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Acclaimed Opera Director Michael Cavanagh Dies at 62


March 13, 2024 – LONDON, ON, Canada – It is with profoundly heavy hearts that we announce the death of Michael Cavanagh, one of world’s most sought after and prolific opera directors. Cavanagh died from leptomeningeal cancer on March 13 at the age of 62.

Winnipeg-born Cavanagh was a brilliant, funny and prolific stage director. During his 34-year career, he directed more than 150 operas at over 30 opera companies across Canada, the U.S. and Europe. He also relished his work with young singers at Western University and at many young artist programs across Canada. He saw himself as a storyteller first and was well known for productions that were innovative, ambitious and hilarious.

Michael’s favourite opera became John Adams’ Nixon in China, which he first directed for Vancouver Opera during the company’s 2010 Olympics spotlight. He went on to direct the opera many times on the world’s stages. Michael was also the brainchild behind three new productions for San Francisco Opera (SFO) that connected the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. The operas ran between 2019 and 2022 and will continue to be a mainstay of SFO’s repertory. His Così fan tutte will be seen at Los Angeles Opera in spring 2025.

“Michael Cavanagh is and will always be at the absolute center of our artistic identity,” said Matthew Shilvock, SFO’s general director. “Seeing his Mozart trilogy come to fruition will always be one of the proudest moments of my life, knowing it will define our stage for generations to come. He represents everything that is good about this art form. He has shown all of us how to lead with integrity, collaborate with kindness and to never lose sight that this is an art form of people, to be nurtured, cared for and respected. Every single person Michael interacted with felt that goodness and is steeped in his artistic vision. He has always given us art that matters, that resonates and that cares for audiences and artists alike. Michael’s art is a joy that will long reverberate on our stage.”

As a child, Cavanagh’s musical parents encouraged him to sing in church and school choirs and eventually join the children’s chorus at Manitoba Opera (MO). He continued to sing throughout his teens and in his 20s sang in a popular a cappella group called The Easy T’s and sang on the popular CBC Television show Hymn Sing.

While studying singing in Germany (and also playing rugby) in the early 1990’s, Cavanagh realized that he was “in the wrong end of the right business,” as he quipped. When he returned home, he began working for MO, eventually making his way up to assistant director. Around this time, he also began writing, producing and directing operas for The Winnipeg Fringe Festival, including one-act comic operas Gisela in Her Bathtub and City Workers in Love, for which he was also librettist. Cavanagh not only recruited some of his singer friends to perform in his comedies but often did so himself.

In 2020, Cavanagh was appointed Director of Opera at the Royal Swedish Opera (RSO), one of the world’s most renowned and oldest opera companies. In addition to season planning, he guided and inspired a staff of hundreds of soloists, chorus members, musical staff and crew. In 2023, he directed Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which sold out and received rave reviews. Prior to his appointment, he also directed many operas at the RSO including Nixon in China in 2016.

“With his open and generous personality, Michael was a dear friend and colleague to everyone at the Royal Swedish Opera,” said RSO CEO Fredrik Lindgren. “Already in his early productions with us we saw his sharp artistic eye but also his warm and positive persona. As Artistic Director of the Opera section from 2021, he was instrumental in developing the culture and direction of the House. Michael had the fantastic ability to see and know everyone around him and to spread joy and positive energy. The Royal Swedish Opera and the whole Opera world have lost a unique creative force and a beloved friend.”

It was Cavanagh’s ease engaging with people from all walks of life and his wide variety of interests and accomplishments that perhaps he will be best remembered for. Along with his dedication to opera, Cavanagh was a true sports fan, an avid golfer and a highly skilled home renovator. He played rugby for many years and as his wife, soprano Jackie Short, said, “Mike was the sporty guy in the arts world and the artsy guy in the sports world.”

Michael leaves his wife Jackie Short, daughter Amelia Pipher, mother Angelika Stevens, brother Carl (Arlene) Cavanagh, sister Chrissy Morley, in-laws Matthew and Karen Short, Doreen Totten, Lisa Short, his step siblings and many nieces and nephews. He will be greatly missed by his family, friends and opera colleagues around the world.

lIn ieu of flowers, a scholarship fund has been established in Michael Cavanagh’s name at TD Bank Branch 00066 Account 6741347 Branch Address 1055 Wonderland Rd N, London, ON N6G2Y9.

A celebration of life will be held in London, Ontario in the spring.