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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PREVIEW | Delving Into Against The Grain Theatre’s Remount and National Tour Of ‘La Bohème’

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on October 7, 2019

A new English text, creative staging, and overcoming other challenges of a national pub tour of La Bohème, including 11 days in Toronto’s Tranzac Bar, from AtG’s Joel Ivany and others.

Cast of Against the Grain Theatre's 'La Bohème' on tour
Cast of Against the Grain Theatre’s ‘La Bohème’ on tour (Photo: Against the Grain Theatre)

Where do you go to see live music? Fortunately, in Hogtown, it’s as easy as walking down to a local joint and sitting down with a choice beverage to see anything from rock, jazz, folk and punk, to world music. Even international scale productions at the Canadian Opera Company can be accessed for as little as 12 dollars (for a spot in the standing room) in Toronto, but it’s not so easy in some places — especially in a country as big as Canada. So what’s to be done? Take the Opera across the country, of course.

“To be honest, it’s been a goal for some time to tour a show. We’ve had so many people say, ‘When are you going to come out here?’,” says Joel Ivany, Artistic Director of Against the Grain Theatre. AtG has never been afraid to try new things, and have created real successes, including the wildly popular monthly Opera Pub at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club. AtG first presented La Bohème in 2011, and its lasting popularity — especially for non-opera heads (yet!), made it a great choice for the tour.

“I entertained the thought of doing La Bohème in a theatre for about 2 seconds,” says Joel. Traditional theatre opera production is expensive — space rental, costumes, surtitles, etc., so AtG turned the situation around: What if the art influences the venue? With a whole new world of choices, AtG, with the help of Nelson MacDougall, started to plot their first national tour. For the Toronto run, AtG chose the Tranzac. Located in the Annex, the Tranzac has been known to host small-scale experimental events, and its vibes being far from the traditional glitzy Opera theatres, made a great match for La Bohème, its plot thick with young artists struggling in the world, facing poverty, illness, love, jealousy — everything that makes up life, including death and loss.

An additional twist to this production is Joel’s new text, now set in English. “I understand that opera is an import. I have great respect for the languages that birthed opera… but if the mandate of a company is to intersect with your community, then it can’t hurt to at times provide them with something different— it’s still opera,” says Joel. The entire team is behind the new vision.

Joel Ivany
Joel Ivany (Photo : Against the Grain Theatre)

Joel’s interpretation of the story brings such a cohesive balance of hilarious entertainment and beautifully tender moments throughout the show,” says David Eliakis. David’s a familiar face, as the presenter-pianist for the Opera Pub sessions. The new English translaptation is a challenge for everyone; for David, getting away from the traditional Italian version, despite its difficulty, gave new incentives. “The new English text allows a certain musical freedom, so that we can play around with the rhythm and tempi to suit our version.”

Being the one-man orchestra isn’t an easy job, and travelling through different bars — including a hamburger joint, is certainly atypical for opera. But the love for his team makes it all worth it for David. “There is a genuine camaraderie amongst our group, which doesn’t always happen — I couldn’t have asked for a better group.”

With the touring aspect, AtG faces a few new challenges. For Joel, it’s to do with building up the show in the new communities. “We haven’t established ourselves in those communities, and so what reason would anyone have to go see an opera in a bar? It’s weird. But, for those that do take a chance, they’ll experience something that probably hasn’t ever happened,” he says. “We’re creating new audiences, but we’re also building the artistic ecosystem for emerging singers and those who have been doing this for a while. I don’t believe there’s a gap. As Nike says, Just Do It!”

The ever-changing logistics of the tour dates falls heavily on Imogen Wilson, the Creative Manager of the tour. When Imogen looked at the tour schedule, she realized that she must come up with the most flexible setup she could imagine. “The most challenging factor is the extremely different venues, with quick load-in times. I had to come up with something simple, effective, low power and flexible. I’ve gone with fully LED technology to reduce power consumption. The spaces are so different the design concept is more about setting a mood than any sort of precise cueing.”

