Ask most any Lower Mainland resident what they know about the city of Powell River and chances are they'll shrug and say something like, "they have a big mill and you have to take two ferries to get there?"
While it is true that the pulp and paper industry provided the economic foundation on which the town was built, it is the region's music exports that are now in high demand, helping to draw international attention and throngs of tourists who arrive every summer to take in world-class symphonic and choral performances.
The growing phenomenon is the result of the ambitious work of the internationally acclaimed Powell River Academy of Music, which produced 76 concerts for over 24,000 appreciative audience members in 2007.
Founded in the 1970's by artistic director and Order of Canada Member Don James, the Academy stages an annual festival entitled the Symphony and Opera Academy of the Pacific's (SOAP) Spectacular Summer Series. In addition, every second summer it draws 35 to 40 choirs from around the globe to take part in an international choral festival entitled Kathaumixw, a Salish term meaning "a gathering of different peoples."
More recently, however, James and the Academy's Board of Directors took another big step forward by adding an opera program. When they first came up with the idea in 2005, they appealed to the Powell River Ayjoomixw Spirit of BC Committee for help in getting it off the ground. The committee, in turn, approached 2010 Legacies Now for support in staging the Academy's first major operatic performance.
The committee applied for funding from the Innovations program to enable James to commission the Victoria Symphony's renowned composer-in-residence, Tobin Stokes, to rearrange an opera he had written for voice and four instruments into one in which the seven-member cast would be backed by a full symphony orchestra.
2010 Legacies Now awarded $20,000 and Stokes went to work rearranging the music for his first opera, entitled The Vine Dressers, set in the 1880's in the vineyards of Pelee Island on Ontario's Lake Erie. Later that summer, the Academy's opera program was officially launched in dramatic style with SOAP's performance of The Vine Dressers kicking off its 2005 summer series.
Although understated about his and the Academy's many accomplishments, James is clearly enthusiastic about having Stokes compose an opera for this region. At the same time, he knows that the growing summer audiences have come to expect great things from the Academy. Just ask one of the locals. Chances are they will tell you that even though the massive paper mill on the shoreline defined much of the region's history, the little Academy and the strains of sweet music coming from the hills above will have a strong voice in shaping its future.