Loose Tea Music Theatre. Comedy Bar. July 27.
It’s no secret to fans of comedy that some of Hollywood’s funniest stars are native to Canada. The unassuming Great White North boasts comedians like Seth Rogen, Catherine O’Hara, Mike Myers and Jim Carrey, not to mention the improv stars of Whose Line Is It Anyway and Toronto’s Second City.
Alaina Viau, founder of Indie Opera T.O.’s Loose Tea Music Theatre, has spent the last few months bringing this talent for comedy into the opera world with her popular show, Whose Opera Is It Anyway.
A new, monthly show at Toronto’s Comedy Bar, Whose Opera Is It Anyway features local opera singers, accompanied by pianist and Indie Opera T.O. fixture Natasha Fransblow, as they improvise through song and speech to hilarious results.
Viau, a former opera singer whose company has created poignant, 21st-century adaptations of opera classics, came upon the idea when working with Second City’s Carly Heffernan on Second City’s Guide to the Symphony with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Heffernan and Viau then collaborated to create a workshop to train opera singers in the art of improvisation.
“I essentially opened the workshop up to any singer,” imparts Viau over the phone. “You could just show up.”
And while many opera stereotypes naturally lend themselves to comedy (think: Bugs Bunny meets Wagner or Simpsons spoofs like The Homer of Seville), the personalities and protocol behind the scenes in opera are just as funny as what audiences see on stage.
“We identified things that we felt we could make fun of,” Viau tells Musical Toronto. “Especially contemporary opera or [tropes like Henry Purcell’s] Dido’s Lament… It’s just taking these themes and developing them into an improv sketch, which, as it turns out, is hilarious.”
Indeed, Thursday night’s performance drew huge laughs from both opera fans, performers and non-opera lovers alike. Performers had audiences reeling in ridiculous spoofs of vocal masterclasses, improvisations of a contemporary opera complete with extended techniques one could easily find in a 21st-century performance, and ambiguously European opera impresarios introducing obtuse art song recordings with desperate pleas to the Canada Council pitched in between improvised songs.
And these performances aren’t just enjoyable for audiences, but also help the participants to grow artistically.
“It’s actually quite liberating for the singers to create,” Viau describes, “instead of being locked into an aria or opera or character. The singers totally make their own.”
Alaina Viau has always been interested in how to bring opera into our current world. Her modern-day adaptations of Carmen and Faust feature hashtags like #yesallwomen and plausible psychological diagnoses of problematic characters like Faust and Don Jose.
“I love opera,” she tells, “but I also can get bored with it. I’m always looking at how can we integrate opera into regular life. Not making it something it’s not, but saying that actually it is part of regular life.
“I love it when the opera people think [Whose Opera Is It Anyway] is funny,” she continues, “but I really love it when the people who have never seen an opera think it’s hilarious. It means it’s universal. Sometimes we get stuck in our opera corner and forget that it actually is an art form for everybody. You need to put it into context so people can enjoy it. Whose Opera Is It Anyway shows that opera is a viable art form that people can enjoy.”