A Brief History of Opera

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Ernesto Vinci and singing students (1953)

Banff Centre has been training artists since 1933 in the Canadian Rockies. The opera program was founded in 1949 when Banff’s director Donald Cameron hired Ernesto Vinci, of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, to teach singing.  He taught and directed opera at Banff for the next 20 years, and the foundation Vinci built created a permanent space for opera performance and training in Banff.

In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, opera programs at Banff Centre flourished, attracting the highest-caliber Canadian singers, many who returned as faculty, including: Richard Margison, Michael Schade and Tracy Dahl. Operas became a highlight of the annual summer arts festival.

Over the decades Banff Centre has featured opera productions almost every season, including the premieres of two original Canadian productions – Filumena and Frobisher – as well as Banff Centre's 75th Anniversary tribute performance of Dido and Aeneas, which was dedicated to Ernesto Vinci, Donald Cameron and to the pioneers of opera at Banff Centre.

In 2014, Joel Ivany was appointed director of opera, and spearheaded a unique collaboration between Banff Centre, the Canadian Opera Company and Against the Grain Theatre, allowing Banff Centre to continue to re-imagine opera for a 21st century audience through its innovative programs and performances.

To see highlights from Banff Centre’s opera history please scroll down to the dateline.

To learn more about Banff Centre’s current opera programs please click here.

To view original course calendars and event programs from our legacy of opera productions from 1950 onward please click here.

1940s

1949: Banff Centre director Donald Cameron hires Ernesto Vinci, from the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, to create an opera course and that first year, 28 students attended the course.

1949: Richard Eaton from the University of Alberta Music department teaches a choral technique course. Eaton and Vinci taught together for nine years at Banff Centre and established the foundation for the opera programs.

1950s

1952: Banff Centre presents the Canadian premiere of Dido and Aeneas, composed by Henry Purcell, directed by Leona Paterson, and conducted by Clayton Hare. At least one opera per year is staged over the summer at Banff Centre for decades to come.

1953: Eileen Higgin, a leading catalyst of opera and music in Calgary, joins Banff Centre’s opera faculty as an operative coach.

1956: Alexandra Munn and Marilyn Perkins join the opera staff. Banff Centre tours its production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio to Calgary.

1957: Alexander Gray attends Banff Centre opera programs and plays a leading role in the two operas produced that year: Gianni Schicchi and The Old Maid and the Thief.

1950s: Ernesto Vinci’s esteemed students include Bernard Turgeon, Sheila Piercey, Victor Braun and John Arab. Productions tour across Alberta to Edmonton, Red Deer, Calgary and Lethbridge.

1958: Filmer Hubble serves as the head of Banff Centre's choral program as well as lead faculty until 1964. The opera production is Rossini’s Barber of Seville, featuring Alexander Gray, John Arab, and James Beer. Beer later became chorus master of the Southern Alberta Opera.

1960s

1964: The production of Falstaff features Bernard Turgeon, Lilian Sukis, Marvene Cox, Constance Fisher, Allan Monk, Ernest Atkinson and is conducted by James Craig.

1968: Ernesto Vinci retires from Banff Centre’s opera program, and is the recipient of an honourary doctorate from the University of Calgary.

1970s

1971-1978: Banff Centre alumnus Bernard Turgeon leads the opera program. Faculty during Turgeon’s tenure include Léopold Simoneau, Pierrette Alarie and directors James Lucas, Carlo Maestrini, and Helmuth Froschauer.

1977: Richard Margison attends Banff Centre’s opera program as a student and went on to participate in multiple programs over the next five years. He would return to Banff Centre in 2009 as faculty.

1979: Banff Centre alumnus Alexander Gray leads the opera program with administrative assistance from George Ross. Faculty from the era include Leon Major, Walter Ducloux, and Boris Goldovsky. Ben Heppner attends Banff Centre as a participant and sings in the chorus of the opera production that year.

1980s

1981: Douglas Campbell directs Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, with sets designed by Brian Jackson.

1983: Tracy Dahl takes part in the opera program at Banff Centre, the first of many years she would participate here.

1990s

1990-1991: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte are directed by Colin Graham with set and costume design by Susan Benson.

1993-1999: Director Keith Turnbull takes a modern approach, with all productions exploring 20th century operas including: The Rake’s Progress, Kafka’s Chimp, Jackie O, and the Canadian premiere of Zurich.

2000s

2000: John Estacio and John Murrell are commissioned to create Filumena, an original Canadian opera based on the life and untimely death of Florence (Filumena) Lassandro.

2005-2014: Kelly Robinson directs opera productions at Banff Centre, including productions of Filumena, Frobisher, The Magic Flute, and Dido and Aeneas – a performance in celebration of Banff Centre’s 75th Anniversary and dedicated to Donald Cameron, Ernesto Vinci, and the founders of the opera program at Banff Centre.

2013: Philippe Sly, a grand prize winner of the 2011 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and Ben Heppner perform a recital. The opera season wraps up with Benjamin Britten’s contemporary story Owen Wingrave, produced in partnership with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and directed by Kelly Robinson.

2014: Joel Ivany, Founder and Artistic Director of Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, is named director of Banff Centre’s opera program. Uncle John, an updated production of Don Giovanni set in modern day Banff, is presented with a new English libretto by Ivany.

2016: The Rape of Lucretia, an intimate, haunting masterpiece, is the annual production for the opera program; Joel Ivany starts an Opera Pub night, a casual evening of short operatic arias and beer at the Legion Hall in the town of Banff. It’s an immediate success and now takes place over the summer in Banff and in the fall in Toronto.

2017: Kopernikus by Claude Vivier is presented by the opera program. Filumena is remounted by Calgary Opera, 14 years after its original premiere. Banff Centre alumna Tracey Dahl receives the Order of Canada for her contribution to opera.

"It was a wonderful thing, to be able to tour with what we had done here. To us, that was just as important, if not more so, than coming to the school. We would perform twice in Banff and then do five extra shows on the road, which gave us the experience of working as part of a touring company."

Alexander Gray, from Artists, Builders and Dreamers: 50 Years at the Banff School, by David and Peggy Leighton.