Joel Ivany’s career seems to be taking off. His work with Against the Grain Theatre here in Toronto is impressive enough, but in addition he directed the recent World premiere of Gavin Bryars chamber opera Marilyn Forever with the Aventa Ensemble in Victoria, directing a new production of Les Contes D’Hoffmann with Edmonton Opera, and revived Minnesota Opera’s Nabucco. That’s on top of writing a new contemporary libretto and directing a new adaptation of Le Nozze di Figaro, aka Figaro’s Wedding for Against the Grain Theatre.
Upcoming projects include directing new productions of The Rape of Lucretia at Western University, Korngold’s The Silent Serenade at the Royal Conservatory of Music, his American debut of Verdi’s Macbeth at Minnesota Opera and Albert Herring at The University of Toronto. With AtG he will direct Debussy’s opera, Pelléas et Mélisande in the new year, but first a staged/choregraphed version of Handel’s Messiah.
In anticipation of AtG’s Messiah I ask Ivany ten questions: five about himself and five more about this new creation with AtG.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
I like to feel I’m equal parts of them both, a moiety (having just directed Britten’s Lucretia). The last few years of directing opera has required a Type A mentality and personality, which is a gift from my mother. Without her organization, I wouldn’t be able to do the things I do. Her creativity has also been a huge blessing. I’m able to push the organization aside when I need to, and see through the artistic lens, which is what makes what I do different from someone else.
I’m more like my father when things go poorly. Instead of getting angry or upset, I feel I’m able to let things go and see the best in a situation. I’ve also inherited his humble spirit. I am very thankful for what I have, and I realize that to be able to make a career and support my family through the arts is a gift. Not everyone is as lucky as I feel.
Also, my beard is definitely from my father. I’ve only known him with one and I’ve decided to carry on the tradition. I can’t bother shaving every day.
Both of my parents work for the Salvation Army and are ordained ministers. At one point I was preparing to be a youth minister. I had worked at summer Salvation Army youth camps in both Canada and the USA for over 10 years. I was reading through Bible commentaries and learning about the history of the Salvation Army. I was a skilled tuba player (in the Salvation Army, you’re handed a brass instrument after diapers) and sang in the choir. It all shifted during a yearlong residency in London, UK while I was watching Chicago in the West End. I just decided that I wanted to tell stories, in a theatrical way. That is what I found exciting and what I wanted to pour my passion into. I came back early to Toronto, and began making connections. A very talented and creative stage director, Brent Krysa, led me to U of T’s Opera School, where I met my first mentor, Michael Albano. The rest snowballed from there!
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being artistic director of a company such as Against the Grain?
The absolute best thing is collaborating with peers I trust, respect and admire. I will take an idea, or Toph will bring one up and then we get down to work. To see the reaction from that idea, watching it grow and having others carry it further than I thought possible is incredibly rewarding.
The last note sung or played from any AtG performance is the best feeling I’ve ever had.
The worst thing about AtG (though not really a bad thing) is that with each success, the demands, expectations and pressures build. Each production has grown in budget, presentation and acclaim. It was extremely difficult at the beginning as I was avalanched with fundraising, promotion, booking, scheduling, designing, website building and directing. All I wanted to do was direct. Thankfully, people saw and understood that vision. During the first year, the company grew with the help of several people, namely Carrie Klassen, Miriam Khalil and Jennifer McGillivray alongside the indefatigable Caitlin Coull and my bestie, Topher Mokrzewski. Nancy Hitzig and Cecily Carver came on board the following year and took us to incredible new heights. We’re finally ready to leap even further ahead with the help of Lucia Cesaroni, who has come on board to take charge of donor and patron relations, and Nina Draganic, who is helping us out as an artistic advisor.
There are so many incredible little details that are very important to me. People trust us with their investment. I want to make sure that we are returning that investment by truly inspiring people.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Any show with good writing and complex characters. I love Friday Night Lights, House of Cards, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
Robert Wilson and Philip Glass have always transfixed me. I sat mesmerized through Einstein on the Beach when it stopped in Toronto. It was simply different and awe inducing.
I love watching sports. Hockey, basketball, baseball, football. I can do it all, it’s just finding the time that’s hard. Topher and I have an NFL pool (which I am currently ahead).
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I always wanted to dunk a basketball. Never happened.
I wish I could compose. What a beautiful gift composers have. There is nothing greater than a good story paired with incredible music. It would be a dream come true to write music to one of the stories I have floating in my head.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
I spend most of my time outside of work with my family and friends. I love my family. Parents on both sides, cousins, nephews and nieces and siblings.
In this business, I find friendships come and go in waves. At times they are immediate and fruitful and then they hibernate for a season or two as gigs carry us away. I’ve enjoyed the last few years seeing friends marry (Toph and Cait’s wedding was a major highlight) and others who are now having babies.
I also love working out. Running, cycling, any sport really. Just over 10 years ago I cycled across Canada, from Vancouver to Halifax and it was one of the most inspiring trips I’ve ever made. I would recommend everyone to see our beautiful country this way.
I also enjoy reading. It’s a gift and I’m finding the time to do it rarer and rarer these days.
Five more concerning AtG’s Messiah
1-Please talk about the challenges in creating your adaptation of Handel’s Messiah in the growing tradition of Against the Grain, a company with a history of great originality.
The joy I find from directing opera is in telling a story, and the story always comes from the text. The challenge with something like Handel’s Messiah is that there is not a concrete narrative. The text is from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. Messiah was written as a theatrical work, however through time it has evolved into performance on the concert stage.
