The Halifax Summer Opera Festival returns with two fully-staged comic operas – Handel’s Serse and Offenbach’s La jolie parfumeuse (The Pretty Perfumer) – running in repertory from August 11 to 19.
… when you distill opera to its essence of beautiful music and powerful relationships between characters, I find people are really connected to the stories. – Nina Scott-Stoddart
First established in 2005 and usually producing three operas yearly, the pandemic caused the festival to scale back with no shows in 2020 and 2021 and a single opera last year. They are now back with two in 2023.
And while it may take at least another year to get back to the festival’s regular trio of offerings, for this year, artistic director Nina Scott-Stoddart and her team have chosen two comic operas to take advantage of the mix of emerging artists who will perform and give audiences what they want.
“There are two parts to what we do,” says Scott-Stoddart. “One part is that we are a summer opera workshop, where young people from all over the world come and study with us, and they study by being given a role in one of the shows. So we are looking for something with many roles for the kinds of people who want to participate in summer opera workshops, and in our case, that means a lot of roles for young women.”
The second part is choosing operas that local audiences will want to see.
“There’s nobody else in Canada regularly doing a Baroque opera like Handel’s Serse as part of a summer workshop,” says Scott-Stoddart. “And with the Offenbach, we thought we would do something that nobody has ever seen before, but that’s also super accessible because it’s an operetta.”
That accessibility is key for Scott-Stoddart, emphasizing that opera is just another form of musical theatre.
“It’s theatrical,” she says. “There’s drama and comedy; it’s real human emotions. And how we perform it, particularly with the young singers, emphasizes the relationship between the characters. And when you distill opera to its essence of beautiful music and powerful relationships between characters, I find people really connect to the stories.”
Scott-Stoddart also knows that performing in a foreign language can be a barrier. “People don’t want to sit through two hours of opera in Italian, which I understand,” she says. “That’s super frustrating and is why we always project translations so you know exactly what they’re singing.”
Scott-Stoddart also says there are many levels in which to enjoy opera.
“You can enjoy the music, the voices or supporting emerging artists,” she says. “And you can also enjoy the drama unfolding on stage because the music supports all the emotions that are going on in the character’s lives.”
Scott-Stoddart believes that this season, in particular, will appeal to those new to opera.
“The Offenbach is an operetta, so if you enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan, you are going to love La jolie parfumeuse,” she says. “Much of the music inspired Arthur Sullivan to write his Savoy operas. It’s well crafted and a wonderful place to start if you’ve never seen an opera.”
Although a more traditional opera, Scott-Stoddart says there is much to love about Handel’s Serse, which is both “charming and devastatingly funny.”
“It’s just a gorgeous way to spend a couple of hours,” she says. “Handel’s only comic opera was a huge flop during his lifetime because he was mixing comic and dramatic elements, but in the 21st century, we love the comedy.”
And while the theatricality and music are a big draw, Scott-Stoddart says there is also something special about “young, energetic singers singing some of the best music ever written in the Western world.”
“They have so much energy that when they burst onto that stage, you cannot help but be captivated by their performances both musically and dramatically,” she says.
The Halifax Summer Opera Festival presents Serse and La jolie parfumeuse, two fully staged comic operas, running in repertory from August 11 to 19. Visit halifaxsummeroperafestival.com for tickets and information.