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Celebrating 50 Years of Calgary Opera

Celebrating 50 Years of Calgary Opera

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Filumena (2017). Photo by Trudie Lee of HarderLee Photography.

One might think that a city known for cowboy culture wouldn’t have an opera company with the fifth-largest revenue in Canada, but they would be wrong. What started as a small group of creatives with an earnest calling to inspire the people and community through opera, has now evolved into a prominent institution that averages 2.2 million in production costs per year. From school tours, holiday offerings, outdoor summer concerts, opera brunches and most notably, the Main Stage series, the company has earned a reputation for dazzling audiences and providing high production value entertainment.

Over the past 50 years, Calgary Opera has produced a range of inspiring and innovative operas from classic blockbusters to commissioned new works, all the while engaging the next generation of performers and opera lovers. The company has become a vital part of Calgary’s identity and culture by working with local singers in the Calgary Opera Chorus, fostering young artists through the McPhee Artist Development Program and engaging 427 Calgarians in the Community Ambassador program.

“The performing arts are essential for communities to share stories that will connect, strengthen and heal them – and ultimately lead them to thrive,” says Heather Kitchen, CEO and general director of Calgary Opera.

Whether the stories told on the Main Stage are more traditional operas like La Traviata or more contemporary offerings like the Canadian opera Filumena, the themes running through them are relevant to today’s audiences and the emotions they evoke are equally powerful. The company prides itself on developing Canadian talent and leading works that are world or Canadian premieres. This season, with the added punch of the incredible half-century milestone, has a bit of everything in store.

“Calgary Opera is celebrating its 50th anniversary with an extraordinarily exciting season, which balances beloved audience favourites with forward-looking and adventurous new works,” says Jonathan Brandani, artistic director at Calgary Opera.

The season opens with Carmen, one of the most often performed operas around the world and features rising star mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb reprising her role as the strong and seductive femme fatale after a successful run at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.

The second production is the Canadian premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a co-production of Calgary Opera, Austin Opera, Atlanta Opera, Utah Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City that features Brett Polegato in the title role. The opera explores the tragic and complex life of the tech icon who revolutionized communication at the expense of meaningful connections with those around him. At the intersection of art and technology, this opera has the dramatic roots of a Greek tragedy with the modern-day appeal of Silicon Valley.

The season is capped by Calgary’s premiere production of Macbeth, Verdi’s spectacular take on Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play that will feature Vittoria Yeo and Giuseppe Altomare in the lead roles. While many Calgarians are familiar with the story, they haven’t seen anything quite like this.
“In this opera, supernatural forces and human passions fight each other against the backdrop of incredibly vigorous music filled with cinematic overtones. In our production, the cutting-edge technology of holograms will guarantee a unique and immersive theatrical experience and will propel Calgary Opera to the forefront of operatic experimentation worldwide,” says Brandani.

The Calgary Opera team has put together an incredible line up on the Main Stage but that is just a fraction of what they are doing to advocate for and grow the art form in the city. The company focuses on introducing opera to children and youth with an annual school tour and its popular “Let’s Create an Opera” program that works with elementary and middle school children. The school tour alternates between in-person and digital presentations. Last year the digital production of The Brothers Grimm reached 110,000 students. “Let’s Create an Opera” provides children an opportunity to work with a librettist and a composer to create their own opera and learn new skills that extend beyond opera and the classroom.

These programs lead to young adults who have the skills to understand and appreciate opera and grow to love the art form. For young Canadian performers who pursue an intensive opera career and finish their academic training, the McPhee Artist Development Program offers a bridge from school to professional work by providing them with opportunities to build their experience and polish their craft as they launch their opera careers. To support the artists, Calgary Opera casts the McPhee Artists in smaller roles to expand their knowledge of common business practices, while garnering resume-building experiences.

To further ensure that young audiences have access to opera, Calgary Opera offers the Allegro program for patrons 35 years of age and under. The program offers a community for like-minded people to access discounted tickets for the Fridays of the Main Stage productions.

“Our fastest growing demographic is that 18 to 35 range, people who are very interested in entertainment and seeing spectacle for their dollar, and we deliver on that,” says Noree Claerhout, director of marketing and communications at Calgary Opera. “Calgary Opera has one of the youngest audiences of all the professional opera companies in Canada, which is a big source of pride for us.”

The company is also proud of its resilience and creativity in the face of the pandemic’s effect on the arts in Calgary and around the world. With stages dark for nearly two years, Calgary Opera had to pivot and find a way to keep the arts alive. The company produced the Opera Labs web series, which allowed performers to come together, albeit from behind plexiglass barriers, to work on new stories and develop new operas while keeping performers and crew employed. Typically, new operas take many years and significant resources to develop. Opera Labs, which recently won Best Web Series at the Alberta Film & Television Awards, offered a glimpse into the process and development of creating new works. The company is thankful for the continued corporate, private and government supports that allow them to remain dedicated to growing Canadian opera.

And Calgary Opera has certainly grown since 1972.

“The organization has evolved into a company that in 2021-22 employed 20 full-time administrative staff, hired over 340 artists, musicians, crew and stagecraft personnel and hosted 17 public performances and 18 digital presentations,” says Kitchen. “While we are proud of the company’s growth, Calgary Opera remains committed to the instilled community values that are at the forefront of everything we do.”

Calgary Opera invites all Calgarians to experience opera for themselves. With affordable tickets that start at $39, audiences can follow along with the projected surtitles to understand the stories and enjoy the unique experience of the music, choreography, sets and unbelievable voices on the stage. If a full three-hour performance is too much of a commitment, try the company’s Opera Brunch, combining delicious food with entertainment provided by the stars and songs of the season.

Calgary Opera proudly attracts internationally renowned talent like Renée Fleming, Ben Heppner, Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. By continuing to produce world-class opera, the company aims to support Calgary’s thriving art scene and adventurous spirit.

“We’re trying new things. That’s the spirit of Calgary – the maverick, the wild west, the Stampede mentality is that we’re pioneering things,” says Claerhout.

This innovative leadership pays off in the sold-out performances and the continuing support and investment from the community. Calgarians are discovering the soul, emotional connection and cultural enrichment on the Calgary Opera stage.

“For 50 years, Calgary Opera has been proud to be an integral part of the vibrant Calgary arts community. Great cities have great arts communities. We look forward to continuing to serve Calgary and the surrounding areas for the next 50 years,” says Heather Kitchen.

With incredible programming, passionate leadership and inspired performers, the next generation of opera lovers are in good hands at Calgary Opera. Visit calgaryopera.com for more info.

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