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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

FEATURE | Toronto Opera Directors Ponder "What's Next For Opera?"

By Matthew Timmermans on January 31, 2018

Since the beginning of 2018, opera-goers have waited in anticipation for Toronto’s opera companies to reveal their 2018–19 seasons. The Canadian Opera Company got the ball rolling last week by releasing theirs, and Opera Atelier just after. At this crucial moment, when deciding whether to subscribe to the opera for the first time or the 50th, it is important to ask ourselves: “why is opera important, and what is next for the genre?” And who better to answer this question than the artistic directors of Toronto’s opera companies?

Although they unanimously agree that opera is unique because it is a live event, each director has her or his different idea about what that event might look like. According to their responses, it is clear that there are a multiplicity of ways that we can experience opera in Toronto this year. It’s up to you to choose which is right for you; what seems like a simple decision may determine what opera will look like in the future.

Loose Tea Music Theatre

Alaina Viau, Artistic Director

Tapestry Opera

Michael Mori, Artistic Director

Against the Grain Theatre

Joel Ivany, Artistic Director

Opera Atelier

Marshall Pynkoski, Co-Artistic Director

Canadian Opera Company

Alexander Neef, Artistic Director

— — — — —

1. Why is opera important?

Ivany: Opera is about telling stories through music.  Music allows us to emotionally connect with that telling of the story.  Stories allow us to reflect on life and at times teach us new lessons and move us to action. I’m about to open a production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking at Minnesota Opera and this piece has the power to change someone by focusing on a theme such as forgiveness.

Pynkoski: I believe in the 21st century, people are becoming more and more divorced from their emotions. Technology, while providing many benefits, has also erected barriers between us and has played a large role in breaking down personal communication with each other. Technology does so much of our living for us that we are left experiencing emotions vicariously, rather than being personally and deeply engaged. Opera strikes at the heart of this problem. I believe that opera has the potential to encourage––indeed force––people to become participants rather than voyeurs. Opera can elicit genuine emotional response in the viewer/ listener and a live performance becomes a cathartic experience which puts us in touch with all that make us most human. Opera, at its very best, merges all art forms and becomes a music event, a literary event, and a dance event––all of these art forms working together to engage the individual at every level.

Mori: Frankly, it isn’t. If was important now, it would be either a significant or at least a growing cultural influencer. Opera has the potential to be both vital and increasingly important, as a unique live art form, drawing from many disciplines and catalyzed by the soaring vocal power of its stars.

Why isn’t opera important? Opera needs to increase its vitality and relevance before it can claim importance in the world today. At its best and most relevant historically, it has been a coming together of a time, place, and culture.

Viau: Art is an important aspect of culture because it reflects who we are, what we value, and offers a chance to reveal an understanding of ourselves and how we interact with the world.  Opera is special because it is a highly collaborative and multi-disciplinary art.  Opera pulls together some of the most creative people in all fields, striving to make the best, most meaningful piece of art they can.  The level of passion that is shared from the director, designers, musicians, technicians, even administrators––they all have to be both individually and collectively incredible to make it all work together.

Neef: Like no other art form, opera elevates the human experience and makes of its basic materials something sublime. The importance of that process is in seducing us to actually think about ourselves deeply and critically; it makes us ask basic questions in a very different way than we do in our ordinary day-to-day lives. That was definitely the case for me at my first live opera, which was a performance of [Beethoven’s] Fidelio in Stuttgart. It created a heightened level of emotional turmoil that I had never encountered before. And with that particular story, it really did make me think about issues like personal freedom and societal interactions in a way that was completely different and new to me. I think that’s why opera’s important, because in its unique combination of music and singing — people essentially doing something between extreme athletics and high-level artistry — it creates the most powerful catalyst for self-reflection.

2. What is your favourite opera?

Ivany: One of my favourites (there are so many good ones) is The Love of the Three Oranges (L’amour des trois oranges) by Prokofiev.  The concept of a play within a play established, great characters,  a wild story which allows for creative interpretation and the music is phenomenal.

