Editor’s note: As the Juno Awards 2013 prepare to celebrate the best of Canadian music this weekend, Western Journalism students help us celebrate the best in Western Music. Read the full Music Issue.
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“The worst crime I can commit is to bore my audience.”
It sounds like hyperbole, but to hear it from Michael Cavanagh, one of Canada’s only full-time opera directors, you don’t have much choice but to believe him.
With more than 20 years of directing experience, there’s a high demand for his services – with shows booked until 2015. But for the past two years, Cavanagh has made a home in London, teaching and directing opera students at Western. It’s here that he hopes to share his passion and experience with Canada’s next generation of performers.
“Helping people,” Cavanagh said. “That’s what I get the most charge out of.”
It’s an approach that has served him well over his career.
Cavanagh, 51, transitioned from singing to directing in 1992 at the Vancouver Opera. He followed that with a move to the Edmonton Opera in 1998, where he served as the company’s artistic director. In 2002, he left Edmonton to begin freelancing full time.
His path to becoming a director has been admittedly curious, and Cavanagh himself remains unsure of exactly how he ended up as – at his estimation – one of three or four full-time directors in Canada.
“The universe spoke to me, it just took off,” he said.
Cavanagh first encountered opera at the age of 15, although he wasn’t in the audience when he got hooked. “My first experience of opera was being in one,” he said with a laugh.
Music was the culture of the Cavanagh household, and with the support of his choir-loving parents, Cavanagh decided to pursue a career in the business. He left his hometown of Winnipeg to attend a singing school in Hamburg, Germany. It was just another turn in what he calls “a very unusual” path towards directing.
While unusual, the journey has left him with experience in practically every aspect of the theatre. From background roles to set design to performance, Cavanagh describes himself as a jack of all operatic trades. It’s this vast experience that has made him a successful director.
“From the bottom guy to the top guy to everything in between, there’s no job in the theatre I haven’t done,” he said. And because of that, he believes he is well-equipped to bring out the best in people. “I don’t see myself as the big boss,” he said. “The opposite is true; I’m a servant of many masters.”
Liz Roelands, the costume designer for Cavanagh’s 2012 production of The Merry Widow, has experienced Cavanagh’s capabilities and compassion first hand. “Some directors make you design within their vision,” she said. “With Michael, he really wants to work with you; he’s actually interested in what you have to say.”
Roelands said Cavanagh is the rare director who understands the challenges of each job on a show, let alone the larger challenges of a career in the business.
With the nearly constant rejection and uncertainty, Cavanagh describes opera life as “a cruel grind.” But with the success he’s had, he hopes his students have reason for optimism.
“I’ve been able to make not only a living, but a life,” he said.