IndieFest strikes a chord with artistic innovation in Vancouver

Re:naissance Opera is running the festival from November 17-26

When classical singer Debi Wong returned home to Vancouver from what she calls a “world tour of classical music,” she came back frustrated and inspired. The genre still seemed to be stuck in the past, and the way that artists are generally taught to perform it and think about it today is, according to her, “very 18th century.” 

“And yet, here we are in the 21st century, with all kinds of interesting technologies,” she says. “So I started looking at opera and classical music as a series of innovations, and it gave me a really clear framework for starting something new.” 

In 2017, Wong founded Vancouver-based nonprofit Re:naissance Opera to feature innovation in the field. Classical music, she says, is about bringing people together from different practices and disciplines, and finding new ways of telling stories that inspire, excite and entertain people. “There’s a long history of really cool things happening in opera, and I want to tell that story and be a part of that lineage,” she adds.

Slowly but surely, Wong’s organization started collaborating with the creative tech sector and the classical music sector in B.C. to commission new performance works that, according to Wong, is redefining what opera and classical performances can mean today. The organization boldly decided to host something called IndieFest in 2019, envisioning a series of events that combine tenets of opera, immersive theatre and Indigenous storytelling to celebrate local innovation, artists and changemakers. It set things in motion for an in-person event—and then COVID happened. 

Re:naissance quickly pivoted to channel its plans into a sci-fi/documentary podcast called The Apocrypha Chronicles, which brought diverse artists together to collectively imagine what a hopeful, joyful, interconnected future could look like. People created songs, dances, videos and small theatre pieces to build dialogue between the present and the future. In the end, it turned out to be a lifeline for artists who were struggling to cope with the effects of the pandemic—namely, losing touch with their ability to practice their art.  

IndieFest returns to Vancouver this year. Re:naissance is hosting six events between November 17-26 to explore a unique theme, Future Mythologies, inspired by conversations between Wong and her festival co-curator, Stephanie Wong, who is also the associate artistic director of Re:naissance.  

“[Stephanie] says that ‘the stories we create and commission today will become the myths of tomorrow,’” Wong explains of this year’s theme. “We tend to look at [classical music and opera] as static forms or something that is preserved in time. But we [at Re:naissance] are looking at them as living, dynamic and vibrant art forms that are shaped and defined by the artists who engage with them.” 

IndieFest 2023 will showcase works in all stages of development to highlight innovation and local talent, with a lineup including Madeleine Thien and Bling Empire‘s Blake Abbie. “One work, Inferno, takes its inspiration from opera and hip hop,” says Wong. “Another, Eurydice Fragments, takes its inspiration from video games, opera and Greek mythology.” 

She notes that while it’s awesome to be able to see international artists in our city, there needs to be a bigger spotlight on local creators, and Re:naissance’s core team of six is doing that through unique festivals like IndieFest. “There’s a big gap in celebrating local artists and how they are contributing to the vibrant art scene in Vancouver, so that’s why we’re here,” says Wong.