There are more talented artists graduating from the programs training them than there are possible jobs. It’s one reason we have Fringe Festivals: because we’ve trained so many good young actors, directors & playwrights, that they can create their own companies, their own opportunities to showcase themselves.
And something similar seems to be happening in the operatic world. How else to explain the plethora of companies in the area? Against the Grain, Essential Opera, Toronto Opera Collaborative, Volcano Productions…(?) That’s a quick list of companies started recently who are providing outlets for the growing talent pool in the region.
And there’s also Opera Five, a company dedicated to challenging our assumptions about opera. Their new program that premiered tonight certainly does that.
It’s called “Opera Eats”. We alternate between yummy hors d’oeuvres and three delectable little one-act operas. Preceding Rachmaninoff’s Aleko we get blini, pierogies, dumplings (or so it appeared), before Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück we were presented with food arranged symmetrically on skewers, matching the back and forth of that work. There was then an intermission –with food (including something resembling a rum-ball on a stick…mmmm don’t miss those!) and drink—before we returned to our seats for the last opera.
Composer Milton Granger came forward to explain some of the subtext for his work Talk Opera, the third work of the night. Granger explained that in the 1990s “talk radio” was really big (a two word epithet that explains the title). Imagine a talk show where opera characters are interviewed in the manner of Jerry Springer. Rigoletto, Gilda & the Duke are all brought out before the studio audience, explaining themselves at least partly with the help of Verdi’s music. Granger’s opera is delightfully deconstructive.
Directed by Aria Umezawa, the cast manage to stay in character –and somehow manage not to burst into laughter—while exploring their motivations for us. Pop psychology meets Verdi’s middle period, and while I’m not sure who wins, the audience lapped it up. Johnathon Kirby gave us a Rigoletto who persuaded me that he deserves a shot at playing the Verdi character in the original opera (instead of this modern purgatory), being by turns funny & sad, including some wonderful bel canto singing. Erin Stone as Cookie (the TV show host) had a very different sort of task, singing a much more dissonant part full of new-ish music –and the opera is mostly tonal—while effectively hosting proceedings. Stone took the stage fearlessly throughout.
Before intermission we heard two earlier works. First off was Hindemith’s palindromic work, a curious piece whose action unfolds very much as the title would suggest. This work was also directed by Umezawa, as an absurdist romp with an over-the-top mise-en-scène. Based on what I saw in those two works, Umezawa’s an excellent director with clear ideas. While there was no let-down in the Granger opera that closes the evening, in the Hindemith I’d say there is no let-up, in a short work of wild intensity. I know it wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste –speaking of food—but I found its offbeat style captivating. Wow.
The other work on the programme is the oldest of the three, namely Rachmaninoff’s Aleko. When I saw that the plot concerned infidelity I was put in mind of two works roughly contemporary to the opera, namely Cav and Pag: or in other words, I wondered if Rachmaninoff was thinking of verismo, which was all the rage in European opera in the 1890s. But no. While there are realistic elements in the story –including lurid killing—the dramaturgy is very different. The story must stop for characters to comment as if it were still under Verdi’s influence.
Rachmaninoff’s score is full of striking moments & sonorities, especially in a piano part played with great boldness by music director Maika’i Nash. While Aleko was the weakest of the three dramatically, it had many musical highlights. Natalya Matyusheva as Zemfira, and Joshua Whelan as Aleko were wonderfully intense, and Justin Stolz as the Young Gypsy had spectacular moments as Aleko’s romantic rival.
“Opera Eats” will be presented again Wednesday & Thursday of this week at Gallery 345.