canada’s most painful and complex social periods — one that was not even discussed in schools for years.

Vancouver Opera is a proud member of and OPERA America, two associations that share a long history and reciprocal relationship. In fact, all members of are by default also members of OPERA America, a membership arrangement that brings real value to Canadian members. As a partner in the presentation of the conference, is contributing its own programming and events around the conference.

The first of these is the “Vancouver Co-Production Colloquium,” at the very start of the week on Monday, May 6 and Tuesday, May 7. Hosted by Vancouver Opera, at their new production space and corporate headquarters, the O’Brian Centre, the colloquium is a staple program of offered to professional company members every two years. This year, professional companies will come together to explore potential opportunities for new co-production, co-commissions and other ways of collaborating to bring greater value to opera audiences and communities across the country.

Canadian Viewpoints 2The link between the success of an opera company and the strength and commitment of its board of directors has long been recognized. These volunteers work tirelessly on behalf of their companies. Because of the vast geography of Canada and the fact that most of them work full time as well, the opportunities to come together and learn from each other are few and far between. We are creating such an opportunity on the afternoon of May 7 with “National Opera Directors Luncheon.” Opera company board members from across Canada are invited to attend this gathering, to network and learn from one another.

Most conference delegates will have arrived by Tuesday, May 7, in time to be treated to a floating “Welcome Cruise and Reception.” The full conference kicks off the next day with a keynote presentation by Don M. Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Other notable speakers include Robert Sirman, director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, Douglas McClennan of ArtsJournal and David Gockley, general director of San Francisco Opera. The rest of the conference is a bustling hub of sessions, forums, seminars, break out discussions and networking, organized into “tracks” related to opera company function (technical, financial, artistic, audience development, etc).

A highlight and much-anticipated part of every Opera Conference is the New Works Sampler, and this year, it shares the bill with “Showcase: A Decade of New Canadian Opera,” on Friday, May 10, at the Vancouver Playhouse. The showcase is exclusive to conference delegates only.

Showcase is a retrospective look at works funded through the Canadian Opera Creation Fund (COCF), a ten-year initiative made possible by a $2.5 million grant from the Canada Council to, to re-grant in the exploration, development and production of a new brand of opera — opera made in Canada. The COCF program came to a close in 2011, counting some 24 new operas that had premiered on Canadian stages, with another half dozen still in development, as a direct result of this significant and unprecedented investment.

The “New Canadian Opera” portion of the double bill evening of new works features:

Alternate Visions, John Oliver, composer, Genni Gunn, librettist, submitted by Chants Libres; Brothers Grimm, Dean Burry, composer, submitted by the Canadian Opera Company; Filumena, John Estacio, composer, John Murrell, librettist, submitted by Calgary Opera; Lillian Alling, John Estacio, composer, John Murrell, librettist, submitted by Vancouver Opera; Mary’s Wedding, Andrew MacDonald, composer, Stephen Massicotte, librettist, submitted by Pacific Opera Victoria; The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G, Aaron Gervais, composer, Colleen Murphy, librettist, submitted by Tapestry New Opera; Transit of Venus, Victor Davies, composer, Maureen Hunter, librettist, submitted by Manitoba Opera.

OPERA America’s “New Works Sampler” will feature works-in-progress and recent premieres: Khaos, Don Macdonald, composer, Nicola Harwood, librettist, submitted by the Amy Ferguson Institute; Cold Mountain, Jennifer Higdon, composer, Gene Scheer, librettist, submitted by Opera Philadelphia; Sumeida’s Song, Mohammed Fairouz, composer and librettist, submitted by Peermusic Classical; The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Mark Adamo, composer and librettist, submitted by G. Schirmer. 

For more information about the conference or to register, visit

Christina Loewen is the executive director,

About is the national association for opera in Canada. It works with members across the country to represent and advance the interests of Canada’s opera community. It seeks to create and sustain an environment that makes opera central to Canadian life, offering greater opportunity for opera artists and audiences alike. provides services in advocacy and communications, along with support for Canadian opera creation. Working in collaboration with OPERA America, facilitates member discussions about artistic quality and creativity, education and audience development, community service, governance, resource development, promising partnership opportunities, international

Those who think that Victoria, BC, is still the land of “the newly wed and the nearly dead” need to update their impressions — at least where the local music scene is concerned. Better yet, they might like to plan a late winter/early spring getaway from the frigid, grey-toned rigours of Toronto to sample the mild, evergreen delights of the West Coast — including some remarkably adventurous concert programming.

