Dead Man Walking: Why Vancouver Opera still has a fighting chance

Dec 19 2017, 8:15 pm

The Vancouver Opera came out yesterday with its 2016-17 lineup, marking a new turn for the only major opera player in town. Most exciting are the wide range of productions on offer this spring, which include contemporary classic Dead Man Walking – an modern-day libretto which chronicles death row experiences and is performed in English.


Approachability seems to be key for the venerable 55-year-old organization, which recently announced a new General Director to lead the charge. The much-discussed festival season kicks off in the spring with Otello, Dead Man Walking, and The Marriage of Figaro. Unusual for this type of production, they’re all back-to-back and run under the span of a month. The unspoken bet lies within this central question: will Vancouver embrace so much opera in such a relatively short period of time?

The key, I think, comes down to affordability and accessibility, the latter of which I didn’t particularly feel until Stickboy and Dark Sisters started mixing in among conventional fare. At a recently scaled-down performance of Stickboy, the same format that has been touring high schools around the province, I saw a wonderfully diverse audience fully engage with the story and characters. The power of storytelling is a universal language that gets you past traditional barriers, and can be a great way of introducing new audiences to the form. The long game, then, is whether these new faces will start appreciating other VO productions on a regular basis.


And that comes down to the interrelated aspect of affordability. Opera has too long been perceived as ‘high’ (and, some would argue, outdated) art, with corresponding subscription prices to match. It’s got a reputation for demanding a certain degree of background knowledge, coupled with a certain level of stuffiness to match. VO might have taken this condensed presentation format out of financial necessity, but it also shows an inherent willingness for newcomers to ‘try out the opera.’ Instead of instantly committing to a full subscription, which the Opera, and the Symphony, and the Ballet, would all love for you to do, these short runs are ripe for experimentation. Dead Man Walking, just like Stickboy, has the potential to become an effective gateway drug for younger audiences to whet their interest – especially on those very attractive $35 seats for folks under the age of 35.

Let’s be honest here: the Vancouver Opera is on shaky ground, facing similar problems that many operatic companies are seeing across North America. Traditional subscription-buying audiences are getting older, and so follows both fiscal contraction and a desire to explore new revenue-making methods. The move away from tradition hasn’t been without its naysayers, but I think it’s too premature to proclaim this as the irrevocably right or wrong path for the VO. Dead Man Walking might be the contemporary jewel of its daring new programming, but longevity and stability in VO’s future will really come from an understanding of its new audiences.

And, I’ve got to say, Vancouver loves its underdogs. I hope Vancouverites of all stripes will give this season at the opera a fighting chance.

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