When the final note of the Manitoba Opera’s first production was sung in March 1973, the audience demanded more — much more.
The Puccini classic Madame Butterfly staged at the Centennial Concert Hall was "of a standard one expects to hear in Paris, New York or Edinburgh," wrote the Winnipeg Tribune, while the sets "evoked the delicacy of Japanese paints."
Those in attendance hardly let the company go: they beckoned the performers back on stage for a grand total of 10 curtain calls.
Half a century later, Manitoba Opera general director and CEO Larry Desrochers is hoping the local arts institution’s 50th season is received just as graciously by audiences in the area who love to hear arias.
They haven’t had many to listen to in person in recent years: the opera went virtual when the pandemic first struck, to great success, with thousands tuning in to programming both traditional (The Sopranos of Winnipeg was "attended" by 2,100 patrons) and out-of-the-box (Al Simmons’ take on Barber of Seville was enjoyed over 3,000 times). But aside from a couple of smaller scale shows, viewers didn’t need opera glasses to watch the action.
That was then. If all goes according to plan when the season kicks off in the fall with a production of La Cenerentola, the story of Cinderella as imagined by Rossini, along with a 50th-anniversary concert in February, the crowd will be there in person, Desrochers says. That’s how it’s meant to be.
"We are a live art form and experience," says Desrochers, who is entering his 23rd season at the helm. "We and the artists thrive off of a live audience. Having that energy in the hall, paired with the unamplified operatic voice and the richness of the orchestra. It’s not the same if it’s done online."
One voice excited to be heard in person once again is Tracy Dahl. Hailed as the country’s premiere coloratura soprano, Dahl will be featured in the comedy-heavy role of Despina in Cosi Fan Tutte, alongside baritone David Watson as Don Alfonso. Both singers are from Winnipeg, and both will be celebrating the 40th anniversaries of their first performances with the Manitoba Opera — a remarkable run in any career, let alone one dependent on the longevity of vocal cords.
Confronted by the realization four decades have passed since her professional debut with the Opera in 1982’s Marriage of Figaro, Dahl can hardly believe it.
Now a nationally and internationally recognized performer, Dahl was then a rookie in every sense of the word: coming from a musical theatre background, she arrived to the first rehearsal with hardly any preparation done. "It became clear everyone else was off book," she says. "In opera, you come in and you already know it."
"Thank goodness it was in English," she laughs. "If it had been in Italian, I’d have been sunk."
But like the fledgling opera had done a decade earlier, Dahl found her stride, and revelled in the opportunity to perform in front of an audience and with respected colleagues, her voice floating and coursing above the rich sounds of a full orchestra.
In her role as Despina, Dahl says she will lean into her comic sensibilities. "It’s a fun role, and most people in Winnipeg have only seen me play tragic ones," she says.
Levity and joy at the opera are things Desrochers is looking forward to sharing with both long-time enthusiasts and newcomers to the artform, which continues to shift to meet modern expectations and times; rather than in Europe, Cosi Fan Tutti will be transplanted to a Canadian resort, where two Italian women fall for a pair of young RCMP cadets in training. Meanwhile, new voices — including Winnipeg’s Lizzy Hoyt, who plays the title role in Cenerentola — continue to join established ones to create a compelling bridge between the past 50 years and the next 50.
With excitement ramping up ahead of the season, Desrochers is also pleased that the opera is in the strongest financial position in its history, with no debt and a strong balance sheet. Still, the pandemic dealt the organization a blow which may take two more years to recover from. A lot of butts in seats would help.
Despite all her experience, Dahl says she still has stage fright with months to go before she begins rehearsals. "But you have to make a friend of adrenaline," she says.
And it helps that she’s played the role of Despina several times before, so she won’t show up completely unprepared like that first rehearsal back in 1982.
"It’s so ingrained in me," she says. "I could sing it to you right now if you ask me."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.