One Intense Waiting Room
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One Intense Waiting Room

An ambitious new production takes opera to some deep and dark places, but loses us slightly along the way.

Richard Armstrong and Fides Krucker get frighteningly close in Julie Sits Waiting. Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh.

Julie Sits Waiting
Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson Avenue)
September 14 to 23
$30 to $40

For years now, opera critics and workers have wondered how to make the artform more relevant and accessible to new audiences, in order to avoid the death sentence so often predicted by headlines and ticket revenues. With a couple of new shows in Toronto, we’d feel comfortable to use the phrase “It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings” when it comes to contemporary opera—only there aren’t any fat ladies or other operatic stereotypes to be found.

Julie Sits Waiting is an example of how opera is pushing itself to find new spaces, stories, audiences, and aesthetics. Performed in the tiny Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, it’s more like watching an opera in a dingy basement rather than the traditional ornate, historic theatre. And that’s perfect for this show—the first libretto by playwright Tom Walmsley, and set in a house undergoing renovations. It is the home of Julie (Fides Krucker), who secretly meets there with Mick (Richard Armstrong), an Anglican priest she first encountered online, while her husband is walking with his fellow police officers in a Toronto parade. From that first meeting on, they continue their immoral affair (she’s betraying her husband and daughter, he’s betraying God), until their emotions spill over into a dramatic end.

It’s not the plot line per se that makes Julie Sits Waiting a unique experience, but rather the “electro-acoustic” aspect of the production. Walmsley’s simple back-and-forth dialogue, sung with impressive intensity by accomplished vocalists Krucker and Armstrong, is supported by a variety of off-kilter sounds—pencils writing, hands rubbing together, traffic, dripping water, and eerie disjointed symphonies of horns and strings. Meanwhile, as Julie and Mick succumb more and more to their primal urges, computer generated projections take them into the first ring of hell.

The concept and execution of the atmospheric elements of Julie Sits Waiting are admirable; Krucker and Armstrong’s performances are visceral and strong. Armstrong literally shakes with desire or disgust, sometimes both, when he sings, and Krucker delivers a necessary moment of humanity as she sings about her 13-year-old daughter, Bernadette. But where the production falters is the audience’s connection with Mick and Julie, both of whom are cast as evil from the start. Their downfall is predictable, and not so far from where they started. The audience isn’t given time to feel sympathy for Mick and Julie’s love, if that even is what they feel.

Like the previous site-specific opera A Synonym for Love at the Gladstone Hotel, Julie Sits Waiting is a welcome step forward for contemporary opera in Toronto. But while the projections and sound design are intriguing, an interesting story with compelling characters needs to remain a first priority in such productions.