10 Questions for Timothy Vernon

One of the biggest opera stories of the year will come to fruition this fall.  Timothy Vernon, already founder & Artistic Director with Pacific Opera Victoria, will take on the additional role as Artistic Director with Opera Lyra Ottawa, sometimes conducting as well.

There’s an old management problem that comes to mind when I think of Vernon. If you were to walk into an office needing something done and see two people, one working hard, the other reading a newspaper, to whom do you give your task?

While it’s counter-intuitive (because the one reading the newspaper is not actually working and should be available) the best choice is actually to turn to the busy person: because they can be trusted to get it done.

I wonder if the search committee at Opera Lyra Ottawa had heard this axiom when they sought a new artistic director, although Vernon’s appearances with the National Arts Centre Orchestra likely were a factor as well. Vernon—the driving force behind Pacific Opera Victoria (both as its founder and Artistic Director) at the other end of the country in British Columbia—becomes the first person to simultaneously be artistic director of two major Canadian opera companies.  He is Conductor Laureate of Orchestra London, and has been engaged as a guest conductor by Calgary Philharmonic, Vancouver Symphony, Edmonton Symphony, L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, the Winnipeg and Toronto symphonies, Ottawa’s Thirteen Strings, Symphony Nova Scotia, and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra.

I dared to hope that such a busy man might answer my questions.  And just as in the story, the busy person got the job done. I asked him ten questions: five about himself, five more about leading two opera companies at opposite ends of the country.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Self-knowledge, enjoined of old in the Delphic maxim, does imply knowledge of one’s parents; can I be sufficiently dispassionate in assessing what traits come from which side? My father was the kindest man I ever knew – I sense how far short of his standard I fall, but know there is no shame in trying to meet it. Devoted to family, but quietly self-dramatizing and with a censorious instinct where human foibles are concerned, my mother tended to inspire in people – as a cousin once told me – a desire to stand up when she entered the room. Louder in my own drama, I’ve tried to be less disapproving of behavior I don’t understand.

Both had a great sense of duty – my father to his students, my mother to the disadvantaged or alienated. It took me half a lifetime to achieve that commitment.
My father loved music deeply, instinctively, tending towards orchestral or instrumental, Mother, with her love of poetry and text, towards voice and chorus.

I’ve spent my life studying, performing it all. My father loved the outdoors and had an explorer’s instinct, always wanting to take the inviting, less obvious road or trail to a beckoning horizon; mother’s outdoors was the garden. I’ve come to love both. When I take time to drive idly down smaller unknown country roads even near my house just to look at the terrain, my Dad comes to mind and I know he’d approve. I wonder how Mother would like our borders or the many flower boxes around the place. Both these ways of relating to nature are strong in me.

Dad was patient, contemplative – me? Not so much. Mom liked to read in depth, to ‘get to the bottom’ – I do recognize this in myself. My father loved to make and build things, something as a child I found boring or even somehow embarrassing. Now it is among my chiefest delights – the four structures on our property are proof. I wish he had lived long enough to see my garden studio, and for me to see the look on his face at the thought that, with help, I designed and built it myself. My father was content with simplicity around him, whereas in me my mother’s modest tendency to embellish has burgeoned into baroqueishness.

Mother loved language and languages – she studied, read, and spoke German (ancestral tongue) and French. For my Dad, despite his ear for music, languages were unknown continents. I remember early travels in Europe; Dad would have wrestled to the ground a phrase in one language just in time to cross a border into yet another Sprachwelt, where he would produce his phrase proudly and be bewildered at the response – I was immature and insecure enough to find this excruciatingly embarrassing. Whatever gift I have for languages – and the love of all literatures – is undoubtedly maternal! If I could work it in, I’d learn Russian just to read Pushkin.

Physically more like my mother’s family, I regret not having my tall father’s ability to eat a lot without gaining weight. Since early youth, I’ve lived mostly in my head, dragging my body through life until it started to complain. My father would be amused, my mother slightly horrified, that I now go to Crossfit training three times a week.

2) What is the best thing about what you do?

