Nov 24, 2022
This instalment features former staffer Jeanie Dubberley who cherished her time with MO and considers it a privilege to have worked for the company.
Asked how she came to work at Manitoba Opera, Jeanie Dubberley laughs. “It’s a very long story,” she says, and it’s a little serendipitous. Jeanie, who was a go-to administrative multitasker for the company from 1983 to 1992, was working as a teller at the Royal Bank of Canada branch at Portage and Fort, and “one day a gentleman came in, and it was Bruce Lang, at the time the only paid employee of Manitoba Opera, except for the production people. He was the administrative director.”
When Bruce came in to do his banking, the two would chat about what was going on at the opera, she recounts. Not long after, she realized she “wasn’t interested in money,” and she started working in employment counselling, ending up at a firm of head-hunters. Part of her job was to go through the professional job listings in the Winnipeg Free Press, and one day she came across an ad for an administrative assistant at Manitoba Opera.
“I did know how to type really fast, so I called Bruce and asked, ‘Would it be ridiculous for me to apply for this job?’” Not only did she apply; she got the job. “I almost burst into tears,” Jeanie recounts. “I was so thrilled with the idea of working for Manitoba Opera.”
She had to wait for the new season to begin, “and those were very long months” but once she started, “you have never known anyone who was happier in their work,” Jeanie declares. “Even when it was just typing and filing. Even that was exciting.
“And then it was November and the first production, and Judith Forst, the great Canadian mezzo, and Cristina Deutekom, the Dutch soprano, came into the office. And they were magnificent, just larger than life.”
Since this was a two-person admin office running a big organization, Jeanie eventually started doing writing, fundraising, and programming notes, “jobs Bruce handed over to me with great joy,” she recalls. “My work just seemed to expand and expand and expand, and it was wonderful.”
Her favourite part of the job was the rehearsal period. In some ways, Jeanie preferred rehearsals to performances. “When you already love something and then you get to watch people you know putting it together from scratch and working on it and trying to make it better, and then it all comes together, that makes everything more exciting and more dramatic and more spectacular.”
Jeanie worked on 27 Manitoba Opera productions over nine seasons. She would carry band-aids for blisters and aspirins for headaches, becoming a kind of “backstage mom” as she says. “My responsibility during rehearsals was to make sure the singers didn’t have to think about anything except singing. Their job was to sing and be amazing, and my job was to help them. And the more I helped, the more I felt I was earning my place in this wonderful world.
“People coming to Winnipeg would hear from other artists who had just been here that ‘Bruce and Jeanie are going to take such good care of you.’ And artists loved coming here. There was such warmth and hospitality―it’s called ‘Friendly Manitoba’ for a reason.”
Eventually, Jeanie’s job title was changed to Coordinator, Communications and Public Relations. She remembers the 1989 production of Salome: “We weren’t sure how it would go over, and we weren’t sure how to bring in audiences. I was shameless about promoting it. I told Maureen Scurfield that the soprano had performed it topless in Europe, and she put that in her column, and the next day we had a big spike in ticket sales.
“I didn’t mention that the soprano wasn’t going to do it topless here in Winnipeg,” Jeanie adds with a laugh. “It was a triumph for us. The reviews were excellent, the artists were happy, the audiences were ecstatic, and I got a bonus!”
Sometimes she advocated for Manitoba Opera on a smaller scale. “I used to love it when people told me they hated opera,” Jeanie relates. “I would give them free dress rehearsal tickets, and they’d come and find me later and say, ‘I had no idea it was like that.’”
Jeanie is old enough to remember the days before Manitoba Opera was founded, “when people had to go down to Minneapolis to see live opera when the Met went out on tour. It’s so important to have Manitoba Opera here.
“Opera is an additional dimension in a city that already has such amazing performing arts,” she says. “If you love music, you have the WSO in the pit. If you love dance, you often have incredible dancers. And the singing…Think about it: Tracy Dahl, who’s four feet, eleven and three-quarters inches tall, can fill the hall with the sound of her voice when a pop singer has to use a mic.”
If she must pick, Jeanie’s favourite opera is Madama Butterfly. “Puccini is such a button-pusher,” she suggests. “He knows exactly what to do to get you to cry.” Her favourite composer is Verdi, and she has very specific memories of the 1988 Manitoba Opera production of Rigoletto. “There’s a moment when Rigoletto is trying to find his daughter, and one of the singers playing a courtier lifted his shoulder and turned away, as if he was saying, ‘Don’t bother me with your petty, inconsequential problem,’ and I lost a contact lens because I was crying so much.
“I’m a weeper,” Jeanie admits. “From then on, I would always leave before that scene.”
For Jeanie, being part of bringing these powerful moments to the stage was a privilege. “Every day, I got non-tangible rewards in my work,” she says. “And some of it was so much fun.”