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Toronto's Bicycle Opera Project kicks off second-annual summer road show on Saturday night

By John Terauds on July 5, 2013

The Bicycle Opera Project on the road last summer (Diana Piruzevska photo).
The Bicycle Opera Project on the road last summer (Diana Piruzevska photo).

The brave young artists behind Toronto’s one-year-old Bicycle Opera Project have turned what began as a bit of a lark in 2012 into a going summer concern, with an in-city launch performance of a second season on Saturday night at Array Space and on Sunday at Toronto Island before taking off for parts southwestern — on their bicycles.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

Summer 2013 was supposed to have started on Thursday afternoon, actually, but the first two performances had to be cancelled because soprano Larissa Koniuk was laid low — not from a road injury, but from a nasty, old-fashioned summer cold.

I caught up with her on Thursday, a bit scratchy-voiced, but pumped for the adventure to come.

On the artistic side, Bicycle Opera is all about emerging talent and social relevance harnessed to a 400-year-old artform.

As a touring company that gets around on two wheels, the Bicycle Opera Project is also about essentials — getting maximum dramatic impact with a minimum of means.

It is also about making the artform personal: Most of the venues are small, some are outdoors, and, for a three-day, six-performance residency at Stratford Summer Music later this month, unconventional.

The excellent quartet of singers — Koniuk with mezzo Michelle Simmons, tenor William Reid and baritone Geoffrey Sirrett — is joined by a trio of accompanists — pianist Wesley Shen, flutist Katherine Watson and violinist Leslie Ting.

And Shen will not be towing a piano behind his bicycle. “We decided that opera really needs bigger support from an orchestra,” says Koniuk of this year’s addition of a piano, which will be sourced at each stop.

Community support is essential for this shoestring-and-bicycle-clip affair. The artists have found billets or a patron to foot the bill for overnight accommodations in each of nine southwestern Ontario stops.

Even the seemingly toughest aspect of the whole enterprise, touring the vast stretches of space that is southers Ontario on two wheels, has not been a problem.

Koniuk, an experienced long-distance cyclist, admits that some of last summer’s company-mates for the inaugural tour (which stretched eastward to Gananoque) were apprehensive about foot-powered long-distance travel. “But these were the people who felt the most empowered by their own ability to cycle long distances,” says the singer. “They found that the body gets into a rhythm and people’s confidence grew.”

It helped that this novel way of touring musical theatre caught the attention of media. A CBC van trailed the gang during one leg of the trip. “People would cycle past us and say, hey we’ve heard of you guys,” recalls Koniuk.

The gang was encouraged enough to realise last summer that they would have to do it again. “The environment around us assumed that we would keep going,” says the singer. So they have.

This year’s programme runs to approximately 90 minutes, including the spoken introductions, says Koniuk. It consists of a series of contemporary short operas and opera scenes — all Canadian — by established as well as emerging composers and librettists: Rosa, by James Rolfe and Camyar Chai, Little Miss All Canadian by Lemit Beecher and Liza Balkan, Cake by Monica Pearce, an alternate scene from Aaron Gervais and Collen Murphy’s Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G., Trahisons liquides by Stacey Brown and Sébastien Harrisson and two excerpts from Slip, by Juliet Palmer and Anna Chatterton.

Koniuk says Bicycle Opera Project sent out a call for operatic scenes across the country that would fit the theme — “an arc of women’s stories,” she explains. It’s an arc enfolding humour as well as drama.

It deploys with the help of a few pieces of fabric, small props, and whatever furniture is available at each venue. “We have to be very adaptable,” says Koniuk. “We sort it all out when we get there.”

After this weekend’s Toronto performances, the troupe is off to Hamilton (July 11), Guelph, Elora, Fergus, Waterloo, Bayfield, London and, to close their 2013 adventure, the Stratford residency, which has them performing two different programmes (their main show split into two) in the town’s cafés, once at 9:30 a.m. and again at 5 p.m. each day on July 26, 27 and 28.

From left: Larissa Koniuki, Alex Samaras and xxx performing at Westben last summer (Diana Piruzevska photo).
From left: Larissa Koniuk, Alex Samaras and Nadia Chana performing at Westben last summer (Diana Piruzevska photo).

I asked Koniuk what the ideal audience size has been for their show. She couldn’t say for sure, but mentioned that last year’s performance in Gananoque in front of an audience of about 60 was her favourite. “They really got us,” she says.

“The city was so happy we were coming that they even billeted us with city staff,” Koniuk laughs.

She says the troupe also enjoyed their time in Prince Edward County, home to so many artsy escapees from Toronto. She describes their time there as full of “glowing positivity.”

That’s the tone on which they begin to pedal anew.

For all the details about Bicycle Opera Project, its programme and its 2013 tour, click here.

John Terauds

 

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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