Timothy Vernon

Short answer: Spending time every day with genius (I can hear my wife interject: ‘He means when he’s alone…’).

As Conductor: Qualifying to become what Bruno Walter definitively called “a necessary focus of attention among equals” requires devotion to, and almost total absorption in, the works of others. Erich Leinsdorf, unflashy, rigorous, and extremely discerning, called his memoirs, memorably, The Composer’s Advocate (I might have said Executor, but for a mighty interest in the living!) Deciphering text – trying to find the meaning in those symbols on the page, amassing background and historical information about a composer’s intention and expectation, all as a prelude to igniting, sparking a spontaneous bringing-to-life of the piece – the satisfaction is profound before a note is played. My only ambition on the podium is to share whatever insights I’ve gleaned, and my developing convictions about how the work should go. I’m not, or try not to be, a fear-of-God disciplinarian (even though orchestras have during my lifetime begun to drop that requirement from their assessments); rather, in Walter’s spirit, I hope to encourage, to negotiate, to set free the collective powers and talents of the group. Coming out of silence, as we do from the dark, music returns to silence just as the dark claims us once more. One can see performance as a metaphor for mortality.

As Artistic Director: Deciding repertoire is primary. If the company is to be led by the art – and I know of no truly successful artistic entity that isn’t – the choice of what is presented must reflect a spectrum of considerations but be made in the end by a single sensibility (otherwise, why have an AD?). Choices made by committee, or by the marketing department, no matter how successful at the box office, are doomed (stop reading now if ticket sales are your success-defining factor). Personal taste surely contributes something – in fact, can shape the profile of a company – but its exercise should be tempered by a desire to curate four centuries of opera, to provide a range of opportunities for the performers you love and admire, and to bring your audience to understand the deep human values in the art. Relevance? The humanity in a work is its relevance. Seeking, casting light on, the truths of human nature and human relationships – this is at the core of the whole theatrical endeavour, a mission in which opera can be supreme.

The human voice is central to music; I love ‘the singing animal’. Full of admiration for any and all music-making, I feel a special kind of awe for a human’s capacity to stand alone and produce sound from his or her body that speaks – sings – for all of us, and can say everything we know about ourselves, yet reveal something more. Assembling a cast that can meet if not transcend the demands of the score, and still form (more important in some works that others) a coherent ensemble of generous, mutually respectful – and even reliant – artists, is a skill, subject to availability and the unforeseen, that can never be free of risk. The challenge, though, is always bracing, and I cannot imagine relinquishing it.

There are directors who announce that the story they want to tell really has nothing to do with the opera they have been invited to direct– most of us will have seen at least one such production. Eurotrash has now a longish history. Here, we aren’t so tired of the repertoire that we need a dose of incoherence in its presentation, or the replacement of comprehensible motivation with sheer shock and schlock. Surely, telling the story of opera is a variable challenge. A great master is his own best dramaturge: Mozart will survive every effort to update or distort, because his characters, as is, are so from life that we meet them on the street. For me, the director’s test-piece is exposition – who can deliver a really dramatic, compelling Act I? If the setting or period of the opera is to be moved – and there are brilliant examples – my only requirement of the director is that he/she account for everything in the work, local references not excepted. Working with directors has been an almost unalloyed pleasure, no doubt because I get to choose them, and my general expectations are clear.

For a long time, I resisted thinking of myself as in any way a pedagogue – even as a tenured professor in a big university. I still feel I don’t know enough to call myself a teacher; on the other hand I have come to see years of work with young players and singers as the happiest – and often most immediately rewarding – times in my life, and have become gradually less inhibited about sharing (or even trying to articulate) what my experience may have taught me. Perhaps because my general stance is optimistic, I find the company of young and ambitious musicians of every stripe especially congenial; idealism and preparedness for discovery is a given – for whom is that not refreshing and inspiring? My only sadness: the rapid disappearance of any awareness – let alone reverence – for the great tradition of Western musical performance. Used to hearing almost immediately everyone’s latest performances of everything, students tend to be aware of the now, and often surprised to hear that something might be gleaned from, say, a fifty- or sixty-year-old recording. (NB I am not an advocate of learning from recordings!) Demonstrably, the technical achievements of young players worldwide is astonishing and unparalleled; is there a similar growth in understanding, in profound engagement with the substance of the art? I don’t hear it.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Favourite composers: Monteverdi, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Berg, Britten, Shostakovich, Schnittke (This is the A+ list; the A list is endless).

