Opera’s Next Act

As in­ter­est in tra­di­tional per­for­mances de­clines, up­start indie com­pa­nies are fight­ing to keep the art alive

The Walrus - - CON­TENTS - by Si­mon Lewsen

Opera’s Next Act An in­die com­pany is re­viv­ing a dy­ing genre

Few scenes from Greek mythol­ogy are as well known as Or­pheus’s de­scent into the un­der­world. Af­ter the death of his wife, Eury­dice, the hero plays mu­sic so beau­ti­ful it moves the gods, and they per­mit him to en­ter the shad­owy realm and re­trieve his late love. At an empty the­atre at the Banff Cen­tre for Arts and Cre­ativ­ity last July, nine mu­si­cians at­tempted to con­jure the mo­ment when Or­pheus en­ters the hellscape. But their sound was weak — hardly the eardrum-rat­tling sen­sa­tion such a scene de­mands. To­pher Mokrzewski, mu­sic di­rec­tor and found­ing mem­ber of the Toronto opera com­pany Against the Grain, paced the au­di­to­rium shak­ing his head. “We need the in­ten­sity of a rock con­cert, but we’re sound­ing like Tafel­musik,” he said, ref­er­enc­ing the genre of light or­ches­tral work typ­i­cally played at din­ner par­ties. The show he was re­hears­ing, Or­phée+, is a co­pro­duc­tion by Against the Grain and the Ohio-based Opera Colum­bus. It is based on Hec­tor Ber­lioz’s nine­teenth-cen­tury French opera Or­phée et Eury­dice, which was it­self adapted from an ear­lier work by Christoph­willibald Gluck. At Banff, the pro­duc­tion was due to open in six days, and two of Mokrzewski’s play­ers had yet to ar­rive. But even when the band reached its full size of eleven, it would be nowhere near the forty-odd-per­son or­ches­tra for which Ber­lioz wrote his score. Against the Grain, which was cre­ated in 2010 by artis­tic di­rec­tor Joel Ivany along with Mokrewski and artis­tic ad­vi­sor and so­prano Miriam Khalil, is not a tra­di­tional opera com­pany. It uses small casts and a range of atyp­i­cal strate­gies — which can in­clude am­pli­fi­ca­tion, elec­tri­fi­ca­tion, and pre-recorded tracks — as a means of scal­ing big op­eras down into lean, eco­nom­i­cal pro­duc­tions. For Or­phée+, Mokrzewski hired sound de­signer John Gzowski, who cre­ated a suite of abra­sive ef­fects, with names such as “stabs” and “hell gur­gles,” to com­pen­sate for the lack of or­ches­tral fire­power. In tra­di­tional opera, the use of elec­tronic sounds is akin to heresy, but even with th­ese ir­reg­u­lar el­e­ments, the mu­si­cians weren’t pro­duc­ing enough noise. On a whim, Mokrzewski asked the play­ers to clear out so stage hands could bring the or­ches­tra pit closer to floor level, mak­ing the sound seem fuller. He’d raise the pit again in the days to come, and his sound tech­ni­cian en­sured that the syn­the­sizer and elec­tric gui­tar — two non­op­er­atic in­stru­ments that com­poser Lau­ren Spavelko in­cluded in the score — were suit­ably au­di­ble in the mix. The tweaks worked: by open­ing night, at last, hell sounded suf­fi­ciently hellish. Opera is gen­er­ally known as a grandiose genre that is per­formed with­out am­pli­fi­ca­tion in large halls that can seat thou­sands. To cre­ate the nec­es­sary vol­ume, pro­duc­ers need vast re­sources: fifty or sixty mu­si­cians, forty-per­son cho­ruses, and a small army of stage hands and tech­ni­cians. The im­men­sity of the art form is also its al­ba­tross, as putting on a full pro­duc­tion is in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive. (The Cana­dian Opera Com­pany in Toronto — the coun­try’s big­gest pro­ducer — spent $17.8 mil­lion on shows in its 2016-17 sea­son.) In the past two decades, chang­ing cul­tural tastes and dwin­dling au­di­ences have

left many North Amer­i­can com­pa­nies in dire fi­nan­cial straits. “When you’re a clas­si­cal mu­si­cian,” says Mokrzewski, “it’s in­stilled in you early on that you’re not meant to fuck with the cul­ture. You’re the de­fender of a tra­di­tion.” He con­tends, how­ever, that in the cur­rent arts econ­omy, buck­ing cen­turies-old con­ven­tions may be the best way to keep opera alive, par­tic­u­larly in mar­kets where the genre is most im­per­illed. Against the Grain’s founders want their work to be im­pos­ing where nec­es­sary — a de­scent into hell must sound like a de­scent into hell — but they con­tend that opera is still opera, even when it’s small.

