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This afternoon on CBC Radio 2, shortly after 3 p.m., Canada’s recently retired superstar tenor Ben Heppner will host a tribute to the late Irving Guttman following a broadcast of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.
A week later, at St. Andrew’s-Wesley, Vancouver’s largest church, Heppner’s fellow tenor Richard Margison, soprano Tracy Dahl and a number of their colleagues will join orchestra and chorus in a memorial tribute organized by the Vancouver Opera in Guttman’s honour.
And appropriately so, since the recently deceased 86-year-old helped found the Vancouver Opera back in 1960. He became director of the Edmonton Opera five years later and of the Manitoba Opera in Winnipeg seven years later still, at one time heading all three companies simultaneously. He even helped launch the opera in Regina.
And you wonder why he has been called the father of opera in Western Canada?
It was in Toronto that the Chatham-born, Montreal-raised stage director discovered his calling, enrolling in the Toronto Conservatory of Music (as the Royal Conservatory was then known) with vague aspirations to become a conductor before discovering his true métier.
It was as a stage-managing assistant to Herman Geiger-Torel, the conservatory’s resident stage director and subsequent co-founding director of the Canadian Opera Company, that he began to realize where his talents lay.
Geiger-Torel was an old-school European who tended to act out the various roles in rehearsal and invite singers to imitate him. Even in those early days Guttman, an intuitive rather than intellectual man of the theatre, preferred to trust in the instincts of his singers and built on their input.
There was no formal training for an opera director in Canada in the early post-Second World War period. Guttman learned by doing. To my mind, watching him direct several operas I was seeing for the first time while growing up in Vancouver, he was not an especially imaginative practitioner of his craft. What singers admired about him was his willingness to be led by the score rather than some overarching directorial concept.
What audiences admired was his remarkable ear for vocal talent. The quartet of soloists he put together for the Vancouver Opera’s first staging of Bellini’s Norma (Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, John Alexander and Richard Cross, all singing their roles for the first time) was so impressive they were flown to London, together with the production’s conductor (and Sutherland’s husband), Richard Bonynge, to record the opera for Decca/London.
Although he did direct a few operas for the Canadian Opera Company, it was never a major component of a career that took him to Europe and South America as well as Canada and the United States, a career launched in Cornwall in 1953 with a production of Menotti’s The Consul featuring the young Maureen Forrester.
Not surprisingly, he encountered many of our leading singers early in their careers. He recommended the little known Jon Vickers to Sir David Webster at Covent Garden and hired José Carreras, one of the future Three Tenors, after hearing the 21-year-old Spaniard in Caballé’s Barcelona living room.
As a young music student I was present in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre audience when he launched the Vancouver Opera with a production of Bizet’s Carmen. It was my first Carmen (the American mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman sang the title role) and I was bowled over by the amount of detail he brought to its staging.
What I came to respect over the next few years of watching Guttman productions was a quality less admired today of fidelity to the opera’s text. He was close to being an old-fashioned literalist. He felt he was there to serve the vision of the composer and librettist, not to impose his own.
I asked an orchestral musician some years ago what he felt was the conductor’s role. “Not to get in the way of the music,” was his reply. As a director, it would have been Irving Guttman’s reply as well.