Thursday, September 27, 2007

Three Great Losses in the Arts World

Since I last wrote, we have suffered three significant losses in the arts world, so I thought I would share a few memories on three huge individuals - two of whom made their names here in Canada - we lost in recent weeks.

It was truly a shock to hear of the sudden death of Richard Bradshaw, the visionary leader of the Canadian Opera Company, at the age of only 63. He suffered a heart attack at Toronto's Pearson International Airport while returning with his family from a vacation, oddly enough. This was a hard loss to take for everyone, as Richard had only the year before completed a 30-year dream to bring a new opera house to Toronto. Torontonians had been waiting for this to happen almost forever, and it took his drive, charisma and persistence to bring everything and everyone together to finally get it done. But his legacy is more than just the new opera house, of course. He has helped produce some of the most cutting-edge operas seen on any stage anywhere. I still remember his productions of Salome, Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung and even Mario and the Magician, all of which helped to put Toronto on the opera world's map. I never met him personally, but attended many a press conference to announce the next season's offerings for the COC, and he was always charming and entertaining. But you knew, behind all that charm was a man driven to succeed. And succeed he did. There are some people I would love to have sat down to dinner with - Richard would have been very near the top of the list. Born in Rugby, England in 1944; died in Toronto in August, 2007. His legacy will live on with the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in downtown Toronto.

"A pioneer of the arts in Canada" is how National Ballet of Canada Artistic Director Karen Kain described the ballet's first musical director, George Crum, who died at the age of 80 in early September. He served as conductor and musical director for the company for a total of 33 years, beginning when the ballet company was formed by Celia Franca in 1951 until he retired in 1984. The last time I saw George conduct with the company was after his retirement, when he conducted Veronica Tennant's farewell performance in Romeo and Juliet in 1989. That was a night I will always remember for so many reasons. I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing George more than once, and he always proved to be a great talker, full of stories of people he knew and productions he conducted. For the first ten years I attended National Ballet performances at the old O'Keefe Centre in Toronto, George was almost always in the pit conducting the orchestra. Afterwards, even though able conductors followed him, it never seemed quite the same not seeing his imposing physique taking bows with the dancers at the end of the peformance. Take that final bow, Mr. Crum, you richly deserve it!

On the international stage, talent was rarely bigger - in every sense of the word - than celebrated tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who died earlier this month at the age of 71. He had done it all - performed in some of the most important opera houses in the world and in some of the best-loved operas ever; as well as performing in just about every non-operatic venue you could imagine. Truly, he brought opera to the masses more than anyone else since Caruso early in the last century. Perhaps I came to Pavarotti's recordings and career later than I should have, but I often found in the last few years he had become nothing but a caricature of himself, not taking himself too seriously at all. That's not a bad thing, but I missed those early, spine-tingling performances in the early 60s when he was The Voice to watch in opera. I did hear one live recording - terribly produced, I might add - that if nothing else proved the young Pavarotti to be a sensational, virile tenor destined for great things. He did not disappoint, although often in his later years his health would prove to be his nemesis, as he was forced to cancel many performances due to illness, including a fundraiser in Hamilton a number of years ago. He took some heat for that cancellation, I recall, but this was Pavarotti, so what are you going to do, eh? I met him at a press conference in Toronto in the 80's and he was ever the showman, beguiling the press and others in attendance as he promoted an upcoming performance. There are lots of Pavarotti discs currently available and more on the way, to be sure. But to get the real Pavarotti, long before international stardom came through the Three Tenors phenomenom, you have to go back to his earlier London/Decca opera recordings to hear the voice that earned him the moniker "The King of the High C's". We'll likely never see nor hear his type again.

Mike Saunders
September 27th, 2007.