Other genres: Classical Operetta, Broadway, Jazz, acapella groups, Be-bop, Boogie-Woogie, Latin

Of course I admire virtuosity – Art Tatum makes me hold my breath, then laugh with glee – but in the end as a listener I want more than that. My very dear friend Joel Quarrington may be the greatest virtuoso in the history of the bass; the truly moving aspect of his playing is for me that unequalled espressivo tone; his masterful understanding of how a phrase is built and coloured. Every young singer should hear him and learn to phrase – even breathe – from his bow. Smart young things like to make – or parrot – remarks about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (whose name they are more and more at a loss to spell) becoming ‘mannered’ and his tone ‘drying out’. One of the very greatest musicians of the last century, he seldom drew attention to his flawless technique, but rather used it to convey a remarkable sensitivity to text, even in languages not his own. Unrivalled the expressive nuances he finds in the Wilfred Owen poems Britten set in the War Requiem. Whose Mozart should I hear? young singers often ask – almost inevitably I find myself writing down my response: Sena Jurinac. I listen to much chamber music, and am proud to realize that Canadian R. Murray Schafer has written the greatest series of String Quartets since Shostakovich. Recently, someone posed the desert island question: What single composer’s works would you choose? For the first time the answer rang clear and uncontested in my mind: Bach. I envy those who have been able to work through the great cycles of Cantatas. Given a chance, I would drop everything to do that.

4) What skill or ability do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Managerial savvy, and a better understanding of and way with (my own) money. Also, an instinctive aptitude for tools, and the real mastery of an instrument.

5) When you are not working and just relaxing, what is your favourite thing to do?

I’m an inveterate reader, usually with three or four books on the go. I cannot sleep without a good read first, and often wake early to finish something. I love being outside, and regret the demise of my tractor-mower that enabled me to cut our fields myself. I am an enthusiastic but inattentive gardener. Fond of word games, I am beaten in Boggle about every three years by someone in the family. I love to cook and to entertain; sitting about talking with smarter friends over and after dinner is heaven.

Timothy Vernon (photo: David Cooper)

Timothy Vernon (photo: David Cooper)

Five more about the upcoming year as artistic director with both Pacific Opera Victoria and Opera Lyra Ottawa.

1) Gulp, before getting too deep, for this coming season, what does it mean in terms of logistics alone, that you’re Artistic Director of both Pacific Opera Victoria and Opera Lyra Ottawa?  How many shows does each company offer, how many will you be conducting, and when will you next have a moment to take a breath?

With a history of artistic achievement well beyond what anyone could have foreseen, Pacific Opera Victoria at this point in its slow incremental development, has emerged as a healthy, well-run, professionalized organization that enjoys true allegiance and active support in the community. It would be too easy simply to relax and bask. I know about myself that I prefer building to maintaining (just ask anyone in my household), so the chance to apply what I may have learned to the challenges facing Opera Lyra proved irresistible. I will be able to conduct at least one production in Ottawa annually, and hope that in the beginning of my affiliation, more will be possible so that I can learn on the job how best to help steer the company. I shall be in Ottawa about a half-dozen times a year, and will attend board and staff meetings long-distance in between visits. If Pacific Opera is my baby, Opera Lyra has become what in German is called my Sorgenkind. I do believe that better days are ahead for OL, that there are many people ready to support a serious effort to bring performances of international standard to the stage of the NAC, and that a purposeful and energetic campaign to engage and maintain wide-spread investment and trust cannot fail.

2) What are the differences you see in the two companies, and should we expect to see similarities as time goes by?

