The Opera Walk in Vancouver’s Italian Garden

The Italian Garden is an attractive site in Hastings Park, which is located in the northeastern part of Vancouver. The garden contains some interesting features in its relatively small area. One of my favourites is the opera walk. The walk is bordered on one side by sculptures representing characters from famous Italian operas. On the other side are flower beds. In summer, these contain beautiful masses of black-eyed Susan flowers and purple and white coneflowers. The garden is a great place to take photographs. All of the photos in this post were taken by me during my walks in the Italian Garden.

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Canio and Turandot in the Italian Garden

Hastings Park

Hastings Park is a large, multi-use area near residences and close to Burrard Inlet. It was willed to the province of British Columbia by its owner in 1888 with the intention of preserving the park as a wilderness area. The plan didn’t work. Today Hastings Park contains many buildings and other constructions. Some of the buildings belong to the Pacific National Exhibition, an organization that runs an annual fair in late August. The park also contains the Playland amusement park, the Hastings Racecourse, and multiple parking lots.

The process of re-greening sections of the park is in progress. Streams that have been covered for many years have been opened up and green areas and walking trails to the inlet have been established. Today Hastings Park contains several smaller parks (defined according to the true meaning of the word) as well as gardens. The situation is much improved with respect to the existence of natural and semi-natural areas, though the buildings still exist.

The Italian Garden

One of the gardens in the park is the Italian Garden, or Il Giardino Italiano. It was created by the local Italian-Canadian community and contains features of a traditional Italian garden. The main entrance is located on Renfrew Street, though it can also be reached from inside Hastings Park. It’s free to enter except during the annual two-week fair at the PNE, which is a sore spot with the local residents. When the fair is in operation, a barrier exists along Renfrew Street. This means that the only way to enter the garden is to pay to enter the fairground.

Like Hastings Park as a whole, the Italian Garden contains several smaller areas. These include a section containing ornamental fountains leading to water channels. The water is a popular play site for children. The garden also contains areas that are ideal for gentle walks and contemplation. One of my favourite sections is the opera walk. The sculptures on the walk and the ones that are an integral part of the fountains were created by Ken Clarke in 2001 and 2002.

The Sculptures and the Operas

The sculptures along the opera walk represent leading characters from six famous Italian operas. More than one sculpture of a particular character can be seen along the route. It’s interesting to note that although these sculptures started their existence as identical copies, the environmental conditions in their immediate surroundings have changed their appearance in different ways. The characters and operas that are represented are briefly described below. As in many traditional Italian operas, the plots all involve love. Four of them also involve death, another common theme in classical operas.

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Pagliacci

“Pagliacci” was created by Ruggero Leoncavallo and first performed in 1892. In the opera, Canio is an actor who often plays the role of a clown in the plays performed by his troupe. The plot describes the competition for the love of an actress (Canio’s wife) and the death of the woman and her lover at the hands of Canio. The deaths occur during a comedy performance by the troupe and create a dramatic climax to the opera. The last line in the opera is famous. Canio turns to the shocked on-stage audience (and at the same time to the real audience) and says “The comedy is over.”

In the sculpture of Canio, one side of his face is smiling, which represents the clown that he often played. The other side is crying, which represents the sadness of his real life.

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The Barber of Seville

“The Barber of Seville” is a comic opera written by Gioachino Rossini and first performed in 1816. Figaro is the barber referred to in the title. The plot involves love, disguises, and schemes. Rosina loves Count Almaviva, who is disguised as a poor student named Lindoro. Rosina is the ward of Bartolo, who wants to marry her in order to obtain her dowry. Figaro helps Rosina and Almaviva in their efforts to become a pair. After many incidents, Rosina and Count Almaviva are married.

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Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff is a character in some of Shakespeare’s plays. “Falstaff” is a comic opera about the character written by Giuseppe Verdi and first performed in 1893. As in “the Barber of Seville”, the plot is quite involved. It involves the effort of Falstaff to attract two married women in order to gain access to each of their husband’s money. The women—Meg Page and Alice Ford—discover what Falstaff is up to and decide to teach him a lesson.

Another strand in the plot involves the love of Nannetta Ford (Alice’s daughter) for a man named Fenton. Nannetta’s father disapproves of the union. After many twists and turns, the opera reaches a more-or-less happy ending for everyone.

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Rigoletto

“Rigoletto” is a tragic Giuseppe Verdi opera that was first performed in 1851. It tells the story of a hunch-backed and often scorned court jester named Rigoletto, his beloved daughter Gilda, and a very unpleasant duke who commits an atrocious act.

The opera ends with the sad death of Gilda, who sacrifices her life for the sake of the duke. Her father picks up a sack containing the dying Gilda, thinking that the duke is the person inside. He is horrified when he learns the truth. I’ve written an article describing the opera in more detail.

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A Masked Ball

“A Masked Ball” is another Giuseppe Verdi opera and was first performed in 1859. The plot is set in the United States. This might seem strange for an Italian opera, but the censors of the time demanded changes in the setting and the characters. The original opera seemed too reminiscent of the death of King Gustav lll of Sweden, who died from wounds received at a masked ball.

