Irving Guttman | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Irving Guttman

Irving Allen Guttman, CM, OBC, opera director (born 27 October 1928 in Chatham, ON; died 7 December 2014 in Vancouver, BC). Known as “the father of opera in Western Canada,” Irving Guttman was a visionary leader who mentored and developed many famous singers, and directed dozens of operas in Canada and abroad.

Irving Allen Guttman, CM, OBC, opera director (born 27 October 1928 in Chatham, ON; died 7 December 2014 in Vancouver, BC). Known as “the father of opera in Western Canada,” Irving Guttman was a visionary leader who mentored and developed many famous singers, and directed dozens of operas in Canada and abroad. The founding artistic director of major opera companies across Western Canada, he received the Canadian Centennial Medal, the Canada 125 Medal, and the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals. He was a member of the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame and the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame.

Early Years and Education

Irving Guttman was raised in Blackville, NB, and moved with his parents to Montréal in his teens. There the teenaged Guttman saw his first opera (Roméo et Juliette), which led to an interest in pursuing a career in music. After studies at Strathcona Academy in Montréal (1941–46), he attended the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto (1947–52), where he studied singing, acting, oboe, piano, conducting and stage directing. His teachers there included Oskar Morawetz, John Weinzweig and Eileen Weldon Parsons (drama).

Early Career

From 1949 to 1954, Guttman worked as an assistant to Herman Geiger-Torel at the Opera Festival Association (now the Canadian Opera Company), with an interim period as assistant stage director to Walter Herbert at the New Orleans Opera (1951–52). He made his directing debut in May 1953 in Cornwall, ON, with a production of Menotti's The Consul; his cast included the young Maureen Forrester. That same year, at the recommendation of Pauline Donalda, Guttman directed a complete Faust, the first of some 65 operatic programs for CBC TV over the next six years, including many complete operas for The Concert Hour. In 1956, he directed The Marriage of Figaro at the Montréal Festivals.

Major Achievements in Western Canada

In 1960, Guttman established himself in British Columbia, the base from which he began a series of noteworthy achievements in opera in Western Canada. That year he became founding artistic director of the Vancouver Opera, remaining in that capacity until 1974 and again from 1982 to 1984. He gained attention for engaging the first Canadian performances by Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne in the successful opera Norma (1963).

In 1965, Guttman concurrently became artistic director of the Edmonton Opera, a position he retained until 1998. His term there included such achievements as the 1991 establishment of the Irving Guttman Young Artist Fund, and such landmark productions as Edmonton Opera’s 1983 production of Lohengrin, which marked the first time a Western Canadian company presented a major work by Wagner with surtitles (the English translation of the dialogue and lyrics projected on an overhead screen).

While holding the artistic director posts in Vancouver and Edmonton, Guttman also undertook directorial assignments in other regions. In 1973, he directed the Manitoba Opera Association’s first fully staged production (Madama Butterfly), and in 1974 he was appointed head of the opera school at the Courtenay Youth Music Centre. In 1977, he became artistic director of the Manitoba Opera Association.

With his third influential directorial position in a Western province, Guttman’s reputation as “the father of opera in Western Canada” was firmly established. He remained with Manitoba Opera, concurrently with positions in other Western provinces, until 1998. Guttman continued his concentration on bringing opera to additional regions of Western Canada by becoming founding artistic director of Saskatchewan Opera (1991–2001) and artistic advisor to Calgary Opera (1998–2001).

He was named artistic director emeritus of the Vancouver, Edmonton and Manitoba Operas. He retired in 2003 but remained involved in opera by serving as an honorary chairperson for Vancouver Opera’s 50th anniversary in 2010, serving on the Canada Council’s advisory committee, and mentoring young singers at the University of British Columbia.

Opera in Montréal and Toronto

In addition to being artistic director of opera companies across Western Canada, Guttman frequently directed productions in Ontario and Québec. He was guest director at the Montréal Festivals (La Serva PadronaandL'Heure espagnol, 1961) and produced Faust for Expo 67 (see also Music at Expo 67).

Between 1963 and 1969, he produced seven productions of six operas for the Opera Guild of Montréal at Her Majesty's Theatre and at Place des Arts. His Canadian Opera Company directing debut, La Traviata(1964), led to seven productions of five operas for that company by 1975. In 1988, with Bernard Uzan and Guy Bélanger, Guttman helped train young singers from the Atelier lyrique de l'Opéra de Montréal.

US and Foreign Engagements

In 1958, Guttman made his US debut directing the Santa Fe Opera's world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights. He then worked as a guest director with the New Orleans, Baltimore Civic, Fort Worth and Houston Grand operas in 1959 and 1960. He was guest director with the San Francisco Spring and Philadelphia Lyric operas, and directed productions in Barcelona, Spain (1969, 1971 and 1973). He later directed operas elsewhere in Europe, the US, South America and Taiwan; his productions featured such international stars as Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Tebaldi.

Charitable Involvement

Guttman co-founded the AIDS and cancer charity Friends for Life in 1992.


Guttman earned a national reputation for his ability to discover and mentor new operatic talent, offering early opportunities to such acclaimed opera singers as Maureen Forrester, Richard Margison, Tracy Dahl and Judith Forst. He gave local performance opportunities to singers from the West, who no longer had to leave their home provinces to start their performance careers.

By directing and fostering opera in all four Western provinces, and by inviting major stars such as Jose Carreras for their first performances in Western Canada, Guttman not only brought the operatic art form to new audiences, but also contributed to the establishment of vibrant cultural arts scenes in those regions. In 2013, the University of British Columbia created the Irving Guttman & Robert Dales UBC Opera Award in honour of Guttman and Robert Dales, his partner of 45 years.


Canadian Centennial Medal, Government of Canada (1967)

Member, Order of Canada (1988)

Inductee, Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame (1988)

Canada 125 Medal, Government of Canada (1992)

Inductee, Vancouver Hall of Fame (1994)

Inductee, British Columbia Entertainment Hall of Fame (1994)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Winnipeg (1995)

Inductee, Canadian Opera Hall of Fame (1995)

“Rubie” Opera Builder Award, Opera Canada (2001)

Member, Order of British Columbia (2002)

Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal, Government of Canada (2002)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of British Columbia (2009)

Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, Government of Canada (2012)

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

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