Now, this is a cast we can relate to: Justin Welsh, Adam Luther, Gregory Finney, Keith Lam, and Stephen Hegedus in Against the Grain Theatre’s La Bohème. Photo by Gene Wu.
A huge challenge for opera companies in Toronto—and it has been for some time—is reaching newer, younger audiences. The Canadian Opera Company is doing some cool stuff, choosing more adventurous programming and offering discounted standing, rush, and youth tickets. But one new opera company is taking a different, more blunt tactic with audiences. It’s thrusting them right into the middle of it.
“For me, for [the opera industry], for the performers, for the audience, communication is important,” says Joel Ivany, founder and artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, a collective of artists “yearning for intimacy,” or so says their company mandate. In the hopes of giving opera a dose of “unsnootiness” (his word, not ours), Ivany and his company are performing Puccini’s classic La Bohème, but with a few changes—Ivany has translated the libretto from Italian to English, modernized the story to take place in present-day Toronto, and set the plot entirely within the performance venue, at the Tranzac Club.
Lindsay Sutherland Boal as Musetta and Justin Welsh as Marcello. Photo by Gene Wu.
“We went with Bohème, because if you’ve never heard of opera, you’ve probably heard of La Bohème. And if you have seen it before, you won’t have seen it this way,” Ivany explains. But stay calm, Puccini purists: the tale of six young artists struggling with love, death, coming of age, and making rent hasn’t been altered at all. Only small tidbits of Toronto are inserted into the script—a character hangs out at The Gladstone Hotel, and BMV and lululemon have cameos, as does street meat on Bloor. “It’s not done to be gimmicky—that’s really the situation of artists living in the Annex,” Ivany says, adding that the neighbourhood was a natural choice for the quirky cast of characters. “Pull five guys from the street [in the Annex]… that’s the cast of La Bohème right there.”
And if the characters of La Bohème were indeed residents of the Annex today, they’d probably be haunting places like the Tranzac, revelling in its dive-y decor. “I kind of stumbled by the Tranzac, and it was just screaming ‘bohemian.’ We don’t have to dress it—panels are missing, wires are hanging out, there’s duct tape on the walls. This is what this opera’s about.”
For Ivany, the Tranzac is not only the perfect venue but also the ideal setting for the show’s plot. As opposed to larger-scale productions with million-dollar sets, costumes, and choruses, setting the action of La Bohème within the bar allows the characters’ down-on-their-luck situations to hit the audience head-on. Not only does the Tranzac have a long history as a landmark for Toronto’s artistic community and experience with rent woes of its own, but the actors will literally be three feet away from audience members. Inspired by a similarly staged production in London, England, Ivany’s production isn’t bringing new audiences to the opera, it’s bringing it to them.
But now you may be thinking, “An updated version of La Bohème? Haven’t I seen that before?” The answer is, well, probably! The Tony Award–winning musical and 2005 feature film Rent is based on Puccini’s opera, set in New York City during the AIDS epidemic. But despite legions of 12-year-old Rentheads collecting every tissue in Anthony Rapp‘s wastebin, most of them likely have never seen the original La Bohème because of, you know, the whole accessibility thing.
“It would be awesome for anyone who loves Rent to come see it. There are some similarities, but what wins over is the music… Once you’ve seen it you’ll find it hard to do a comparison,” Ivany says.
Though he eventually hopes to take the show to other cities and stage it in their own equivalents of the Tranzac, Ivany says La Bohème certainly has a particular resonance within Toronto.
“What I love most about Toronto is its multiculturalism, and its diversity. The city is ultimately about people. And same with the opera—it’s about the people, a group of friends who genuinely care for one another. It’s about love. Toronto has these huge moments when it is about love, as cheesy as that sounds.”
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