Over the last decade, Toronto-based company Against the Grain Theatre (AtG) has built a reputation for re-imagining old works and creating boundary-pushing new opera productions. In honour of its Tenth Anniversary, the company is remounting its inaugural production of La Bohème, this time taking the show on the road. The production has visited Banff and 7 other communities between Banff and Toronto, many of which do not have regular access to opera.
Even for seasoned opera goers AtG’s La Bohème is a different experience. The performance is set in a bar (as is much of the opera) with a modern-English libretto. According to AtG artistic director Joel Ivany, the reasons for these choices were largely pragmatic in the original production.
“We wanted to choose a title that people would recognize. We figured people may have heard of Bohème or Carmen. We didn’t have that much money (some things remain true) and we were determined to put on a show. We thought, “what if we matched a venue to the theme of the piece?” La Bohème is about poor artists who are choosing to focus on their art instead of what the world tells us we should be focusing on (paying rent, bills and getting a “real” job). The more we considered setting our Bohème in a bar, the more sense it made. We couldn’t afford projectors for Subtitles or period costumes, so we went with what we had.”
While money may still be tight, a lot has changed for ATG. The company is known as a thought leader in staging opera for modern audiences. The remount production of La Bohème has also evolved and there are new reasons why this opera is timely. Touring the production is entwined with what makes this show relevant today.
“We wanted to do something special with this production and I’ve been waiting to tour a production for some time. Now more than ever we need to be spreading messages of love, friendship and music. That’s what this Bohème is all about. We’re touring this specific production all over bars in communities that don’t have as much access to live opera or classical music. By bringing it to bars, we’re going to where the people are and saying that opera doesn’t have to be as intimidating as they may believe it to be”.
Touring La Bohème was a learning experience for performers as well as the audience:
“We’ve had so many people ask us to bring our shows on the road. I’ve been contemplating bringing a larger production on the road, but then kept coming back to our production of La Bohème. It started when we had nothing and with a bare-bones approach was more doable.
The performers (and crew) had to adapt quite a bit to each venue. Entrances and exits would change, the playing space would change, the size of audiences would change. In theatre we’re used to re-creating the same experience, but this tour was about changing and morphing the performance to suit where we were. The singers took some valuable experience away from this tour in terms of performance and willingness to go with the moment.”
While venues were a key change, it is not the only difference from the original production. According to Ivany, the talent is the life’s breath of the production.
“We tailor each version to the performers who are in it. As the writer (librettist) of the show, I’m able to adapt as I see fit. During the rehearsal process, we change words, we change intentions and really it’s an organic process. That’s a very liberating experience for the performers. They’re really able to take ownership over the role.”
Touring La Bohème has been a positive experience for the company:
“The reception in every single town and city was overwhelming positive. Every location asked us to come back many times. I think there was a lot of curiosity and skepticism which disappeared immediately once the singers started singing.
I met countless audience members along this tour who told me that this was their FIRST time going to an opera and they were hooked. That’s what this is about.”
Challenging the perception that opera is an elitist, high-art has been part of AtG’s ethos from the beginning. Under Ivany’s direction, the company has made bold changes to the performance practice of well-known works by rewriting them in English and cutting lengthy passages of recitative.
“We wanted to cut down on running time in many instances. Audiences today simply have a shorter attention span. We have to be willing to create shorter shows to remain competitive. As well, we were going for a more realistic experience, thinking of our audience again. We want them to relate to what they’re seeing and we want them engaged. The more they see themselves onstage, the more invested they will be.
What this allows is a new experience for those that are either familiar with these operas, or will be a brand new experience for the first time opera goer.”
I thoroughly enjoyed AtG’s La Bohème when they were a new-comer to Toronto’s opera scene. I have been entranced by their many excellent and innovative productions since then, including ‘A Little Too Cosy’ (adaptation of Così fan tutte) and new works such as ‘Orphée’. I look forward to raising a glass at this unpretentious production of a timeless work for a new time.