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Around Town: Celebrating opera for all

Long before Madama Butterfly star Jee Hye Han’s curtain call prompted a standing ovation at the Royal Theatre Thursday night, many were singing the praises of its production company.

Long before Madama Butterfly star Jee Hye Han’s curtain call prompted a standing ovation at the Royal Theatre Thursday night, many were singing the praises of its production company.

“When I came back here from Toronto 23 years ago I discovered that the quality of the opera this company was putting out was some of the best I’d ever seen, and I’ve travelled to a great many places,” said longtime Pacific Opera Victoria supporter Larry T. Ryan. “It made me realize you don’t have to have the biggest house, or the most expensive sets.

“You can produce the art of opera to a superlative degree on a much more modest scale in a smaller house which, frankly, is a luxury, and we build sets here that are in many cases the best I’ve ever seen.”

Ryan was among dozens of nattily attired supporters invited to a pre-show reception, where the Puccini opera’s director Diana Leblanc was honoured after a very long day.

It began with an early morning press conference announcing she was one of five Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards for Lifetime Achievement recipients. The others with local connections included Victoria-raised filmmaker Atom Egoyan, and actor R.H. Thomson who, coincidentally, was in town rehearsing Belfry Theatre’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.

“There’s something in the air here,” quipped Leblanc, looking resplendent in an embroidered eggplant-coloured silk jacket. “How extraordinary that on the day it happens I’m here opening Madama Butterfly. I’m blessed.”

After addressing well-wishers, the prolific Canadian actor-director said: “I really feel as though I’ve got a new wind under my wings.”

Despite the “lifetime achievement” label, Leblanc noted with a smile that “I’m very much alive and kicking...It’s made me look forward to doing more work.”

POV president and Peter Coyote lookalike Robert Milne presented flower bouquets to Leblanc and longtime donor Barbara Hubbard, owner-operator of Baden Baden Boutiques.

Madama Butterfly is the fourth POV production Leblanc has directed, Milne noted. He also thanked Hubbard for her generous support of POV since 1997, when it staged The Italian Girl in Algiers.

“I take so much delight in supporting the arts,” the local philanthropist said. “There are so many charitable organizations that need help and it’s always such a sad story, but we also need to support the beauty of things.”

Hubbard said she’s particularly passionate about opera.

“It’s a musical that has the best in singing, acting, stagecraft and costumes, and it all comes together in one package,” she said.

“I think it’s amazing a city this size can produce the quality of work we have here, and I’d do anything to keep it going,” added POV vice-president Maryla Waters, noting it’s comparable to operas she’s seen in Europe.

One of POV’s objectives, Milne said, was discovering young artists its artistic team feels are destined to have big careers.

“We want you to have the opportunity to hear people who are just bursting onto the international stage and tonight is no exception,” he said, referring to Jee Hye Han, the 31-year-old Korean soprano artistic director Timothy Vernon discovered last summer in Vienna. Her North American debut in the exquisite, artfully designed production was nothing short of stunning.

While perceptions of opera being inaccessible persist, the POV actively attempts to counter them.

Popular initiatives include principal coach and musician Robert Holliston’s Inside Opera programs and free pre-performance lobby lectures.

“I think for people who feel opera is inaccessible, Madama Butterfly is absolutely one of the best ways to start,” said Leblanc. “The music is gorgeous, the story is captivating.”

She said how you perceive an art form is often determined by your initial exposure, and familiarizing yourself with the material beforehand helps.

“To appreciate any of the high arts you have to bring something to it,” she said. “You can’t just walk in off the street, I think.”