I live, like POV, on what I refer to as ‘an island in the Pacific Ocean’. Not too long ago, one could hear on the CBC the following: “Canada coast to coast – from Vancouver to Halifax”. Victoria is still seen as an enclave of the retired, a place of kind climate and unserious elderfun. Events, though, have shown that its cultural roots go deeper and hold better than its bigger mainland neighbor; certainly there is per capita involvement in the arts in Victoria that is more than twice the national average.

The company began, in 1980, playing in an un-unionized hall with found sets and costumes. We built our own productions faute de mieux – none of the rentals would fit into our smaller theatre, but then, even when the company moved to the larger Royal Theatre, we persisted in designing and building. To date, from 105 productions, only three have been rentals. This is a distinguishing feature, certainly in our country, and has earned POV the allegiance of directors and designers who are invited to conceive the work afresh every time. With its great scene shop and splendid artisans, POV has become a leader in co-productions, supplying to sister companies all over North America. There is no doubt that Opera Lyra will become involved and, we hope, benefit from all this.

The Royal Theatre, by far no ideal producing venue, nonetheless more nearly resembles a European opera house than any in Canada, Toronto’s purpose-built space excepted. This allows a certain approach to casting – bigger halls need bigger voices, and everywhere here there are bigger halls than is healthy for singers. The NAC is no exception. Singers must know how to project into that space, and must be chosen with the demands of the hall itself in mind.

The Victoria Symphony, which has played for all 105 POV productions, has become a true opera orchestra, its performance vastly improved especially over the past decade. Opera Lyra has the great strength of its partnership with NACO – a very large part of the appeal of this position to the conductor in me. The shorthand version of my ambition for the company: to raise all the elements to the standards of NACO. That is how Ottawa becomes a player in the opera world.

3) Pacific Opera Victoria have produced a fair share of new and recent operas.  Could you speak for a moment about the importance you place on new works, especially from Canadians?

Canadian paintings hang in the great galleries of the world; our literature in two languages fills the shelves of libraries everywhere, but not a single Canadian opera has been taken up for new production by a company outside the country. Latterly, there has been a big push to develop a Canadian repertoire; POV participated with its commission ‘Mary’s Wedding ‘ a telling and touching setting of Stephen Massicotte’s now famous play by Andrew MacDonald. I believe it is important to foster interest among composers and potential librettists, and hope that Opera Lyra may make some strides in this direction.

It is not uncommon to note that opera companies will program up to and including Turandot and then jump to the newly commissioned world premiere….I would argue that finding the idiom for opera in 2015, never easy, is made harder by ignoring all the great creativity in the form for the past century. Berg, Hindemith, Britten, Prokofiev, Henze, Adams, and many more ‘one-hit-wonders’: a body of work unknown for the most part across the land. I believe all four hundred years of opera creation should be seen on our stages, providing a fuller context (and perhaps inspiration) for indigenous developments.’

In case it be thought my position is mere theory, here is a tally of works presented in full professional staging for the first time in Canada by Pacific Opera Victoria:

Der Freischuetz
The Love of Three Kings
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest

(A full repertoire list, including many works seen only in one or two other cities here, may be found at: pov.bc.ca)

4) While we are speaking of Canadian opera companies presenting Canadian opera, please address the other big question.  How much of a priority do you place on putting Canadian talent onstage? 

Opera is international; there are no borders in art.

Canada enjoys a huge reputation abroad for the number and caliber of fine singers we have produced over at least four generations. In a recent three-week period, I saw eleven operas in seven different European houses; Canadians were present in four casts, two of them in leading roles.

At POV, knowing how hard it had been to find work in opera in my own country, I determined that we would welcome every worthy Canadian opera artist in every capacity; that we would focus especially on giving main roles and major assignments to younger singers where appropriate, and new and challenging offers to people further along. Richard Margison may serve as a poster-child; I met him in his teens – he sang thirteen roles at POV at the start of that wonderful career., and we feel proud to have contributed to fostering his talent. By contrast, Gerald Finlay, educated in music in St Matthew’s Anglican Church and at U of O, has never appeared on Opera Lyra’s stage.

