The Banff Centre innovates by bringing classical opera into the modern age with Orphée+ and Candide

Something very exciting happens in our backyard every summer. The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity showcases performances of all descriptions, from varying genres of music, to film, workshops, dance productions and world-class opera productions. This year they are doing something different – opera fans will be in for an action-packed weekend when they present two classic operas, Orpheé+ and Candide, back to back.

“This year we thought it would be more interesting to kind of present (the operas) all in one weekend,” says Joel Ivany, of the Opera Training Program and stage director for the Banff Centre, “You can get a variety of different experiences without having to go back and forth to Calgary.”

This year’s opera program begins with Orpheé+, written by the composer Gluck in 1762 — it’s the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and their journey into the underworld. Ivany had been looking at collaborating with Peggy Kriha Dye, general and artistic director of Opera Columbus, and, in Orphée+, a co-production with The Banff Centre, Opera Columbus and Ivany’s own company in Toronto, Against the Grain Theatre, was realized.

“We said, wouldn’t it be cool to take a creative approach to (this production) … and just reimagine what it could be like, but leaving the structure of the opera intact?” Ivany explains. The result was a lot of work, taking a traditional opera with traditional instruments and arrangements and stripping it down and in a sense, recreating it.

“It was exciting to have the freedom to play around,” explains Ivany, “how many instruments do we want to reduce this to and what instruments do we want to change, what sounds could we add. We almost immediately started talking about a virtual chorus and what does that mean, how do we even record for a virtual chorus, and wouldn’t it be cool to get people from all over the world to submit their part?”

The production continued to evolve, with the company taking the standard orchestration of approximately 40 people down to 11 musicians, a synthesizer for the virtual chorus, and Orphée’s lyre replaced with an improvised electric guitar – a shift which works extraordinarily well, according to Ivany. “All of a sudden … you have this contemporary sound in conversation with this Baroque sound, which is very beautiful and actually very complimentary along the same lines.”

The main design element of the set for Orphée+ is projections, another untraditional take on the production, but one which Ivany sees as a shining example of traditional meets modern. “You’re seeing technology being used, which I’ve never used to this extent in an opera before, and that’s good for opera – it’s good for theatre to challenge and move things along. I think technology can be a great asset, you just have to use it in the right way, so I think this is a great example of that.”

Adding to the production is Company XIV, a group of dancers from New York whose mandate is to perform Baroque dance in a burlesque style. “You’re combing in both Baroque gesture with burlesque movement and choreography, which works incredibly well for something that was written a long time ago, but also has a very contemporary element to it,” explains Ivany.

The dramatic circus/cabaret feel of this production continues with the role of Amour being performed by a singer who also does aerial work. “She’ll climb 20 feet up in the air,” explains Ivany, “and start doing acrobatics while she’s singing operatically within the context of the story, and that’s wild in and of itself.”

In stark contrast to the drama and theatrics of Orphée+, the Banff Centre is also presenting Leonard Bernstein’s production of Candide in celebration of Bernstein’s 100th birthday, promising a light and fun opera experience to end the weekend. When planning this production, Ivany wanted to present an entirely different opera experience to audiences.

“I’d never seen opera or classical piece done on the amphitheatre outside (the Banff Centre), and so I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have that sort of outdoor beer and barbecue feel, but with a classical composition?’ So that’s what we’re looking to do with Candide.”

Because Bernstein’s modernized version of Candide has been so popular over the years, so, too, has the music from the production, and audiences will be encouraged to sing along to the familiar tunes. Will there be lyrics on a screen with a bouncing ball to lead people through the songs? “That’s a good idea, we should look into that for next year!” laughs Ivany, adding, “There are certain numbers that everyone will recognize, and it’s all in English, it’s very accessible. It’s great tunes and great music.”

Accessibility is certainly a component when presenting performances, especially opera. For those who are already opera and classical music enthusiasts, there will always be a need for companies to present these timeless classics, but what about the newer, uninitiated audiences? Is taking a modernist approach to classical works, bringing them into the contemporary, a necessity in order to keep audiences excited and to capture new audiences as well?

“I think there always has been a place for opera and for traditional performances,” muses Ivany, “and there still is a need for those performances. I think definitely taking modern creative approaches is what audiences are enjoying, so there’s a lot of creativity going on right now (in Canada) and it’s exciting and it’s sort of could be one of Canada’s kind of calling cards per se.

“I don’t find opera or classical music to be dying at all, I think it’s changing and evolving and the definition of the word is being expanded to a much greater meaning and I think that’s healthy for everyone.”

(Photo courtesy Blake Manns.)

Orphée+ will be performed July 12 and 14 in the Eric Harvie Theatre, with Candide being performed July 15 in the Amphitheatre, Banff Centre. For more information please click here.

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at