Whether spectators intend to be there or are simply in the pub when the show begins, Opera Pub showcases opera singers performing both famous and rarely heard arias and songs to an audience in the comfort of their bar stools. Since its first success in Toronto on October 13, 2016, Opera Pub is presented by Against the Grain Theatre once a month at 9 pm in the bohemian ambience of the Amsterdam Bicycle Club.
Like myself, many other Torontonians were clearly intrigued by the idea because there was not an empty seat in the house — sorry, the pub. Like half of the audience on Thursday, November 2, this was also my first-time hearing opera in as relaxed an environment as a pub, and true to AtG’s mission of performing opera in non-traditional spaces it was an intimate and unforgettable experience.
The Pub versus the Opera House
Unlike when attending the opera house, at Opera Pub there is no need to buy tickets or even come on time, unless you want a seat. To the horror of any traditional opera-goer, I arrived after the first of three twenty-minute sets to learn that there was only standing room left. With a diverse crowd of both older and younger audience members, many of whom had never seen an opera before, it seemed as if AtG had broken the constraints that plague opera from attaining a younger audience. Although there were many great performances that night, attested to by the cheering from the audience, I found myself captivated by this new audience’s reaction to this unique experience.
Before each of the three sets of five arias or songs, the pieces were comically introduced by the evening’s host and accompanist, David Eliakis. In his explanation of the pieces, Eliakis poked fun at some of opera’s ridiculous plots provoking the audience to laugh with him at opera, instead of perpetuating its stereotypes of being an inaccessible and elitist genre. However, once the music started everything went completely silent as the lights were dimmed so that the audience could watch and focus on the singers. Unlike when a pub showcases a band, where the audience feels free to eat, drink, talk, and laugh during the performance, the confines of the opera house seemed to creep back into Amsterdam Bicycle Club that night. Not only did I still feel rude speaking to a friend during the singing, but latecomers, who could come and go as they please, waited until the set was done before entering the bar so that they did not interrupt the performance. Although AtG removed opera’s stereotypically flashy costumes, rows of seats, and extravagant sets, it seems that operatic standards and culture remained instilled in the audience.
An Ironic Return to Opera’s Past
This has been the case since the event’s beginning. Inspired by a similar event in a bar in Oslo, Norway, where the bar owner said that there is only one rule, “when they sing, you listen,” Opera Pub has always upheld the etiquette of the opera house despite transporting the music out of the theatre. The irony of this entire situation is that when opera was created there was no expectation that the audience should restrain themselves from eating, drinking, talking, or even watching the performance at all. In fact, during the first half of the 19th-century in Italian opera houses, the audience would talk and gamble as the singers fought for their attention. For them, it was a social gathering. In the mid-19th-century in Paris, certain groups wouldn’t even go to the opera until the third act. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th-century that audiences went to the opera house to watch the opera! In a way, Opera Pub is AtG’s attempt to bring back the social to opera, but it seems that we still need time to adapt.
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The Performance Provoked more Questions then it Answered
There is some hope, however. During the last set, baritone Michael Nyby went on stage to sing the dramatic baritone aria from Charles Gounod’s Faust called “Avant de Quitter,” and he brought his beer with him. During select breaks in the aria he would take large gulps of his beer, which drew some laughs from the audience, demonstrating that opera doesn’t need to be taken seriously even by its performers. Although the singers did sit in the audience when they were not performing, I wonder if performing from bar stools would have removed the idea of there being any stage at all.
One of the highlights of the night was mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniels committed singing of “Ah! Que j’aime les militaires” from Jacques Offenbach’s hilarious comedy La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein. I was happy to see how much of the audience understood the French, and shocked at how bringing the aria out of its operatic context made it more hilarious and accessible.
Lastly, soprano Whitney Mather sumptuously sang “The world is waiting for the sunrise” a classical pop song cross over by Canadian composer Ernest Seitz that has been covered by artists including Duke Ellington and the Beatles. This beautiful piece showed the audience how popular music has drawn on opera, and functioned as a symbol of how Opera Pub is a step towards making opera relevant and exciting to new audiences once again. However, based on the audience’s reaction, including my own, it seems like we have a long way to go. Maybe the more important question is: do we want to shake the shackles of opera house etiquette from the genre?