Pirates in the village

Calgary Opera gets ambitious hosting an outdoor festival on the banks of the Bow

Calgary is now home to an important operatic first in Canada: the first outdoor professional summer opera festival the country has seen.

“In our consideration of where the company is going to go next we started to think about different programs we could initiate” says Calgary Opera general director Bob McPhee. “In looking throughout North America and indeed Europe it’s very prolific with opera summer festivals… and (there are) virtually none in Canada.”

And so the idea of Opera in the Village was born. This new festival comes with a price tag of some $600000 which is why McPhee says it has taken four years to get the project off the ground. Cultural funding bodies have monies available for established festivals but almost nothing for new festivals so Calgary Opera had to look for resources elsewhere.

Finding a suitable location to mount the festival was also a challenge as McPhee says they had to find a place with enough room to erect a 900-seat tent and access to sufficient power. Calgary Opera considered a wide variety of locations — including as far afield as Sylvan Lake and High River — before settling on the East Village.

“They want a landmark event to bring people down to the East Village so they get familiar with what’s happening in that exciting part of our city” says McPhee adding that the Calgary Municipal Land Corporation which oversees the redevelopment of the East Village “bent over backwards” to assist Calgary Opera with the project.

The inaugural production is the well-known Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance which debuted in 1879.

“Everybody knows Pirates and I think that’s the fun of it” says Jennifer Sproule a former participant of Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artists program who plays Kate in the production. “The fact they chose this production is just perfect. Everybody knows those tunes especially the Major-General tune…. Even if you don’t know opera you don’t know operetta you know that music.”

Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are known for their comic and frankly ludicrous storylines. In The Pirates of Penzance audiences meet Frederic (Colin Ainsworth) who upon his 21 st birthday will be free to leave his apprenticeship to a band of kind-hearted pirates who have a particular soft spot for orphans.

The only problem is that Frederic was born on February 29 so his birthday comes around only once every four years. Upon making this discovery Frederic realizes he must remain an apprentice to the pirates for another 63 years.

Along the way he meets Mabel (Tracy Dahl) the daughter of Major-General Stanley (David LeReaney) and they fall in love. She agrees to wait for him until he is finally free.

A number of other ridiculous antics ensue before the show concludes with a “happily ever after.”

Of course Gilbert & Sullivan are not known for the power of their plots but rather for their melodies. The Pirates of Penzance is home to the oft-parodied and very popular song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” which LeReaney performs in his role as the Major-General.

Gilbert & Sullivan are also famous for poking fun at society and social mores a tradition Calgary Opera will continue — in an updated fashion. “We’ll take a few runs at the politics in our city and our country” says McPhee.

Besides the mainstage performance Opera in the Village will include a number of other events such as fighting demos a youth performance of an abridged version of The Pirates of Penzance opera singers performing impromptu arias along the Riverwalk a family picnic on Sunday afternoon and pirate-film screenings. Of course there will also be food vendors on site — and even a beer garden.

“We’re looking at this festival becoming a permanent attraction for this city and growing over the years” says McPhee noting that even the famed Stratford Festival began in a tent in the 1950s.