Ottawa pays $100 million for new facade, but not a cent to save its opera

Kevin Mallon, music director of Toronto Chamber Orchestra, has some cogent points to make about the sudden demise this week of Opera Lyra Ottawa:

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I am very sad about the fall of Opera Lyra. I was AD there last season and devised a creative season for this year- an innovative Barber of Seville with a young Canadian cast, a double-bill of Canadian operas with Toronto’s Essential Opera, a lively kids show called Operation Superpower, Fidelio in a cutting edge production and lastly a co-production with Thirteen Strings and the Studio of young artists at OL, of Haydn’s opera L’Isola Disabitata. This last, of course has us in panic mode, as I try to save this, the last concert in 13S’ 40th anniversary season. We will see if we can do a concert version of the opera. (OL has already sold tickets—which we hope 13Strings will be able to honour.)

But even with this great season I put forward, it was not to be. I think the viability of the company was already impossible when I was there. With the best will of a Board and staff, both of which inherited an enormous debt and were locked into a structure which included renting an expensive venue for productions, it just couldn’t be done. The company didn’t have the support of enough of an audience to fill the venue and sponsorship had dried up. I saw and worked alongside an amazing staff, who worked their hearts out, and who are now out of a job.

It is a crying shame that such a company could not survive in our nation’s capital- but it is a reflection of the indifference of a government who can come up with $110.5 for a new façade at the NAC, but there is no will or way to save an important opera company which could survive on less than 00.5% of this money! But I suppose it’s more important that an arts building looks good.

It is getting harder and harder for artists and the arts now. Every granting agency has to deliver cuts to its clients because they have not received any new money in years. I do appreciate that there are serious social issues for Canadians and if the arts were losing money because we were assuring that Aboriginal people had clean running water then that would be one thing. But it does rather seem that a philosophy of the “me” is at the fore, and the ideology about how much taxes people will pay is the all. I’m afraid people will wake up one day and ask where all the arts organizations have gone….

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  • “The company didn’t have the support of enough of an audience to fill the venue, and sponsorship had dried up.”

    In this situation, why should tax dollars be used? To employ artists? No. Build and sustain an audience first, at a venue the company can afford.

    • Perhaps we should apply this philosophy to all professional sports too, and stop giving tax breaks and subsidies to millionaire hockey players!!!

  • As I said in a previous thread on the Opera Lyra closing, one of the problems in Ottawa is that there is really no viable alternative to the National Arts Centre for presentations such as opera. Pinchas Zukerman, and prominent Chamberfest people, among others, lobbied for years for a concert hall more suitable for chamber music than Southam Hall, the concert venue at the NAC. The effort failed; had it succeeded — and there were some very attractive proposals that were declined for some reason — there would have been an acoustically suitable venue on a considerably smaller scale, and if Opera Lyra had hit hard times filling Southam Hall, it could have scaled back a little to a smaller venue to test its audience size better.

    It may seem appalling that Ottawa cannot support opera to the tune of 10,500 subscribers a season, but there it is — the number apparently is smaller, but they are faced with a large and expensive hall before they can utter a note. And before anyone gets shirty about the NAC, I believe they are about the last people to get paid when Opera Lyra has a bad spell, and I also believe the NAC has done everything it can to cut the long-struggling Opera company some slack. The NAC itself produced opera for some years, and Opera Lyra to some extent grew out if the fact it could not afford to do so any longer and fulfill its orchestral mandate (the NAC is a Crown corporation and has to report to Parliament). So the venue is sympathetic to the aspirations of its tenant, and has helped throughout the years.

    As for the $110+ million: it was allocated several years ago for the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the NAC. It is a one-off grant. And its application is far more than cosmetic: it is in large part to provide considerably better access to the building, which presents a great number of difficulties for those who do not drive into its underground garage. Despite occupying a whole city block in central Ottawa, there is no street-level box office, where passersby could make inquiries. You enter an empty lobby, go down stairs (no elevator available here for the mobility-challenged) and along long halls before finally emerging at the back of a lobby containing the box office and the other where you enter the halls. The public face of the building, from the concrete brutal period, is about as welcoming as the Lubyanka.

  • Hopefully, there will be stronger support for all the Arts, from a new Liberal Federal Government, led by Justin Trudeau!

    • I love opera. bit I draw the line at endorsing that view.

      Anyway, if he implements his planned deficit budgeting, he’ll never get round to the arts. And he is he wrong generation to appreciate real music.

    • Now that Canada’s national shame has been kicked out of office by democratic popular vote, perhaps this shameful decision will be reversed?

  • It’s a shame that money can be found for the building, but not the raison d’être for its existence. This seems to be altogether too common — for just one other example, think back to the juxtaposition of the lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra and the construction of its new concert hall annex.

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