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Cast of “HMS Pinafore,” Moosomin Opera Hall, 1919.

From early settlement in the 1880s, opera was on the cultural agenda. Visiting companies and international singers entertained the population, while local amateur groups performed small-scale operas and musical Theatre. The large number of overtures, opera choruses and arias performed in symphony and solo vocal concerts suggests a public appetite for the genre. A highlight of the World Grain Exhibition of 1933 was a spectacular rendering of the most dramatic moments of Aida, with professional and local groups participating before several thousand. In the early 1930s, one could hear the Metropolitan Opera weekly broadcasts as well as recitals by such as Richard Crooks. Churches took on the challenge too: in 1934, Knox United in Regina rang to the sounds of Carmen with ten local soloists and the church choir; and the Regina Amateur Operatic Society of the 1920s was founded by the rector of St. Matthews Anglican and performed small-scale works there. Ambitious plans for Town Hall/ Opera Houses in Hanley, Indian Head, Melville, Prince Albert, Wolseley and elsewhere had already come to fruition, although some, like that for Regina’s “palatial opera house” in 1905 with a capacity of 1,500 (roughly half the city’s population at the time), did not. There was an Operatic Society in Regina in 1909 and an Amateur Society in Saskatoon in 1913, the first of many groups which formed, failed and re-formed over the century. Early local performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operas were complemented by such visiting groups as the Puck Opera Company, which appeared in Regina in 1887, and the Metropolitan Opera Touring Company in 1899. In 1905, one year after his arrival from Scotland, Frank Laubach took his small Regina Concert Group and Opera Company to Saskatoon. Before World War I and into the 1920s, Saskatchewan enjoyed both light and grand opera with touring companies from eastern Canada, Britain, America and Australia. None was as ambitious as the San Carlo Grand Opera, whose repertoire included Faust, Cavalleria Rusticana, Lucia and Il Trovatore in 1918 alone. Audiences also heard concerts by such stars as Emma Albani, Nellie Melba, Clara Butt, Marian Anderson, John McCormack,and Amelita Galli-Curci, whose concert in the Regina Armouries in 1929 to a crowd of 3,000 was a triumph.

The most active period for the local performance of the classics, however, was the latter half of the 20th century. Through the 1960s, the Canadian Opera Touring Company brought its productions to as many as eight Saskatchewan cities in a single year. The appointments of Richard Watson (formerly of Covent Garden) as director of the Regina Conservatory in 1951 and of his successor Howard Leyton-Brown in 1955 were followed by almost twenty years of annual opera productions, performed by local musicians. The foundation of the Saskatoon Opera Association in 1978 began a similar practice in that city; and two other groups, Prairie Opera and Co-Opera, added new works by Saskatchewan composers, and travelled to schools and between cities to develop enthusiasm for the art form. The Regina Lyric Light Opera continued the older tradition of Savoy opera and musicals. None of these organizations was able to mount more than an occasional (and usually financially unsuccessful) fully professional production. The closest the province ever came to this aim was achieved by Opera Saskatchewan, with one production in 1979 in Regina, followed by annual performances from 1992 onwards. Several opera stars were Saskatchewan-born, most notably June Kowalchuk, Emile Belcourt, Jon Vickers, Edith Wiens, and Nathan Berg. Opera coaches and chorus masters from the province have included Stuart Hamilton, Sandra Horst and Peter Tiefenbach in Ontario; Rachel Andrist in Brussels, Paris and Glyndebourne; and Grant Wenaus in Chicago and New York. Among operas composed in the province are The Mystic Light (Frank Laubach), The Qu’Appelle River Legend (Frank Thorolfson), Grant, Warden of the Plains (Murray Adaskin), The Lay of Thrym (Jack Behrens), The Final Bid and The Garden of Alice (Elizabeth Raum), and The Snow Queen (Robert Ursan).

Robin Swales

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