When the first ma­jor op­eras were staged in Venice in the early 1600s, tick­ets were a hot com­mod­ity. In the cen­turies that fol­lowed, the art was vir­tu­ally un­matched in cul­tural pres­tige across Europe. Gi­a­como Meyer­beer’s Les Huguenots, a five-act his­tor­i­cal epic, pre­miered at the Paris Opera in 1836 and has been staged more than 1,000 times. In nine­teenth-cen­tury Ger­many, com­poser Richard Wag­ner be­came so rich and pow­er­ful that he built a the­atre de­voted en­tirely to his own work. Even in post­war North Amer­ica, opera had se­ri­ous ca­chet: many small and mid­size cen­tres, such as Or­ange County and Bal­ti­more, had their own opera houses, and tele­genic celebri­ties like New York con­duc­tor Leonard Bernstein gave the genre pride of place in the pop­u­lar cul­ture. Those days are over. Ac­cord­ing to the New York Times, as re­cently as the 1990s, the Metropoli­tan Opera in New York — the largest com­pany in North Amer­ica — typ­i­cally sold 90 per­cent of its avail­able seats. In 2017, that num­ber dropped to 67 per­cent, mak­ing it the Met’s sec­ond-worst year on record. (The worst was 2016.) In 2010, David Gock­ley, gen­eral di­rec­tor of the San Fran­cisco Opera, de­clared that the com­pany had a “ma­jor cash prob­lem” and an

un­sus­tain­able donor model — half the bud­get came from a mere twelve fam­i­lies. The dif­fi­cul­ties that th­ese top-tier houses face are hardly anom­alies. Across the con­ti­nent, older pa­trons are dy­ing, and younger au­di­ence mem­bers aren’t tak­ing their places. In 2017, the Van­cou­ver Opera re­placed its an­nual fall-to-spring sea­son with a three-week fes­ti­val, im­i­tat­ing a strat­egy used by houses in Fort Worth, Texas, and Saint Louis, Mis­souri. Since 2000, com­pa­nies in Hamil­ton and Ot­tawa have shut down com­pletely. And while the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany in Toronto re­mains in the black thanks to in­creased do­na­tions and fundrais­ing, it, too, has seen de­clin­ing box-of­fice rev­enue over the past three sea­sons. Against the Grain’s three found­ing mem­bers still work con­tracts for main­stream opera houses, but they ar­gue that the tra­di­tional model can no longer sus­tain the art. Their com­pany is one of sev­eral up­starts in North Amer­ica prac­tis­ing “in­die opera”: ex­per­i­men­tal, thrifty pro­duc­tions, cen­tred on novel premises. Other in­die pro­duc­ers in­clude New York’s Beth Mor­ri­son Projects, which has done works based on old hor­ror movies and im­agery from the Hub­ble Space Tele­scope, and Oak­land’s West Edge Opera, which mounted Al­ban Berg’s ex­pres­sion­ist mas­ter­piece Lulu in an aban­doned train sta­tion. Against the Grain started by ac­ci­dent. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a diploma in opera di­rect­ing from the Univer­sity of Toronto, Joel Ivany strug­gled to find con­sis­tent work. His rel­a­tively slim re­sumé made it dif­fi­cult to get jobs, and it was im­pos­si­ble to bol­ster his CV when no­body would hire him. “I felt like I needed a quote in a re­view — ‘Ivany was good at X’ — just to get my­self a di­rect­ing gig,” he says. So, in 2011, the Against the Grain col­lec­tive de­cided to stage a show of its own. The mem­bers scrounged up $15,000 and per­formed a bare-bones ver­sion of Gi­a­como Puc­cini’s La Bohème at the Tran­zac Club, an al­ley­way bar in down­town Toronto. The pro­duc­tion fea­tured seven singers, plus a cho­rus of twelve stu­dents, who were ac­com­pa­nied by Mokrzewski on piano. Ivany isn’t sure why the four-night run sold out, but he spec­u­lates that peo­ple came out of cu­rios­ity: What might high ro­man­ti­cism look like in a tav­ern? The set­ting, he ar­gues, suited the sub­ject mat­ter. Bohème, a story about starv­ing artists in Paris, can seem out of place on the gilded prosce­ni­ums where it’s typ­i­cally staged. “Tran­zac is a dirty bar,” says Ivany. “The light switches have fin­ger­prints on them. We didn’t have to do any­thing to make the space feel grimy.” Buoyed by the suc­cess of Bohème, Against the Grain con­tin­ued to put on site-spe­cific work, often seek­ing out unique venues for the op­eras it was stag­ing. The com­pany did Claude De­bussy’s lush, erot­i­cally charged fan­ta­sia Pel­léas et Mélisande in a court­yard over­grown with vines and Ben­jamin Brit­ten’s The Turn of the Screw, based on the Henry James ghost story, in a dimly lit Vic­to­rian at­tic. For its 2016 pro­duc­tion A Lit­tle Too Cozy — adapted from Così fan tutte, Mozart’s comic opera about part­ner swap­ping — the team trans­formed a TV stu­dio into a the­atre and wrote an English-lan­guage li­bretto mod­elled on dat­ing shows like Temp­ta­tion Is­land and Blind Date. Char­ac­ters in shiny suits and trashy pumps sang lines about pu­bic hair, cleav­age, and blow jobs. (If such a crass un­der­tak­ing seems dis­re­spect­ful to Mozart’s legacy, read a bi­og­ra­phy of the man.) The re­sponse from crit­ics has been ef­fu­sive. The Globe and Mail praised the group’s 2015 pro­duc­tion Death and De­sire for break­ing “about 100 clas­si­cal-mu­sic rules all at once,” and fol­low­ing the com­pany’s adap­ta­tion of Mozart’s Don Gio­vanni, a Maclean’s re­viewer opined that “there’s hope yet for opera.” Al­most all Against the Grain shows sell out, some­times well in ad­vance of open­ing night, and the group has never lost money