Most of the scenes are set in a run-down apartment, so Imogen chose key elements to show that, but for the bar scene, she senses lots of fun in the future. “One act actually takes place in the bar — this will be very fun and immersive for the audience, because the performers are really taking over the bar. I want to support these plot-arches with atmosphere and mood through the design.”

And what about all the challenges of the road vs. a long run at the Tranzac? “The tour is quick, there’s even a stint where we do three shows in three provinces in three nights — there isn’t much time to source or add things while on the road,” says Imogen. And the Tranzac would be a welcome spot for the team. “AtG has done La Bohème in Tranzac, I believe, three times, so I know the piece works in that space. The design will be significantly fleshed out for the Toronto run. Larger stage, larger, more dressed set, and more precise and set lighting cues. Why not? It’s the benefit of sitting down in one place for two weeks.”

Marcel d’Entremont and Jonelle Sills in AtG 'La Bohème' on tour
Marcel d’Entremont and Jonelle Sills in AtG ‘La Bohème’ on tour (Photo : Against the Grain Theatre)

For Jonelle Sills, tragic Mimì of this La Bohème, she remembers falling in love with the opera as a teenager. A native of Markham, she first got to work with Joel on Glenn Gould School’s production of Cendrillon and Die Fledermaus, and when she was approached for the tour, she was ecstatic. “I was instantly in love with everything about it. I love that this tour tears down many of the intimidating walls that opera culture is built on.”

“Even as an opera singer, the opera world can be a little scary,” Jonelle adds. “The fancy buildings, fancy people, fancy costumes, fancy outfits…it’s a lot. And as much as we like to say anyone can come to the opera, it can feel pretty exclusive. But we take that all away! Nothing is really fancy about this tour and I love that. I hope that our audience members feel welcomed and see themselves in our characters.”

Jonelle readily readjusted to the new text, though she isn’t entirely sure what to call such a process. “I’m not sure if difficulty is the right word, but I think adapting my voice to English has had a lot to do with the phrasing. Puccini was a smart man, and set the Italian text beautifully with his music. With English, you can’t always phrase the text the same way,” she says. “In our rehearsals, we have been finding ways to stay true to what Puccini has given us, but still make it understandable. That has been the biggest adjustment.”

For Andrew Adridge, in the role of Schaunard, the opportunity came with a hint of humour. La Bohème’s plot was drawn from Louis-Henri Murger’s collection of stories, La vie de bohème and for Murger, it wasn’t just a fantasy, but a real day-to-day life portrayal of the free-spirited young Parisians from the 1840s. Rodolphe is based on Murger himself, and he built the character of Schaunard the singer on one of his friends, Alexandre Schanne.

In Act 1, Schaunard bursts into the scene with food, wine, cigars, wood and money to share with his freezing, destitute, hungry friends — finally, some riches for the young artists facing the reality of hunger. As a recent graduate, Andrew completely understands the joy his character brings to the scene. “Honestly, I was very nervous about leaving school in 2018. I hadn’t gotten into the programs I wanted, and I felt lost as to what this career looked like, outside of what feels like the traditional route of a young opera singer. I took a serving job at a catering company and worked on my singing with all my spare time.”

As Andrew’s currently going through it, his awareness of the world that includes arts is an interesting one; there isn’t much to encourage the young person beyond the traditional school/institutional apprenticeship programs, and this can be quite destructive. “The opera world for a young artist is a narrow scope,” he says. “If you aren’t on that path, it seems like you are failing, and if you are, you’re in constant fear of deviating from it.”

Gently coerced by the circumstances to face his fear, Andrew had to look outside the opera mold. “Once I left school, I made myself available not just to opera, but to art that fueled me — chorus work, choral singing, straight theatre, all were things I looked into as long as the art inspired me,” he says. “What I am most proud of is the amount my mentality has changed since leaving school. In April 2018, I was terrified. Today, I see a path to prosperity of my own measure, and it’s a constant reminder that no one can determine my success but myself.”

