Jan 30, 2023
Dr. Elizabeth Tippett Pope and Dr. Bill Pope have a long history with Manitoba Opera, as supporters, donors, board members, and just out-and-out fans.
Winnipeg-raised Bill grew up with music. “I’m an instrumentalist. I did the whole piano thing, and I was a student of Jean Broadfoot (the legendary Winnipeg teacher).” The English-born Elizabeth, on the other hand, admits to coming from “a totally unmusical family.”
“The first time I went to the opera, to be honest, I fell asleep and had to be woken up so people could get out,” she recalls. “But then you learn it, and it’s part of your soul.”
What would become the couple’s shared love of opera goes back to their courtship days, when both were doing their internships in London, Ontario. An early evening together involved listening to one of the first records Bill ever bought, a recording of The Magic Flute. Later, when Bill was over in England for a fellowship in the mid-1970s, he booked tickets for The Magic Flute at the English National Opera at the Sadler’s Wells theatre.
“The only thing we could get was a box, and Alan Opie, who was singing Papageno and who’s very good-looking and wearing not much more than a grass skirt, comes over and leans on the edge of the box and sings in English, ‘I’d like a wife to love me, and keep me warm at night.’
“Elizabeth turned to me and said, ‘You got me,’” Bill relates. “It’s kind of been our opera ever since.”
The couple travels extensively and tries to take in opera wherever they go. They’re especially interested in seeing how the same opera can be approached in different ways. On a recent opera tour to England, during which they saw seven operas in 12 days, they found the production of Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden (“Where the tickets were £246 each!” Elizabeth exclaims) couldn’t compare to Manitoba Opera’s 2017 production. “It had been done so exquisitely here,” Bill says. “And the one at Covent Garden was just… mmm.”
Their loyalty to their hometown opera has been intensified by a long, close association that goes back to the 1970s. In 2017, Bill and Elizabeth won the Winnipeg Arts Council Arts Champion Award for their commitment to the cultural life of our city and, in particular, their steadfast support of Manitoba Opera.
“The more involved you are, the more it becomes part of your life,” according to Bill. Elizabeth concurs, calling her connection to Manitoba Opera “very personal―you know the opera, you know the orchestra, you know most of the people.”
Elizabeth credits Manitoba Opera’s first Administrative Director, Bruce Lang, for fostering these lasting relationships. “Bruce very kindly let me watch how operas evolve. I used to go the rehearsals, virtually every day, so it educated me on how an opera is made.
“For me that was very important,” she says. “And you got to meet the stars.”
This sense of closeness and connection has continued in the organization, and Bill and Elizabeth both see it as a crucial part of Manitoba Opera’s ability to attract extraordinary artists who are happy to come back again and again.
“Bruce was the most wonderful man,” Elizabeth explains. “He always went to pick up performers at the airport. He’d be there no matter the time of day or night they arrived.”
She recounts a moment over three decades ago when she was talking to “someone vey famous who had just finished a three-week stint at Manitoba Opera and was headed to the Met, where her fee would be 10 times as high.” As Bill says, “that made us realize that performers were really loyal to Manitoba Opera.”
Elizabeth and Bill also acknowledge the role of former Artistic Director Irving Guttman, “who was good at spotting stars before they became famous,” according to Elizabeth. “Singers are grateful to people who help them develop their talent,” Bill adds.
Audiences, in turn, are grateful for the level of artistry that Manitoba Opera continues to bring to the stage. “This city really appreciates the arts,” Elizabeth points out.
“Having an opera company means it’s a real city, a city of culture,” Bill suggests. “And we’re not stuck out in the middle of nowhere. We really are connected to everything.”
“It’s not just the artists and performers who come here,” he adds. “No matter where you go, there are Winnipeggers who are doing things who might have lived down your street.”
Looking back on decades of service to Manitoba Opera, Bill and Elizabeth have a lot of good memories. They’ve seen many traditional stagings of the classic operas they love. But they’ve also watched the opera form adapt to a shifting, expanding social and cultural landscape under the direction of Larry Desrochers, the current general director & CEO “who keeps things going, but also really looks ahead,” according to Bill.
They cite the 2019 MO production of Susannah, whose storyline seemed ripped from contemporary headlines. Initially, Elizabeth wasn’t sure she wanted to see Carlisle Floyd’s dark 1955 opera: “But we went to the rehearsal and then we went back three times to see Lara Ciekiewicz’s performance. She was so good.”
It’s this kind of vital link between performer and audience that will continue to resonate as Manitoba Opera marks its 50th season and looks to the next 50.