on a sea­son. Its op­er­at­ing bud­get — which re­lies on grants, do­na­tions, and ticket sales — jumped from $210,000 in 2017 to a pro­jected $410,000 in 2019. Per­haps the most im­por­tant met­ric of the com­pany’s suc­cess can be found within the au­di­ence, where the un­der-forty set — the de­mo­graphic that main­stream opera pro­duc­ers are des­per­ate to court — is fully rep­re­sented. De­spite such ac­com­plish­ments, it’s hard to imag­ine a singer or mu­si­cian mak­ing a liv­ing through in­die opera work alone. Against the Grain pays its play­ers stan­dard union rates, though con­tracts may be as short as two weeks. And while the founders hope to grow their an­nual sea­sons, they cur­rently mount only two main­stage pro­duc­tions each year and don’t have per­ma­nent mu­si­cians on staff. They do, how­ever, draw star per­form­ers who are be­tween big-ticket projects, in­clud­ing Krisztina Sz­abó, who has sung at the Royal Opera House in London, and Eti­enne Dupuis, who made his Met de­but this past Septem­ber. While it’s tempt­ing to think of Against the Grain as a young up­start poised to top­ple the staid es­tab­lish­ment, Ivany ar­gues that in­die opera should aim to sup­ple­ment rather than sup­plant the main­stream opera in­dus­try. He imag­ines a fu­ture in which big com­pa­nies con­tinue, al­beit pre­car­i­ously, in cities where the pop­u­la­tion and donor bases are hefty enough to sus­tain them. Their need to re­coup their large costs, though, will likely dis­cour­age ex­per­i­men­tal pro­gram­ming in favour of triedand-true clas­sics. In­die com­pa­nies, Ivany says, can bring opera to smaller cities, of­fer work to mu­si­cians be­tween gigs, and take cre­ative chances — the kind that are as likely to fail as to move the art for­ward. Against the Grain is cur­rently the Cana­dian Opera Com­pany’s first com­pany in res­i­dence, and it’s now work­shop­ping a new pro­duc­tion us­ing COC re­hearsal space. This ges­ture of gen­eros­ity from a big pro­ducer to a small one sug­gests a mu­tual un­der­stand­ing: in today’s arts econ­omy, it makes more sense to have col­lab­o­ra­tors than com­peti­tors.