I do believe in ‘Canada first’. If there is a Canadian I believe to be right for a particular assignment, I will make that offer before any other. That applies across the board to every aspect of the art. And where should Canadians have the chance to shine if not in our capital city?

5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

One’s debt to teachers and mentors is too profound to fathom, but I shall mention three:

Otto-Werner Mueller (click for Curtis Institute tribute upon Mueller’s retirement from teaching)

i) Otto-Werner Mueller: I was a theatre-besotted teenager with much love for music and a freshly cracked solo treble voice, but little rigorous training, when Otto came to Victoria for three years as Music Director of the Symphony. He was, and in some respects remains, the most formidable musician I had ever met. Hugely tall, impatiently omniscient, burning with holy zeal, and a tireless perfectionist, he picked me up as by the scruff, gave me a good shake, and devoted more time than I deserved trying to make a musician of me. For years I would wonder at every turn (choosing socks, giving an upbeat): “What would Otto think?” Of course he went on to Juilliard and Curtis to become the master teacher of N American conductors; many are in his debt, but I am proud to have been his first full-time pupil.

ii) Hans Swarowsky: Clearly, I had to get out of Victoria. And the years with Otto made me want to become that essential thing in music – a composer. At 18, never having been in an airplane, I flew from Victoria to Vienna, where I lived for eleven years. I found within one year that I didn’t need to write music to be happy. This was devastating. I could write, to be sure, but not of necessity, not to survive….So I applied to the conducting School at what is now the University of Music, and was admitted to the famous conducting class of Hans Swarowsky, graduating a scant few years before his death. Swarowsky was a dogmatist and insisted on scrupulous and detailed engagement with the musical text. He didn’t care about our feelings for the music – he was interested only in what we knew. He had little to impart about technique – his own was clear if not compelling – and not much to say about rehearsing, either. But we had to know the score: the notes, their connection, the structures they build, and how the placement of every note in a masterwork can be explained by analysis on classical principles. Intellectually, his class was constantly stimulating. He was versed in all of European literature, art and cultural history and psychology (his first wife had been a Freud pupil). He knew the Second Viennese School, and had been amanuensis to Richard Strauss at Garmisch-Partenkirchen throughout WWII. He was intrepid in rejecting the temporizing, exculpatory and insincere attitude of the Viennese to their own recent history and fought publicly with the direction of the Staatsoper. His humour was often sardonic, his German elegant. He said many memorable things, but one we heard often: ‘Gentlemen, this is the way this piece goes. If you want something else, go somewhere else!’ A collection of his occasional writings, published posthumously by a pupil and entitled “Wahrung der Gestalt” (Preservation of Form) is full of nuggets.

iii) Franco Ferrara: Conducting students spoke of him in whispers, or so it now seems. He had been Toscanini’s concertmaster, was now the greatest living conductor, whose career was made impossible by a condition resembling epilepsy. I attended his summer course at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena thee times, and followed him to Hilversum in the Netherlands, all while still living in Vienna. Everything one heard was true. Nothing could have been further from Swarowsky’s dissections of a score. Just thinking about music, Ferrara somehow generated a white, incandescent heat unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. He had little to say, but every syllable was a dart to the heart. Occasionally he would demonstrate a beginning or a transition, and it was blinding – forever memorable, but somehow like looking into a furnace, or at the sun. His wrath, at sloppiness or lack of effort (or talent) from students felt apocalyptic, the more so if it climaxed in a fit which left him kicking on the floor. His Sicilian face with its black eyes could seem carved from thousand-year-old stone. The inspiration he gave was personal emanation; he was a magus of music. The greatest thing ever said to me as a musician was a phrase of Ferrara’s: seeking me out after a concert, he put his hand on my shoulder and murmured: “Ho sentito la tua anima”. I still live from that.


Timothy Vernon’s two opera companies go into action this fall.  Click logo below for further details.

  • Opera Lyra Ottawa begin their season September 26 with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
  • Pacific Opera Victoria begin their season October 15th with Verdi’s Otello.
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