Andrew is now a full-time venue manager, and his musical world is on a good momentum. As the youngest of the cast, this is the second time he sings this role, and it is a different experience once again. “Schaunard was the first role I ever performed (Opera Nuova, 2016), and because of that, he holds a special place with me,” he says. “This time around, I’m taking a more youthful approach with Schaunard. Experiencing the death of Mimì in 2016, for example, was more assured and definite. This time, I see Schaunard as much more anxious and somewhat juvenile, which has informed the rest of the show for me.” Interestingly, the real Schanne, the son of a wealthy toy manufacturer, was only a temporary Bohemian, making Andrew’s insight for a tender, young character even more entertaining.

The tour is exciting for Andrew, but he is hyped especially for the Toronto dates. “I’m super thrilled to be doing such a long run in Toronto, as I will be able to sing for lots of friends and family. My mama’s my biggest support and biggest fan, and she is bringing all her ladies out for opening in Toronto. Toronto is home for me, and it means family.”

The enthusiasm for the Toronto dates, despite the excitement of the grand tour, is undeniable for David as well. “I can’t wait for the Tranzac shows — not only will I be back in the comfort of my home with my family, but I get to perform this wonderful piece for all my friends and colleagues. We’re performing eleven shows in Toronto (a few dates are sold-out already), so there’s no excuse to not see it!”

Andrew Aldridge, Danika Lorèn, and cast in AtG 'La Bohème' on tour
Andrew Aldridge, Danika Lorèn, and cast in AtG ‘La Bohème’ on tour (Photo : Against the Grain Theatre)

For our full-blooded Musetta, Danika Lorèn, performing in Toronto’s quite special. Originally from Saskatchewan, Danika moved to Toronto to study voice at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto in 2010. Since then, her artistic charm has created a royal following in the city. “I really benefited from the fan base that surrounds U of T musicians,” she says. “I started to realize that the scene in Toronto was eager to support young talent.”

Danika became a force to be recognized during her time in the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, and it is interesting to see how she looks at Musetta, having been in the both productions of COC and AtG’s La Bohème. “My Musetta debut with the COC was so beautifully tradition, and true testament to what Puccini wrote. I was so happy to learn and perform the role this way.” And what does she think of the AtG production, especially with its new English text? “The most noticeable difference is the use of modernized English text. I love to sing in English, and it is so rewarding to have audience be able to keep up with the drama as it happens, instead of whenever the punchline is projected in a surtitle,” says Danika.

Changes often accentuate what is still true, and for Danika, it made her own understanding of Musetta even more precise. “I definitely relate to Musetta as a character in any era. At first glance, she is the wild party girl that I definitely was in my early twenties: searching for validation, emboldened by my sexuality, and much more sure of what I didn’t want than what I did. But there are layers to every lovable character… she is openly emotional, and honest about her intentions and way of living. She’s the sexiest feminist in town!”

It’s an interesting time for opera enthusiasts, as two of Puccini’s most beloved operas are happening in October simultaneously: Canadian Opera Company’s season opener, Turandot, and AtG’s La Bohème. Premiered 30 years apart, Puccini chose two quite different subjects for these two operas — one of his own time, and another from a fantasy of ancient China. COC’s Turandot, with its minimalist set (no Zeffirelli here) and some attempt to update and address certain cultural issues, has been ruffling a few feathers amongst traditionalists — even from ring five, up in the gods.

AtG’s La Bohème couldn’t be any more different; its plot intertwined with our own time, spoken and sung to us in our own language, and served with beer in the house (with that unmistakable perfume of past spilled drinks on the Tranzac carpet). And you are literally on the set — Tranzac’s fully licensed bar, and you will be in the show.

Ever wondered if opera can be real? The chance is here now, and it’s time be curious. Circle a date, and walk in with your own daily get-up, whether it be a high-viz vest and bike helmet, or fancy new shoes to update that old, worn and comfortable everyday clothing. La Bohème couldn’t get more real here and now — especially with a pint from Collective Arts Brewing, or Steam Whistle.

Against the Grain Theatre present: La Bohème, 11-25 October 2019, at the Tranzac Club, Toronto. Details here.


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