When the Vancouver Opera announced that, starting in 2016–17, it would move toward a reduced fall and winter season while concentrating more operas into a spring festival, I asked management whether consolidating productions within such limited portions of the year might have the effect of turning some long-time subscribers into single-ticket buyers. Certainly, all of us who wish to see continuing strength for the VO on the Canadian arts scene have reason to hope for the economic success of this change in strategy during an era when audiences are aging, philanthropy is weakening and buying patterns are shifting away from traditional subscription models.

So far, indications seem promising. The VO reports sold-out houses for its two operas so far, Hansel and Gretel and Verdi’s Macbeth, and the company has confirmed a similar “festival within a season” structure for its 2017–18 lineup.

A compelling feature of the current season has been January’s guest production of Macbeth by Brett Bailey and the Third World Bunfight company of Cape Town at the Vancouver Playhouse, co-presented by the VO and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. The adaptations introduced to the work go way beyond the familiar staging of opera – and Shakespeare – in modern dress. With Belgian composer Fabrizio Cassol, Bailey has condensed Verdi’s original into an intermissionless one-act of an hour forty minutes, transplanting it from medieval Scotland into a lawless modern Democratic Republic of the Congo devastated by warlord-driven bloodshed and the opportunism of large mining concerns.

If you’re like me and love your Verdi just the way he is, you might have been startled by the numerous cuts in libretto and cast, by the rearrangement of arias and by the reduction of the orchestra to an onstage chamber ensemble with re-scoring to include African percussion. The surtitles aren’t what you’d expect either. Usually I get irritated by unnecessary operatic re-translations into English of Verdi’s Shakespearean libretti; why not just revert back to the words of the playwright, who after all said it best? This production rendered my usual reaction moot because, while the opera is sung in Italian, the re-translation is into street slang, yielding up quite a different work altogether. It went by too fast for me mentally to match up all the lines with their precursors, but certainly the audience appreciated “Weird shit” as a substitute line; was it for “Something wicked this way comes”?

The witches in Third World Bunfight’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth/photo by Nicky Newman
The witches, in a world where tribal violence meets corporate mining/photo by Nicky Newman

As audiences we need variation in how we receive a canonical piece that we may have seen multiple times over the years, and we want a director to show it in a way we haven’t yet encountered. That said, when a shift in time and place happens, it has to justify itself. And it has to make sense.

Under Peter Gelb, the Met has invested its resources in coming up with a considerable number of relocated productions: Rigoletto set in Rat Pack-era Vegas; Traviata in a stylized, unnamed Hollywood-like milieu; Falstaff in a 1950s suburban neighbourhood; Tristan und Isolde on a modern warship populated by U.S. naval officers; and more.

Some work better than others. The Met’s Falstaff makes hilarious use of turbo-calorie midcentury food, with sets that recall your grandma’s kitchen. Other times, the updates in setting are discordant with the moral mechanics of plots that in fact live much more logically in eras gone by (Traviata, for instance). Frequently I wonder what the alterations are actually bringing to the work; attempts at relevance so often just seem to boil down to superficial novelty for retaining audiences.

Bailey’s creation works in transporting Verdi because it is so visceral, so raw, in its depiction of the brutality ongoing in sub-Saharan Africa within our time that it never lets the audience retreat into the reassurance that what’s happening on stage is just fiction. He even throws a bit of Conrad into the English surtitles – “the horror, the horror” – as a discomfiting reminder that Shakespeare’s story is repeating itself live in our day. Tribal warfare and corporate greed centering on the extraction of materials used in the production of smartphones bring home our complicity in business practices that rely on violence and exploitation, while photos of children displaced by unrest, projected onto the screen backing the stage, underscore the human cost. Nobulumko Mngxekeza as Lady Macbeth anchored the performance with venomous magnetism the night I was there, with Owen Metsileng singing Macbeth and Otto Maidi Banquo.

The singers themselves have had tremendously hard lives. Their biographies appearing on the stage screen as the opera proceeds, they come from the region the work portrays, having suffered time in displaced persons’ camps and some having served as child soldiers. Their stupendous triumph in developing singing careers makes it humbling to sit in their audience, let alone write an article about their work.

The VO has indicated to me its intention of incorporating further visiting productions in the future, and I think that hosting other confrontational guest events to follow on this challenging one would be a really smart move.

The upcoming festival this spring will include Otello, The Marriage of Figaro and Dead Man Walking, with special events featuring Paul Wong, Ute Lemper and Tanya Tagaq. It runs April 28 to May 13, 2017.