A packed house of opera enthusiasts were reminded of the joys of spontaneous music-making at Against the Grain Theatre’s first edition of Opera Pub, their new series of casual concerts where you can experience music in a different space with a beer in hand and not many rules.
In most cases, the casual atmosphere didn’t compromise the high-quality singing. It was programming suitable for the mixtape era including music by Rossini, Mozart, Bernstein, Tosti, Puccini, and Gilbert & Sullivan, sung by Against the Grain regulars Clarence Frazer, Stephanie Tritchew, Aaron Durand, Caitlin Wood, John Brancy and Krisztina Szabó. The night was hosted by charismatic Music Director Topher Mokrzewski from behind the piano.
It was the spontaneous moments that made this a memorable evening of music. A malfunctioning iPad forced one singer to hold a note indefinitely, to great cheers from the audiences. The crowd responded so instantly to each performance. They clapped to the beat when Frazer hit the blistering coda in “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville, and laughed along when Durand substituted beer bottle for pan flute in Papageno’s Suicide Aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. It had the feeling of an after party when musicians kicked back, loosened up and playfully made music with their friends.
Opera Pub is not Artistic Director Joel Ivany’s response to the question of how to bring new and younger audiences to opera. The near-capacity crowd didn’t look much different than an audience at the Canadian Opera Company, though they were dressed far more casually. Insider jokes about trouser roles and convoluted plots went over well with the audience of enthusiasts. Over at the bar, a few surprised pub regulars seemed to stick around despite the surprising musical menu. But when Mokrzewski asked how many first-time opera-goers were in the audience, only two hands were raised.
Against the Grain has the enormous benefit of being a small, nimble company that’s mostly unrestrained by operational burdens faced by the city’s larger organisations. It doesn’t have to worry about filling enormous halls or keeping up with high overheads. As the company grows and becomes more successful, the challenge will be to maintain its ability to put on an event like Opera Pub without months of planning and a major financial investment.
The total budget for the night was the cost of a well-loved piano purchased on Craigslist earlier this week and rolled into its new home at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club. The piano was tuned earlier in the day, but as the evening went on the tuning became wobbly and fuzzy. But that’s known to happen in a pub.
Opera Pub by Against the Grain Theatre continues on the first Thursday of each month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club, 54 The Esplanade. The next edition is Nov. 3. Admission is free.