by Suzanne K. Boyd

    How to Build a Pirate Ship

    “Build it and they will come” was the unofficial mantra of Calgary Opera as they embarked on uncharted territory—Canada’s very first outdoor summer opera festival. Noah had the Ark; Roosevelt, the Panama Canal; and Shoeless Joe, the baseball field. For this first-ever summer festival, Calgary Opera had a pirate ship!

    It was a risk: a risk not often wagered by a not-for-profit arts organization, but a calculated, well-researched risk involving a half-decade of raising funds, securing sponsors, and developing important partnerships. It was about building trust and credibility with everyone involved, but most importantly with those who chose to make “Pirates” part of their larger-than-life experience on the banks of the Bow River last August.

    Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, was the centerpiece of the four-day festival that transformed Calgary’s East Village into a celebration of music and arts. A myriad of activities excited and entertained audiences of all ages and all backgrounds.

    There is a growing movement to take opera out of the music hall. When San Francisco Opera wanted to fling open its doors, it took it to the ballpark. Calgary Opera chose a 900-seat tent in a developing urban neighborhood to spread its wings. But wanting to present opera in a new way is more than presenting something cool; it is about growing new audiences and building community with relationships that are genuine and authentic. If Calgary Opera wanted an encore, it had to be darn good. No one was going to excuse a less-than-successful project under the censure it was an arts organization.

    The vision was to “bring opera to the people,” and at the end of the day, the risk paid off. The vision was realized.

    Calgary Opera’s summer festival had to be more than just opera in a tent—it had to be an experience, an adventure, putting everyone closer to the action by having pirates parading down the aisles, blurring the boundaries between the performers and the audience. It was a grand departure from the traditional treatment of opera, and it had to deliver.

    Imagine sitting in an open-air tent at sunset, the sound of the Bow River permeating the air while a wonderful spectacle unfolds on stage. Cheers and standing ovations meet the finale and the crowd wanders out into the warm summer evening with a feeling they have been part of something special, in a city that is coming of age culturally.

    Calgary Opera did build it and they did come—in throngs! Urban hipsters, young families, grandparents with grandchildren, regular opera-goers and passers-by, public dignitaries, students, and neighbors. They came by car, bike, public transit, on skateboard, and on foot. The results were many sold-out shows, a 97 percent overall capacity, a 67 percent increase in new patrons, and a financial surplus in the first year.

    As with any project, it required a good and saleable product, supportive partners, a committed board and staff, and prudent financial management. In this case, it also involved the tireless efforts of over a hundred volunteers.

    This leap of faith, this calculated risk, could not have been possible without the support of the project’s sponsors and partners: Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC) for the East Village location; Imperial Oil Foundation as the Presenting Sponsor; as well as Cenovus Energy; East Village developers, FRAM & Slokker and Embassy Bosa; and Big Rock Brewery; the City of Calgary; the Government of Alberta; Tourism Calgary; and Calgary Hotel Association—all key supporters. All believers!

    Suzanne K. Boyd

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