Or­phée+ is Against the Grain’s most am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing to date, with a $170,000 bud­get and twenty-four-per­son as­sem­bly. It’s still minis­cule com­pared to any­thing au­di­ences would see in a main­stream opera venue, but it’s gi­ant rel­a­tive to the com­pany’s ear­lier work. Or­phée+ fea­tures a video artist, who floods the stage in washes of colour to evoke scene changes; two cho­ruses (one live and one pre-recorded); a crew of six bur­lesque dancers who are at times dressed as demons, spir­its, and fu­neral mourn­ers; and an aeri­al­ist, who sings the part of Amour — the god­dess who en­tices Or­pheus to res­cue Eury­dice — while do­ing som­er­saults above the set. Ivany says that this mo­saic ap­proach isn’t as un­con­ven­tional as it seems. When Gluck’s ver­sion of Or­phée et Eury­dice first moved from Parma in 1774 to pre­rev­o­lu­tion­ary France, it was amended, as a con­ces­sion to deca­dent Parisian tastes, to in­clude ex­tended dance se­quences, some of them bor­rowed from Gluck’s ear­lier pro­duc­tions. “Back then, opera wasn’t just opera,” says Ivany, “it was a full night out” — a va­ri­ety show with a lit­tle some­thing for ev­ery­body. Th­ese novel el­e­ments aren’t merely play­ful; today, they’re nec­es­sary to find­ing new au­di­ences who have no pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence with opera. While com­pelling Cana­dian pro­duc­tions have been writ­ten in the past — sto­ries about Louis Riel and Chi­nese mi­grants in Con­fed­er­a­tionera Bri­tish Columbia — opera is not in this coun­try’s cul­tural vo­cab­u­lary. “It isn’t taught here in the same way that it is in, say, Ger­many,” says Mokrzewski, “where it’s part of the fab­ric of a child’s ed­u­ca­tion.” When asked if he wor­ries about the fu­ture of the genre in Canada, Mokrzewski does not hes­i­tate: “I ab­so­lutely do.” But he ar­gues that, de­spite the ca­reer dif­fi­cul­ties that mu­si­cians now face, opera is still an es­sen­tial art form be­cause it con­nects au­di­ences with their pro­found­est feel­ings: grief, love, ter­ror, and long­ing. “Opera tells hu­man sto­ries with a height­ened emo­tional di­men­sion,” says Mokrzewski. “It helps us ac­cess deeper parts of our con­scious­ness.” Five days be­fore the open­ing night of Or­phée+, Miriam Khalil, who was play­ing the role of Eury­dice, prac­tised in a tiny room along­side Jen­nifer Szeto, the prin­ci­pal coach for the pro­duc­tion. Szeto played the piano while Khalil sang with a level of in­ten­sity that was, at times, over­whelm­ing in the small space. When the Olympians per­mit Or­pheus to res­cue Eury­dice from Hades, they make one stip­u­la­tion: he mustn’t look at her as they travel to­gether back to earth. He keeps this pledge for most of the trip, only to break it in a mo­ment of weak­ness near the end of the jour­ney, con­sign­ing his wife to a sec­ond, fi­nal death. Khalil and Szeto were re­hears­ing a scene where Eury­dice im­plores Or­pheus to glance her way. The mu­sic is al­ter­nately plain­tive and ag­gres­sive, as if

the heroine, un­sure whether to se­duce or be­rate her lover, has re­solved to do both. “Pace your­self,” Szeto told Khalil. “Hold back, then choose the right mo­ment to let every­thing go.” Khalil often sings in large houses, where “hold­ing back” isn’t an op­tion. “When you’re in a big pro­duc­tion, you’re al­ways think­ing, ‘This part needs to be heard at the back of the the­atre,’” she says. In a smaller venue, the pres­sure to project isn’t as strong. “I can play with colours and vol­umes. I can go to my qui­etest, most in­ti­mate place. And I can act. The au­di­ence can no­tice me just fluttering my eyes.” The day af­ter Khalil’s re­hearsal with Szeto, I watched her sing for the first time with her co-lead, Si­man Chung, a counter-tenor with a crys­talline voice. They prac­tised one scene over and over: the mo­ment when Or­pheus finds Eury­dice and, with­out look­ing at her, ex­tends his hand her way. For an in­stant, Eury­dice al­most remembers who Or­pheus is. His touch rushes through her, and she stares at him with long­ing and con­fu­sion and vague recog­ni­tion. Khalil’s and Chung’s ges­tures and ex­pres­sions were so sub­tle that they wouldn’t be no­ticed in a mas­sive venue; to ap­pre­ci­ate the artistry, view­ers must sit close. By re­duc­ing the scale of opera, com­pa­nies like Against the Grain are chang­ing how the art works. A genre known for grandios­ity here de­rives its power from nu­ance. In­die com­pa­nies are un­likely to bring opera back to its for­mer cul­tural or fi­nan­cial glory. The founders of Against the Grain hope, rather, to keep the art go­ing — to en­sure the mu­sic still ex­ists on stages in North Amer­ica (or, bar­ring that, in grimy al­ley­way bars). Theirs is a ro­man­tic vi­sion, and th­ese thoughts were on my mind as I watched Khalil and Chung re­hearse the re­union scene, which felt si­mul­ta­ne­ously tri­umphant and pre­car­i­ous. Or­pheus has grasped the love he thought was gone for­ever, but he knows that he can lose it again.

above Against the Grain’s Or­phée+ is the com­pany’s most am­bi­tious show to date.

left Or­phée+ fea­tures a video artist, two cho­ruses, a crew of bur­lesque dancers, and an aeri­al­ist.

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