1806 West Coast Notes 2The Victoria Symphony: An institution not always renowned for breaking new musical ground — now does so regularly under the inspired and visionary leadership of Tania Miller. Currently celebrating her tenth anniversary as music director — the first Canadian woman to hold such a position — “Maestra” Miller (as she is known here) challenges and rewards orchestra members and audiences alike with fresh, revelatory readings of standard works, thematic mini-festivals and frequent forays into new and unusual repertoire.

Already this season, Miller and the VS have teamed up with the University of Victoria and the Victoria Art Gallery to celebrate John Cage’s 100th birthday, and presented the world premiere of a major new orchestral work, Figures in the Night Passing, by the dean of Canadian composers, R. Murray Schafer. Coming up on March 15: a very special concert designed to climax a two-month, city-wide celebration of Victoria’s Chinatown, the oldest in Canada and second-oldest in North America (after San Francisco’s). The project epitomizes the VS’s commitment both to new music and to connecting classical music with the broader context of community life — particularly its multicultural dimensions.

1806 West Coast Notes 1The highlight of the program is undoubtedly the world premiere of a 45-minute “symphonic theatre” creation, by Toronto-based composer Chan Ka Nin, called Harmonious Interest. The title is a reference to a striking and colourful structure called The Gate of Harmonious Interest that marks the entrance to Victoria’s Chinatown; the concert will take place just a few steps from that spot, in the McPherson Playhouse. A former Pantages vaudeville house, The Mac is about to celebrate its own centenary, along with its sister theatre, the Royal, which is the Symphony’s usual home base.

The seven-movement work is scored for orchestra, percussion soloist, hulusi (a Chinese reed instrument with drone pipes), plus two singer/actors and a dancer. Like Chan’s earlier opera, Iron Road, this new piece is a collaboration with librettist Mark Brownell and dramatizes the Chinese immigrant experience on the West Coast — and by extension across Canada. We follow a recently arrived labourer as he explores the city’s narrow, twisting Fan Tan Alley with its gambling rooms and opium dens, struggles to learn to be a Chinese cook, and dictates a letter home to his beloved wife.

The final movement of the work has already been heard once, at last summer’s Victoria Symphony Splash concert, where it was well received. Splash is an iconic annual outdoor event that attracts some 40,000 spectators to the Inner Harbour, where the orchestra performs on a barge, surrounded by enthusiastic listeners in kayaks. (The equivalent in terms of public impact would be if a quarter of a million people came to Harbourfront to hear the TSO.) Splash always takes place on the Sunday of BC Day weekend; next year will mark its 25th anniversary, and the year after that, the Victoria Symphony will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

But back to the March 15 concert: in addition to the world premiere of Chan’s Harmonious Interest, the program will also include Strange Air, by Dorothy Chang, a UBC associate professor. This piece was the inaugural commission from the Women’s Philharmonic Commissioning Project of Meet the Composer (now part of New Music USA), and was premiered at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, CA, under the baton of the festival’s music director, Marin Alsop, herself a trailblazer for women in leadership roles in classical music. As well, VS concertmaster Terence Tam will be featured as soloist in the Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto, the well-known and accessible work written in 1959 by Chinese composers Chen Gang and He Zhanhao.

Vox Humana: The mid-March weekend in Victoria that starts with Friday evening’s VS “Chinatown” concert continues with a true embarrassment of riches, musically speaking. On Saturday and Sunday, the focus shifts to choral music — a genre with which this city is particularly well blessed. Easter comes early this year, and March 17 is Passion Sunday, a fact which one of our pre-eminent chamber choirs, Vox Humana, is acknowledging with back-to-back offerings: an ambitious doubleheader on the subject of the Passion.