Riccardo is the Governor of Boston and is organizing a masked ball. He is delighted to discover that Amelia will be attending the ball. She is the woman that he loves, but she’s married to his friend Renato.

After various events, including a prediction by a fortune teller, the ball is held. Renato has discovered that Amelia and Riccardo love one another and has decided to kill Riccardo at the ball. As the governor dies, he says that Amelia has never been unfaithful to Renato.

Turandot

“Turandot” is an opera written by Giacomo Puccini and was first performed in 1926. He died before it was finished, but it was completed by Franco Alfano. The opera is set in China. Its leading character is the cruel Princess Turandot. The plot involves the efforts of a prince to pass the tests that she sets him so that they can marry as well as the test that he sets her. Though the music is often admired, the opera is controversial today, in part due to the cruelty in the plot and the ethnic stereotypes. Some people say that the opera should no longer be performed.

Enjoying the Sculptures

The sculptures in the Italian Garden can be appreciated without any knowledge of their background. It’s interesting to study the faces that are depicted and to ponder their possible meaning. The names of the relevant operas are written under the sculptures, but in many cases they are hard to read. Knowing a little about the operas that are represented by the sculptures gives an additional meaning to the opera walk and a visit to the Italian Gardens.

Douglas Coupland and the Digital Orca Sculpture in Vancouver

The waterfront is an interesting area in downtown Vancouver. It has many attractions and some lovely scenery. The area includes major constructions for business people and tourists as well as an enjoyable walking trail beside the water. One of the attractions of the waterfront is the Digital Orca sculpture next to the Vancouver Convention Centre. The sculptor was Douglas Coupland.

A view of the Digital Orca and its surroundings
Photo by Linda Crampton

The Digital Orca Sculpture

The Digital Orca was created (or at least installed) in 2009. The sculpture is located at Jack Poole Plaza and is backed by Burrard Inlet and the Coast Mountains. Jack Poole was a businessman who led the committee that successfully won Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics. In real life, the orca (Orcinus orca) is also called the killer whale. It can be seen off the BC coast and occasionally in Burrard Inlet. It’s admired by many local people.

The sculpture is created in black and white blocks, which are meant to represent the pixels of a computer monitor. When a viewer is close to the orca, the blocks can clearly be seen. As a viewer moves further away, the blocks become less clearly distinguished from one another and gradually start to blend together.

The sculptor said that he wanted to create an unexpected sensation for the viewer. The sensation is greatest when we approach the sculpture from the distance. At first we think “Oh look! There’s a giant killer whale sculpture beside the water”. As we get nearer, we may be surprised to see that the whale is made of blocks carefully joined together to create the correct shape and appearance of the orca. When we’re very close to the sculpture, it looks like a meaningless jumble of blocks. As we move away, a pattern emerges.

Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland lives in Vancouver and grew up in the area. He’s a writer as well as a sculptor and has been involved in many other creative projects. His first novel was published in 1991 and is entitled Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Though the term generation X had been used before Coupland’s novel, he gave it its modern meaning.

Generation X is the demographic group born between the birth dates of the baby boomers and the millennials, or between the early or mid 1960s and the early 1980s. There’s a lot a debate about which people should be included in the generation X category, however.

An Exhibition Designed by Coupland at the Vancouver Aquarium

The Vancouver Aquarium currently has an exhibition designed by Douglas Coupland on display. It’s called “Vortex” and is about plastic pollution in the ocean. According to the aquarium, the exhibition involves an “imaginative journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. It’s on display until May, 2019. I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, but I plan to.

The Vancouver Aquarium is located in Stanley Park, which is not far from the killer whale sculpture and the downtown core of Vancouver. For healthy people with normal mobility, it’s perfectly feasible to walk from the downtown area to the park. The journey takes between twenty and forty minutes, depending on walking speed and the starting location in the downtown area. Buses and taxis go the park as well. It’s also possible to cycle to the park along quieter roads.

The Aquarium and Stanley Park

Stanley Park is large (400 hectares) and is located by the water. It’s a major tourist attraction in its own right. It’s worth visiting before or after an aquarium visit, though exploring the entire park would take a long time.

The aquarium is a popular place. It has been somewhat controversial in the past due to the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity, including orcas. This situation has changed, however. Currently, the only cetacean that remains is one Pacific white-sided dolphin. Helen has partially amputated pectoral fins and can’t be released into the wild because she would have difficulty surviving. The injury happened before she was brought to the aquarium. I’ve written an article about Pacific white-sided dolphins and Helen’s story, which provides more information.

Visiting the Waterfront

The waterfront is always a great place to visit. It’s quick to reach from the downtown area. In addition to the attractions that are always present, special ones are present at certain times of year, such as on Canada Day (July 1st) and at Christmas time. I visit the waterfront quite often and nearly always take a look at the Digital Orca when I’m in the area.