Bravo! by Rosemary Cunningham is a Gem of a Book About Opera's British Columbian History


The History of Opera in British Columbia

Rosemary Cunningham

 Harbour Publishing

$39.95 · Hardback

208 pp 

 Heroes, famous and creative

This agreeable book is full of staunch supporters—chief amongst them the author. The truly operatically famous (from Joan Southerland and Richard Bonning to Adam Egoyan) gather together with the truly creative, though perhaps not famous (from great choral conductors like Vancouver’s Bev Fife or heroic board members who supported financial short falls so the show could go on).

Usual suspects

There are also the stage directors with lots of peak, sopranos “too overweight” as well as the “svelte,”  tenors superb and those who get laryngitis, along with audiences who are variously timid and daring. Bravo! Is a fun guide through the boardrooms, back stages plus lively on-stage encounters of the BC opera scene.

Love of Opera

Rosemary Cunningham is thrilled by the sheer juxtaposition of music and drama, acted out with flair and bravura. Her various accounts of traditional European opera’s place in the culture of an eager but uneducated BC public is telling. She is a retired librarian who has a lifetime of love for the art and splash of opera. She is the Queen of the season ticket holders.

Arts Sleuth

Cunningham is an insightful researcher, yet never pretends to be a scholar of either music or theatre, or indeed opera. She exhibits an educated fan’s love with the goal of maintaining the reader’s curiosity and gusto. She also becomes an arts sleuth who reveals what an opera production might cost, what each singer gets paid, what board members need to learn about creativity, and even discovers that “it takes a small town” worth of people to put on an opera. From her first opera performance when she was young as inspiration, she gathers a picture of the total life of opera life for the reader. Accomplishing the almost-impossible, she manages to maintain cheerfulness yet simultaneously an eye to artistic standards.


Cunningham is fluent in opera appreciation so this is an engagingly chatty book, good for both those of us working in opera and for the audience. Her interest is in the place where the art meets the administrative mechanics. The emergent soap opera (forgive me) evident during the development of opera companies and almost always during the preparation for any given production are dealt with evenhandedly.

Sleuthing Board Minutes

Chatty reporting is important here, otherwise we might become listless readers. This is not a degree thesis: Cunningham even gives life to old board minutes when she sleuths through the various survivals and disasters of the artistic, financial, and managerial crises over the last hundred years. Imagine, making board meeting minutes exciting.


Bravo! marks both the 50th anniversary of Vancouver Opera and the 30th anniversary of Pacific Opera Victoria. Coupled with the current rise in the popularity of the venerable art form, with new opera groups and simulcast venues (such as Vancouver’s Festival Cinemas) proliferating across the province, this plentifully Illustrated Bravo! gives the reader a flesh and blood history of opera in the province. No fuddy duddy construct, the book has some production images that might be easily R-rated. Even a casual viewing of Bravo! would reveal that BC’s future opera looks to be re-inventing the definition of operatic over-the-topness. Bravo! indeed.

Irving Guttman

Cunningham sets the record straight for those who might think that the whole Vancouver scene began in the 1960’s with Irving Guttman, the venerable and genial enough native Montréaler, a.k.a. White Knight of Opera in Western Canada. There is a full complement of 19 references (great notes and index) to Guttman’s enthusiastic artistic leadership of the Vancouver Opera Association (now known as Vancouver Opera), but there is more history, much more.


Vancouver opera houses abound in 19th century

Ever since the first full-length opera performance in Victoria in 1877, BC fans of this historic and ever-evolving art form have kept its spirit alive.

Cunningham outlines the early popular Vancouver opera houses, from Hart’s Opera House to the Imperial Opera House to the grand Canadian Pacific Railroad Vancouver Opera House on Granville Street. Of course we get to the large productions at the Queen Elizabeth (now being refurbished for the new season, 50th anniversary celebrations and the Olympics) and Cunningham knowledgeably also takes us to the many other operatically grand contemporary opportunities in Vancouver, Victoria and wider afield. No snob, she celebrates also the excellence of the Vancouver Opera orchestra and chorus, plus character roles sung by local singers.

Opera companies used to tour. Now just the singers and conductors tour. Sometimes the sets and costumes too. Early in Vancouver’s arts history, touring companies noted the number of opera house opportunities and traveled from the UK, the US and even Australia bringing programming which included Euro-centric productions such as Lohengrin, Thaïs, The Merry Widow, Lucia di Lammermoor, Carmen, Rigoletto, Faust, Aida and a new opera with an early 20th century Madama Butterfly. Sound like familiar repertoire programming? Cunningham honestly opines that our audiences are still linked to the traditions of the past more than the present or future of opera. But she points to bright prospects of many opera groups with successful audience development, contemporary approaches and premiers accomplished.

In-depth encouragement

From its colourful origins including the early foreign touring companies, to the determined efforts of BC's opera pioneers, Cunningham’s research efforts culminate with in-depth encouragement. BC’s opera culture is here in Bravo! with glory and warts, behind-the-scenes accounts of contemporary productions, full listings of Pacific Opera Victoria, Vancouver Opera and Modern Baroque Opera productions and detailed information on BC opera singers, composers and opera training. Nothing tedious.

Kind of like attending Tosca for the first time.




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