On Saturday evening, under the ethereal dome of St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Vox Humana will present a program that includes Arvo Pärt’s Passio for chorus, soloists and chamber orchestra. The piece represents the culmination of the composer’s tintinnabuli style. On Sunday afternoon, at St. Barnabas Church, the featured work will be the British Columbia premiere of The Little Match Girl Passion, by the hot New York-based composer (and co-founder of the Bang on a Can collective) David Lang. Synthesized out of influences that range from Hans Christian Andersen to Johann Sebastian Bach, the work won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It has received a wide variety of innovative stagings in productions around the world — including one in London for shadow puppets, no less! The Victoria version will incorporate original choreography for three dancers.

Both the Saturday and Sunday Vox Humana shows will also provide opportunities to hear the first performances of a short work by the young Victoria composer David Archer. Titled Compassio, it is described by its creator as a choral prelude; as its name suggests, it is a meditation on the theme of compassion, intended as a companion piece to Pärt’s Passio, and complementing the latter’s musical exploration of the theme of suffering. Archer works in fields ranging from church music to film scores, and also plays lounge piano at a local hotel–a not-atypical life for an aspiring young musician these days. One of his orchestral works was read during one of the Victoria Symphony’s annual composers’ workshops.

Vox Humana is a 24-voice ensemble led by Brian Wismath, a former Toronto Mendelssohn Youth Choir chorister and conducting protégé of Robert Cooper. Since moving to Victoria just three years ago, Wismath has made himself both indispensable and omnipresent on the city’s and the province’s choral scene. Among other things, he directs the Victoria Choral Society, a large choir that appears regularly with the Victoria Symphony, most recently in the Mozart Requiem, on the same bill as the Schafer premiere mentioned earlier. They will offer Haydn’s Nelson Mass on May 6. As for Vox Humana, on May 25, 26 and 27 they will appear on two different programs with the Victoria Children’s Choir, who took first place at the 2011 Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival in Vienna.

The “Big Three” music-presenting institutions in this city (apart from the University) are the Symphony, the Victoria Conservatory of Music and Pacific Opera Victoria. VCM appointed a new dean this year; he’s Stephen Green, formerly of the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. POV has just celebrated yet another composer’s centenary — that of Benjamin Britten — with yet another mini-festival, anchored by an excellent mainstage production of Albert Herring with a fine young Canadian cast, including the likes of Lawrence Wiliford, Sally Dibblee, Phillip Addis and Giles Tomkins, among others. Surprisingly, it’s Pacific Opera’s first-ever co-production with Vancouver Opera, which will remount it, with many of the same performers, this fall. The punningly named Festival of Britten also presented Noye’s Fludde with the aforementioned Victoria Children’s Choir and a double bill of Let’s Make an Opera and The Little Sweep, co-produced with the Conservatory and the Belfry Theatre respectively — typical of the kind of partnerships that are becoming increasingly common and necessary to make things like this happen.

Pacific Opera Victoria rounds out its current season in April with five performances of Tosca, starring Joni Henson, Luc Robert and David John Pike.

As for the Victoria Symphony, with which this whirlwind overview began, its main season runs through May 11 and 12 when Miller conducts a program marking the centenary of The Rite of Spring. The program includes the premiere of the second of four movements in a “new” New World Symphony (being created over two years by VS composer-in-residence Michael Oesterle) and welcomes, as soloist in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, Canadian fiddle superstar James Ehnes. The Brandon native, now Florida resident, recently took over as artistic director of the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, and there’s talk of future collaboration between him and pianist Arthur Rowe, who helms the Victoria Summer Music Festival. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves!

A single column can only hint at the richness of musical life out here on the Pacific Rim. As I write in late February, the ninth annual Pacific Baroque Festival is in full swing, with five concerts focusing on the music of Henry Purcell’s London. On March 12, Benjamin Butterfield will sing the Evangelist when the Victoria Baroque Players presents Bach’s Saint John Passion under the baton of POV artistic director Timothy Vernon. On June 8, Butterfield’s brother, Peter, leads his Victoria Philharmonic Choir in the Monteverdi Vespers. And so it goes. Hopefully, future missives from the West Coast can round out the picture, and — who knows? — we may even find space to talk about musical life in that “other” BC city on the eastern edge of the Salish Sea. 

Ian Alexander is a former CBC on-air host and executive, now a Victoria-based independent consultant, teacher and writer.

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