Water Music: The Summer Adventure of Johannes Debus
When we found out that Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus was keen on developing a summer music festival on the shores of Lake Ontario in Wellington, Prince Edward County, our first thought was “it’s about time!”
German-born Debus is certainly well acquainted with watery music-making — he scored a big success conducting Les contes d’Hoffmann in Bregenzer Festspiele in 2015 at the Seebühne, an amazing floating stage that plays to an audience of 7,000 on the shores of Lake Constance in Austria. Just last month, he returned to the Festspielhaus to conduct a rarity, Beatrice Cenci by Berthold Goldschmidt.
Like Bregenz, Wellington is blessed by its location, a destination of choice for those who enjoy the charm of small-town Ontario, a place that has a vibrant visual arts scene, and home to many artists and artisans. Well worth a visit are its many wineries and restaurants. There’s a professional theatre company there run by its new artistic director, Graham Abbey, known as Festival Players. With all that in place, it’s ripe for the sound of classical music.
Starting a classical music festival from scratch is a daunting task. It takes a huge commitment, detailed planning, and a true vision to undertake something like this.
Coined Wellington Water Week, the inaugural season will run August 25-31, with Debus and his violinist-wife Elissa Lee planning the bulk of the music programming. It’s billed as “a week-long celebration giving artistic voice to water’s ability to mystify, awe, connect, inspire and define us.” It’s said to be modeled after Stockholm’s World Water Week Symposium, but we can’t help but wonder if Debus’s experience at the incredible Bregenz Festival might have something to do with it.
What attracted you to this project, and the Prince Edward County area?
We were introduced to Wellington and Prince Edward County by Elissa’s long-time friend Maria Gacesa and her husband, actor Anthony Lemke. Every time we visited them, we grew more and more attached to Wellington because of the incredible situation on the lake, as well as the serene countryside, not to mention the delicious wines and good food. Given Wellington’s location, we would be happy to establish this place as a creative hub for artists and audiences, Francophone and Anglophone alike.
I know that you have conducted at the Bregenz Festival, by beautiful Lake Constance. Does your experience there have anything to do with your interest in Wellington?
Funny you should ask that, because it was exactly after my first time in Bregenz that I made a visit to Wellington, and I whimsically thought how wonderful it would be to establish a music festival of some sort right on Lake Ontario. The Bregenz Festival — and other summer festivals I have been to — might have given some inspiration and ideas, yet there is no direct connection. Wellington has its own flair and flavour.
I noticed that the Ensemble is giving an evening concert at the Drake Devonshire, and you’ll contribute a piece as a guest artist. Can you give us an idea of the program?
The COC together with The Drake started Popera. It is an event where listeners can wine and dine as they listen to live operatic music. It’s also a way of exposing our talented singers in a fun format. I am thrilled that we were able to extend this collaboration and bring Popera to the Drake Devonshire. This time we are going all out and bringing the entire Ensemble Studio, and I will make a fun cameo appearance with clarinetist and conductor Dionysis Grammenos, who is a rare talent and musician and will be assisting me in the Fall at the COC.
What are your plans regarding future programs? Any instrumental solos, choral works, or maybe chamber music in the future?
All of the above, with as much variety as possible. This year is truly a pilot year, and it is about meeting the community and bringing a small variety of different types of concerts, but I have many more ideas and dreams, of course. Who knows where this first baby step may lead to, maybe one day we may have even orchestral and operatic capacities. But for the moment, we are looking forward to simply starting!
My best wishes to you for this venture, and I look forward to coming to one of the concerts! Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask you that you want me to mention in the article?
Thanks for your interest in our Festival! I want to mention the environmental aspect of water, which we are highlighting this summer. Water is the source of life. Living in Canada we are lucky to have so much fresh water, but we have to take measures to make sure that our waters are clean and can sustain us. We hope this week will also create some awareness and help the cause.
Wellington Water Week runs August 25–31, 2018. For tickets and details, see www.wellingtonwaterweek.org.