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Balancing tradition and innovation

17 December 2009

Wright, James

As the general director of Vancouver Opera (VO), James Wright is ultimately responsible for all programming, artistic and administrative functions of this popular company, including strategic and artistic planning, fund development and government relations. He manages an annual budget of $9 million, and has stick-handled some of the most innovative, ambitious and most expensive productions ever mounted by the company. He has worked in opera management for 30 years in companies across North America. Not bad for a “boy from the Midwest” who got into the opera world by accident.

“I needed a job,” says Wright. “I was a young actor living in Kansas, out of work, and the Kansas City Opera Company advertised a six-week job for a gofer.” Wright saw the ad, applied, and two years later he was the numbertwo person in the company.

While it may have been luck – combined with a background in theatre, an acting degree, 10 years of piano and a facility with the French horn – that helped launch his opera career, it was a love of the art form and a willingness to move that sustained it, and eventually brought Wright to Vancouver.

“If you want to grow professionally, you have to move around. You can’t just go to the opera company down the street like you can with a bank.”

Wright started in the American Midwest, and literally criss-crossed the continent as an opera manager. He worked in Kansas City; Tulsa, Oklahoma; spent five years in Anchorage, Alaska; and 10 years in Charlotte, North Carolina, before being headhunted to Vancouver in 1999.

Vancouver Opera was founded in 1958 by a group of dedicated volunteers who hired the company’s first artistic director, Irving Guttman. According to Wright, Guttman created a taste for opera here. “From the very beginning he brought the finest singers to Vancouver, like Placido Domingo and Joan Sutherland, some before they were well-known.”

“Vancouver audiences know good singing when they hear it. They love good voices, and they are very appreciative of innovative physical productions,” says Wright. Vancouver has a subscription base of 6,500 to 7,000, which is about average in North America. Keeping that audience entertained can be difficult.

“It’s a real challenge for the whole opera field, to balance the great favourite works that bring in the audiences, while also developing new work and keeping the art form healthy and alive. It’s a much riskier proposition to do contemporary work because the audiences aren’t familiar with it and so they’re smaller. And new work is usually more expensive.”

Like other companies, Vancouver Opera does the standards – Carmen, La Traviata, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly – every five to seven years, and this pays for the more experimental works. It’s striking that fine balance in an environment of rising costs that can be challenging. Eight years ago, the average cost of a local production was $650,000. Now, that cost has risen to almost $1 million.

Last season, VO mounted its most expensive production to date – a First Nations version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute that came in just under $1.4 million. Wright is currently planning an even bigger, more expensive production for the 2009/2010 season, and VO’s 50th anniversary. “We’re very excited about that. And I’m working on the 2010/2011 season as well.”

Along with a busy work schedule, Wright also volunteers with Vancouver Foundation. He’s in his second three-year term, serving on the Foundation’s Arts and Culture Advisory Committee. The committee has representation from across the province, from independent artists, large and small organizations, and people from all walks of cultural life.

“It’s been a terrific experience, and I am very, very impressed,” says Wright. “My experience with the committee led me to believe that it would be a good place for me to put some of my own limited resources, because I trusted the process. The Foundation has a great reputation.”

Wright is also an avid birder, and though he can’t devote the time he’d like to the hobby, he is very concerned about loss of bird habitat and migratory paths. So he chose to dedicate money from the fund he is setting up to environmental causes and animal welfare.

“I didn’t [fund] culture because I do my own giving . . . I really believe in supporting environmental and ecological causes, but I don’t have the combination of time, energy, discipline and knowledge to do the kind of research to make me feel good about where my money is going. So I leave the decision up to Vancouver Foundation. If those committees are working as well as the Arts and Culture Advisory Committee, I trust them.

“I must say one more thing about my fund, and I think it’s really important. The only way I could get serious about starting a fund at Vancouver Foundation was when I found out about start-up funds. To be able to start a fund with a couple thousand dollars and build it is the only way lots of us can do it.”

A “start-up fund” enables donors to build an endowment fund over a number of years. You must deposit a minimum $1,000 to begin, but then you have up to 10 years to build your fund to the $10,000 mark. You can start to make grants from your fund once the full $10,000 in capital has been donated.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can do that.’ And I’m actually ahead of schedule in my contributions to my fund, because I want it to start paying out. So that motivated me to get started. And that’s motivating me to build it. I think it’s important for people to know that you don’t have to be wealthy to start a meaningful fund at Vancouver Foundation.”

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