Friday, August 17, 2007

Richard Bradshaw, R.I.P.

This Friday Night Lights-free cruel summer just became a lot crueller. Canadian Opera Company general director Richard Bradshaw has died unexpectedly at the age of 63, on the cusp on the COC’s second season it its new facility, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

I am hardly opera expert, but I have been a COC subscriber (and modest donor) off and on since 1992. Under Bradshaw’s leadership, the company made a quantum leap artistically, while living through disappointment and then eventual triumph in building Canada’s first ballet-opera house.

In the 1980s there were grandiose plans for a $350-million dollar ballet opera house at the southeast corner of Bay and Wellesley Streets, designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie. Unfortunately, funding for the project was an early casualty of the Bob Rae government.

According to an article in Toronto Life last year, Bradshaw called the Safdie palace a “Taj Mahal” one minute and a “white elephant” the next. Bradshaw said the veto forced them to rethink their priorities and concentrate on what they really needed, as opposed to every last bell and whistle.

Thanks to the decision of the National Ballet of Canada to be merely a tenant and not an equal partner in the project, the COC was left alone to raise the funds required for the new building. Bradshaw set about the monumental task, which included securing commitments from the federal and provincial governments.

Though Mike Harris is known more for his appreciation of professional wrestling and action movies (not that there’s anything wrong with that), he saw the benefit of the facility to Toronto, and the government eventually agreed to donate the site at Queen and University (where a former courthouse stood).

Artistically, Bradshaw helped launch the COC into the first tier of opera companies with productions such as Bluebeard’s Castle/Ewartung. He started working towards last year’s monumental staging of the Ring Cycle by including the individual Ring operas into the COC’s season, several years ahead of the target date for performing the entire cycle in the new building.

People who are better versed in opera than I am will comment more authoritatively on his artistic record, but I will note that Bradshaw was a champion of the work of British composer Benjamin Britten.

While Britten’s operas offer little in the way of soaring arias or memorable overtures, their stories are usually powerful. Billy Budd – based on Moby Dick author Herman Melville’s novella – is the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage, even though the set consisted solely of a flat, unadorned “deck” (the opera is set on a British navy ship) on a hydraulic lift. It also featured Russell Braun, now an international star in his own right. (The 1962 film, starring Peter Ustinov, a very young Terence Stamp, and Canadian actor John Neville, is also good.)

The free concerts Bradshaw staged at Harbourfront were intended to appeal to new subscribers and the young, but unfortunately the seats were often staked out hours in advance by longtime subscribers and other freeloaders – hardly Bradshaw’s intended audience (I never attended any).

Given Bradshaw’s accomplishments as both an artist and arts manager, I was fearful that a richer, bigger company in the US or Europe would steal him away. But I never heard a word of this in the media, though there must have been times when it would have been to Bradshaw’s benefit to leak to that effect.

In 1994, the COC distributed a CD of arias from its upcoming 1994-95 season, including one from my favourite, Eugene Onegin (which will be performed again this coming season). At the beginning of the CD, one can hear Bradshaw’s beautiful speaking voice describing the season ahead. What a tragedy that his voice has been silenced so early, at the peak of his abilities.

I saw Bradshaw coming out of the Four Seasons Centre one weekday earlier this summer, and suppressed the urge to call out to him, “Great season, maestro!” How sorry I am that I did.

Bravo, maestro, bravo.

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