I’m sort of a Messiah neophyte. I’ve only been to one Messiah and it was the sing-a-long at Massey Hall many years ago. I’ve sung one of the bass numbers and have played an arrangement of the “Hallelujah Chorus” in Salvation Army Brass Bands. I don’t come with any preconceived notions other than knowing that Messiah is normally done at Christmas and with soloists in front of the orchestra with binders and gowns/tuxes.
An AtG point of pride comes from finding unique performance venues in Toronto, and we’ve been dying to do something at The Opera House for a long time. This project seemed like the right fit. By pulling it out of the concert hall, I hope people will be more willing to accept this work done untraditionally.
One challenge will be the balance of musical integrity versus the movement. We’re asking our chorus to memorize the score. Our chorus is made up of 14 people who could all be soloists themselves. This presents a challenge of blending, to make 14 voices sound as one. And to ask them to memorize the music and add movement…well, I’m proud of them already.
The movement is going to be unique. Our choreographer, Jennifer Nichols and I are splitting the numbers in half. Jenn has an extensive background in dance. She’s in the ballet corps at Opera Atelier and runs The Extension Room (a studio known for its innovative fitness classes that take inspiration from classical ballet).
The core idea of this piece for us is freedom. Removing constraints. Getting to the heart of the music, and recognizing the reason why Handel put these notes together and why it has moved people for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Jenn and I don’t know how this will work as we mesh both our visions, as it then requires coordination with Maestro Toph and an absolutely top-tier orchestra. It’s scary and exciting – but that’s what the arts should be!
2-What do you love about Against the Grain Theatre?
I love to see how it has slowly been taking shape. It has been a continuous uphill journey and I love seeing people excited about us and about the works that we’re presenting.
Everyone we work with has put in immense amounts of time. We respect the traditions of theatre and the history of how it has been presented both traditionally and currently. That is true of our designers, our performers and our core team. Though we are small, we dream big.
I also love how people love to work with us. I think that’s a testament to the team that we have. I am so incredibly proud of the people who choose to perform with us, because it’s not for the money (though we do pay everyone who works with us, and all of our mainstage roles are offered through Equity contracts). It’s for the love of what we do!
I also love to envision where it can go. We have a plan and I’m more excited than ever to get there. It won’t be for another 3 or 4 years, but that’s exciting to know that we’ll keep growing until then.
I think we’re comfortable in our place. We know what we aren’t. We know what we can’t do. That makes it easy to work with a company like the Canadian Opera Company. We can’t do what they do, but we can work with them because we’re both after the same thing. To build community through the kind of music and storytelling that can truly change people.
I also love that we can explore different artforms. We are not constricted to opera; we can explore dance, theatre and opera. When the bourbon comes out, Fancy Figaro Toph and I come up with all kinds of crazy ideas.
3-Do you have a favourite moment in AtG’s Messiah?
The opening of AtG’s Messiah will be incredible for me. Instrumentally, the most we’ve done at AtG is piano and string quartet. This time, Maestro Tophski will be conducting an 18-piece ensemble! This is a HUGE undertaking and accomplishment. This will be Topher’s first Messiah and we’re overjoyed that he will conduct it with AtG. That is one of the reasons why we are here. To pass down these great works for the first time. It all starts somewhere. For Toph, this is his. That is exciting.
As the overture flows into Comfort Ye, the Tenor soloist will have a choice. Will he continue the way he’s performed the Messiah before, or will he venture out and try something new? We will witness that choice and from there, it will be a series of inspired singing and choices from all four soloists. I can’t wait.
I’ve been listening to this music since last spring, and there is something incredibly pure and perfect about the score. Handel just knew how to write great music.
4-How do you feel about the relevance of Messiah as a modern-day citizen?
I grew up in the church. In many ways, the church and the world of opera are one and the same; our main audience is shrinking; we are desperate to find ways to make it relevant and attractive to young people; we are closing buildings because they are too expensive to keep up and/or no one is attending.
Audiences are incredibly intellectual. They can smell BS a mile away whether it’s on our stages or from the pulpit. I know that authenticity is something that we all crave. We want truth and we want realness. That is the core of Handel’s Messiah. It is a piece about freedom, hope and sacrifice.
Whether one believes the text to be truth or fiction, one cannot deny its poetic beauty. I feel that this piece is calling for a visual authenticity.
Some may prefer traditional presentations to ours, but I’m confident that everyone will undoubtedly see the uniqueness of AtG’s Messiah.
5-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
Paul Curran is someone who gave me an opportunity. He is a stage director I admire, and he always took the time to treat me well. I was able to intern with him at Washington National Opera and then at the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo. I am indebted to him for showing how to respect, challenge and stay committed to storytelling.
Thaddeus Strassberger is another peer whom I admire a great deal. I met Thaddeus through Paul Curran. Thad is a gifted stage director and designer directing opera all over the world. I’ve been fortunate to work with him on a few major projects. His heart is huge and I admire him for his work but more importantly for his generosity and humour.
Through Paul Curran (again…see a pattern?) I also was fortunate to work with Robert Carsen in Oslo. I am indebted to Robert for connecting me with all of his shows here at the Canadian Opera Company. His work is amazing and I have consistently been blown away by Robert’s commitment to the project at hand and his focus on every detail.
I keep these colleagues and mentors at the forefront of my mind with each project I tackle. Would Paul like this? Would Thad find this interesting? What would Robert say about this look?
The person I admire the most is my wife, soprano Miriam Khalil. She is my sounding board for everything that I do. Many AtG ideas have come through her and she is my muse. Her creativity is boundless and I know that AtG wouldn’t be where it is without her inspiration. I know I wouldn’t achieve half the success I’ve been fortunate to have without her encouragement and support.