A plea for reform in Quebec’s opera sector

In 1994, after completing my master’s degree in Vocal Performance at the Université de Montréal, I joined the Opéra de Montréal’s Atelier Lyrique for a two-year residency. The future was full of promise. Our two Quebec operatic institutions seemed to lack for nothing; the Opéra de Montréal seasons presented seven—soon eight—productions, over an average of six evenings, as well as a grand gala, for more than 42 performances annually. Added to this were seven more performances of up to three productions by the Opéra de Québec. Quebec’s professional opera community generated close to 50 performances per season, which, combined with regular engagements from our established orchestras, provided an almost overabundance of opportunity for those of us dreaming of an operatic career. For nearly 10 years, up until the first half of the 2000s, the development of Quebec’s professional opera sector was palpable, exciting, and full of hope.

Marc Boucher - opera in Quebec

Marc Boucher in the role of Publio in a 2019 production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito

In 2008, I won the Prix Opus for International Achievement. For several seasons, I was busy performing on stages outside the country, so I hadn’t yet become aware of the slowdown that had recently hit this province’s opera houses. To be precise, in less than 15 years, the number of performances here had plummeted by half—from 50 to 25. The decline, it should be noted, wasn’t nearly as dramatic in the Vieille Capitale, thanks to the stable and inspired leadership that had successfully set up the summertime Festival d’opéra de Québec in 2011, thereby remedying that city’s 2005 rollback to two productions a season.

Over that same period of time, the number of performances at the Montreal house plunged from 42 to an average of 16 by 2020, a drop in professional presentations of approximately 62%. For this flagship opera company, that represented a return to a level of activity almost comparable to that of 1980, its founding year, 40 years earlier. Owing to its symbolic and objective significance, I want to take a closer look at the Montreal opera house.

“We are privileged to present opera in one of the world’s most energetic, dynamic, and creative cities,” states the company’s website. Everyone will agree that Montreal is a city of both opera and (let’s not forget) operetta. One needs only a passing familiarity with the history of this art form in Quebec to be aware of its deep roots, the fervour of its many fans and the achievements of companies that blazed a trail through the 20th century, precursors of the OdM. Paradoxically, and inversely to its shrinking seasons, the company’s budget has continued to grow. Following the “management and governance crisis” of 2006, its administrative staff increased from 9 people to 28 today. One can only surmise that less is being done with more.

“What happened to get us to this point?” is clearly a question worth asking. Answers would undoubtedly include structural underfunding, the aforementioned crisis, the 2008 economic downturn, construction downtown, competition from opera screenings in movie theatres, webcasting and globalization. But do these fully explain the situation? Might this company not have been afflicted for too long by a failing artistic vision coupled with a succession of apathetic managerial strategies?

In fairness to Montreal, if the reason opera in Quebec City has remained stable, albeit without growth, is that it has benefitted from auspicious artistic choices. Let’s nonetheless concede that the challenges it faces it are not entirely foreign to those experienced by many opera companies around the world. Most of them are still invested in business models dating back to the 1970s; models, they are disastrously discovering, that today are sinking ships to which they are now tethered.

In this respect, the OdM is no worse than scores of others; its business model is simply outdated, especially for a market with such a strong and distinctive identity as Montreal, the largest French-speaking city in North America with a population equivalent to that of Vienna. Let’s also concede that while the form of opera embraces all manner of artistic eccentricities, its administrative management remains singularly conservative. That said, solutions exist, many of which are increasingly being applied. The Opéra national de Paris, partly under pressure from the French opera world and anxious politicians, is an example of a company that has committed to a process of reform. Montreal’s house must do the same.

In a demonstration of its incredible resilience, the Quebec opera milieu is resisting, particularly during this pandemic, but its resources and hope are running out. Opera’s latest crop of artists has never shone so brightly on the international scene and its most seasoned practitioners continue to be relevant; we possess in this province a rare depth of talent that ought to serve as the foundation for a true national strategy aimed at reversing the decline.

At a minimum, we should aim to return to the years of plenty, if not surpass them, to assure a less precarious future for opera in Quebec: a deep reform is imperative. Today’s managers should have 60 or even more performances per year in their crosshairs. Only against these targets can public effort be justified and can we be assured that encouraging the next generation to embark on this admirable path, to perpetuate a tradition anchored in our history, is warranted.

Marc Boucher performs regularly in European opera houses. He is the Founder of Festival Classica, a springtime opera festival offering outdoor and intimate indoor performances on the South Shore and special performances on the Island of Montreal.