Pynkoski: My favourite opera is Charpentier’s Medée. For me, it is a perfectly conceived and realized creation. The libretto reflects everything that is finest in classical French drama, and it is perfectly supported by the musical accompaniment. The recitative in Medée was considered of paramount importance and was created with a degree of care which is, in my experience, unique. Charpentier’s Medée represents the very best of storytelling, opera and ballet. No performer could ever be the same having been involved in a production of this masterpiece.

Mori: Wozzeck. It’s Buechner plus Berg. Brilliant, fucked-up and cool. It’s also a very progressive sounding opera that managed to both harshly criticize its bourgeoisie public and be beloved and celebrated by them. Despite being non-tonal, Wozzeck has an incredible energy and inertia, and the destabilization of the music works as a powerful function of the drama. At its heart, it’s a show that drew its power and essence from meaning something to the place that it was created in.

Viau: That’s a ridiculously unfair question because I can’t choose just one!  I’m currently working on Massenet’s Cendrillon and am constantly captivated by the music.  I actually first heard the music in the ballet Manon by MacMillan, and was gutted by it.  I was so happy when I learned that it was actually from an opera, and has an equally applicable use in the Ballet, where more people can experience the music.

Neef: An impossible question! Even though I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, I feel that I’m still only halfway through my exploration of the art form and still discovering the richness, and beauty, and depth of this music, from Baroque to contemporary. As a producer of opera, too, I’m not hugely invested in an abstract idea of a favourite score or a favourite piece — because to me it’s also about the individual performers who bring a piece to life.

3. What opera would you recommend to a beginner?

Ivany: La Bohème (preferably in English).  A beginner needs to let opera sweep over them and figure out the rules on their own.  Opera shouldn’t need a big explanation and with a piece like Bohème, you kind of just get it.

Pynkoski: I would recommend Mozart’s Magic Flute, Figaro or Charpentier’s Actéon. All three of these operas contain ravishing music and moments of timeless humour, coupled with an underlying pathos which audience members find deeply moving.

Mori: Tap:Ex – Tables Turned. Composer – Nicole Lizée. It’s a combination of turn-tables, classic film, Maria Callas, popcorn and beer and it clocks in under 75 minutes. Also, a number of people have told me that it was perfect for bringing a non-opera date. One couple who saw it on their second date ended up getting married a year later at our subsequent Tap:Ex – Metallurgy. The proof is in the ring!

Viau: Any opera, really.  A lot of people would recommend something by Mozart or Puccini, but I have been surprised when I have taken newcomers to Wagner or Berg operas, and they have LOVED it.  As long as the show is really well performed and produced, a newcomer will love it.  Badly-staged opera can turn anyone off of the art form, similar to a bad experience at a restaurant.

Neef: People come to the opera from so many different backgrounds and bring such diverse experiences that it would be hard to nail down one piece, but if I had to, I would say Bizet’s Carmen. It has melodies that people will recognize instantly, even if they’ve never stepped into an opera house; it’s also one of the few extremely popular operas that have psychological depth, and of course, there is true theatricality and drama there.

4. How do you make opera relevant to today’s audiences?

Ivany: I believe that as producers, we need to be aware of what is going on in the world today.  With Against the Grain Theatre, we created a piece called BOUND that looked at people confined by a futuristic government because of prejudices against them.  This is currently happening by even the most progressive governments and for artists to investigate, understand and interpret how opera can interact with these issues is vitally important.

Pynkoski: Opera becomes relevant when it is presented in a way that is coherent. I believe we are hard-wired to think laterally. Human beings have never lost their capacity to enjoy storytelling, particularly if the story in question is timeless and iconic. Audience members must be made to feel engaged from the moment they enter the theatre. The moment they are made to feel that they are “missing something” or that they must be an initiate is the moment, in my opinion, that you have lost them. Opera becomes relevant when we trust it and allow it to speak with its own voice.

Mori: We must hold ourselves to the same criteria and high standards as current and successful music, tv and film, and theatre. It’s kind of simple, really. The general public is by and large well educated and curious with a broad exposure to music and theatre. Unsurprisingly, they have a no BS policy. We have to consider the barriers that prevent them from encountering opera, and the barriers that prevent them from enjoying opera, and remove them.

Viau: I don’t think we have to “make” opera relevant.  The stories and themes are examples of human experiences of life; music is the universal language that invisibly connects people through age, race, background and history.  This has been and remains relevant.  What we do need to do, is be aware of how we present opera and be conscious of contextualizing the art form so that the audience can care about it.

