Vancouver Opera Festival goes for the high notes

By Brian Paterson

"Otello." (Emily Cooper/Supplied)

"Otello." (Emily Cooper/Supplied)

The city’s stages come alive with all manner of scandalous seducers, penitent prisoners, and manipulated murderers next week, as the first-ever Vancouver Opera Festival gets underway.

A bold new endeavour from Vancouver Opera, the 17-day celebration offers three full-scale productions and dozens of ancillary events, including cabaret songstress Ute Lemper, Juno-winning throat singer Tanya Tagaq, a sing-along Carmina Burana with Vancouver Bach Choir, art installations, film screenings, and more.

At the heart of the festivities are three mainstage operas; each given brand new staging and each offering a distinct perspective on the tremendously diverse form.


The festival opens on April 28 with one of Italian opera’s greatest masterpieces. Rarely performed due to the enormous demands and complexity of its title role, Giuseppe Verdi’s 1887 Otello takes Shakespeare’s tragic tale and propels it to new dramatic heights.

Its well-known narrative follows a Moorish general who wins the hand of the lovely Desdemona but whose bliss is shortly lived, due to the diabolical manipulations of his two-faced friend, Iago. Musically speaking, Otello is opera at its grandest. Expect soaring vocal passages, thunderous emotions, and sumptuous, exquisite orchestrations from the art form’s golden age.

Dead Man Walking

Sharing the Queen Elizabeth Stage with Otello is an operatic adaptation of this bestselling memoir (which also inspired the iconic Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn film). The gripping, introspective work explores a special relationship formed between a Catholic nun and death row inmate, using the profoundly expressive art form to explore enormous concepts of moral complexity and forgiveness.

The contemporary opera, which first premiered in 2000, offers a distinctly different listening experience from the festival’s other headline productions. Penned by American composer Jake Heggie and featuring a libretto by Tony-winning playwright Terrence McNally, the explosive work is one of the most popular operas to be written in recent memory, having already enjoyed more than 40 international productions prior to its April 29 Vancouver premiere.

The Marriage of Figaro

If inmates and murderers aren’t your cup of tea, frothier fare can be found next door at Vancouver Playhouse with Mozart’s madcap opera of love, lechery, and mistaken identity. The playful 18th century comedy continues the story of Beaumarchais’ The Barber of Seville, setting its satiric tale of infatuated servants and lustful masters against a sparkling, virtuosic score.

In this new production, Mozart’s musical genius will be paired with a creative visionary from closer to home. Vancouver Opera has enlisted the keen mind of Canadian fashion designer Sig Neigum to conceive its costumes and sets. Dubbed "one to watch" by Vogue Magazine and winner of an Emerging Talent Canadian Arts and Fashion Award, the unconventional and experimental creator’s contributions promise to bring a fresh, stylish edge to the all-time favourite opera.

The sum of the celebration is an opportunity for operaphiles to immerse themselves in the art form – and a perfect chance for first-timers to make their own operatic discoveries.

Information on all Vancouver Opera Festival events at festival.vancouveropera.ca.