Loose Tea Music Theatre was created with this in mind.  I believe that what is presented on the main stages is not necessarily an accessible way for all people to interact with opera, or how everyone wants to interact with it.  The audiences that come to our shows are generally not “opera-goers” in the traditional sense and have not really had the chance to connect with the art form.  When they do experience it for the first time, they are blown away.  I’ve received comments like, “I had no idea THAT was what opera was” or “Their voices are incredible!  I can’t believe I was so close to the singers!”  To me, it’s about presenting opera in a way where the interaction is different and more accessible.  Opera needs to be presented in many different ways and settings, which helps feed the overall ecosystem.  This is achievable as long as we can understand that the “grand” operas presented on the main stages are not the only valid form of opera.  We’ve taken this a step further by not only reimagining traditional operas like Carmen through a modern lens, where Carmen is an ambitious woman trying to make her way in 2018 and a DJ rescoring the music, but also by taking opera in new directions, such as co-creating “Whose Opera Is It Anyway?”, an improv-game-based comedy show, with Second City alum Carly Heffernan, using opera singers.

Neef: If we’re asking ourselves how to make an art form relevant, that assumes it’s currently irrelevant and I certainly don’t subscribe to that view. I have a strong belief in the pieces that make up the art form of opera, and my job is to bring together artists who share in that passion, who tell these stories with conviction. Opera only exists if we perform it, and performance requires interpretation. While any interpretation could be perceived as more or less intrusive, whatever we do we must make our interpretive decisions as 21st-century performers for a 21st-century audience.

5. What do you think opera will look like in the future?

Ivany: I hope opera will continue to grow, breathe and expand in scope and size. It feels like now, more than ever, the menu of available options is growing richer and more vast.  Opera comes in all shapes and sizes, and they all have importance and worth.  New works are being presented at the Prototype Festival in NYC; the Deutsche Oper Berlin has been operating a second stage for more experimental works since 2012, larger companies are expanding their repertoire into smaller spaces (LA Opera, San Diego Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria).  Technology is being incorporated into opera, and that will only expand creativity as well.

Pynkoski: Hopefully, opera will look much as it does now. Live performances will always have an immediate, visceral appeal to the public. I believe there is room for opera to harness new technologies on stage, but I also believe opera can be stripped back to its most basic elements and be equally effective. I am more concerned with what our audience will look like in the future. How do we ensure that our audience reflects the demographics of the city and country in which we live? How do we convince people to buy a ticket, take their seat, and wait for the curtain to rise?

Mori: If it is to survive, opera will have to look increasingly like us, like Toronto … diverse, inclusive, progressive, flawed. I am excited by the innovations in VR [Virtual Reality], AR [Augmented Reality], robotics and AI [Artificial Intelligence] that we will be working with at Tapestry in the next few years. Despite my attraction to the digital and technological world for the future of opera, I also see opera as an antidote to the increasingly digital present-day. Opera at its best is sophisticated and compelling live performance that inspires emotion and provokes thought in large groups of people sharing a similar experience… it’s the perfect counterpoint to a world hooked on individual screens.

Viau: I think that we will continue to have the traditional presentations on main stages, but I also think that the art is going to change and be pushed by creative minds.  I’d be excited to see opera performed In more untraditional venues with as many different languages, stories and viewpoints as possible.  How about an opera about police brutality, women in politics, or the restaurant industry?  I think we are also going to employ more techniques from the growing technology around us.  If we can be brave enough to try and fail and redevelop and experiment, we could see some really exciting opera presentations.

Neef: Opera has been around for 400 years, despite regular pronouncements of its imminent death, so I have a great belief in the power of the art form to survive. Obviously, when we talk about the future, there’s an immense opportunity with emerging technologies to create greater access and reach — and that’s certainly true. But to my mind, the key to the art form’s survival will remain the live experience: the singular feeling of sound in a space. I will also say that there is a lot of very intriguing new work and contemporary opera being produced on a smaller scale, and it’s my hope that those exciting, chaotic, and diverse experiments will make it onto the bigger stages in Canada to support a culture of contemporary opera.


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