Eagerly anticipating Against the Grain’s Orphée⁺ next week

I’m writing about Against the Grain Theatre right now as I think about their imminent co-production of Gluck’s opera, that they are calling Orphée⁺ (the original press release said “an international co-production between AtG, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and Opera Columbus“, although AtG now also mention “NYC’s Company XIVon their website).


The production’s arrival in Toronto is imminent, a show that premiered last night south of the border with Opera Columbus, who are already known hereabouts as the employer of Opera Atelier regular & star Peggy Kriha Dye, the General and Artistic Director of Opera Columbus.


Against the Grain music director Topher Mokrzewski

Let me make an analogy.  Let’s say Against the Grain are the Beatles and it’s still the 1960s.  All four were still alive back then in the 1960s when they could do no wrong and if you were like me, you hung on their every word, guitar strum and batted eyelash.  The thought they might ever break up(??!) was as unthinkable as growing old and dying to those of us who were young at the time (who knew!?).

I’m a fan who wondered at times if AtG could break up, as we watched Topher take a job for awhile in Calgary, as we watched Joel take all sorts of directing jobs all over the world.  Would they continue creating edgy projects here in Toronto? Or had they outgrown AtG? I am sure I’m not the only one who figured that after their Da Ponte trilogy of transladaptions, each more impressive than the last, after presenting and reviving Boheme and Messiah, that maybe they would lose interest, perhaps not be bothered.  Would they be distracted by better offers elsewhere?  Was AtG merely their youthful proving ground where they found their first fame, before going on to bigger and better things?

The Canadian myth for success especially in theatre, opera and music has essentially been the story of artists who get their legitimacy by being discovered abroad:

  • Robert Carsen
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Donald Sutherland
  • …and I’m sure you could list another 100 very quickly

Against the Grain Artistic Director Joel Ivany

Or is that template now out of date?  Topher split his energies east and west for a time.  Joel & his wife Miriam have a child and probably have more than enough miles just going out to Banff where they workshop their shows before bringing them to Toronto, without adding a host of foreign destinations.   I hope I’m right in sensing that Against the Grain have renewed their covenant with themselves & the company in this new project pulling them together (admittedly in a co-production with others outside Toronto), everyone seeming committed and making an important contribution.  But a co-production is a great way to be able to do something exciting in Toronto.

I’m going by the promotional materials I’ve received plus the press I’ve read concerning Orphée⁺, in considering three elements, namely burlesque, aerials and the musical side.

Burlesque has been re-invented in the last decade, a site for women to reclaim their bodies in all shapes and sizes.  It is no longer the voyeuristic spectacle of objectification & pornography from the last century, indeed the aim to titillate has been replaced by a kind of fun celebration, as burlesque has come to signify inclusiveness & empowerment.

We’ve seen burlesque begin to enter the visual lexicon, part of the movement vocabulary for theatre practitioners.

The challenge for any show is to make the new and glamorous element an organic part of the whole.

Aerials are now solidly established as part of the visual theatre vocabulary, an addition to the toolkit that a director can’t ignore.

  • We know aerials have roots in the realm we sometimes call “circus”, from companies such as Cirque du Soleil
  • Theatre artists have been importing aerials for a long time, for instance Robert Lepage, who brought aerials into Erwartung (1993), Damnation de Faust (2008), his Ring cycle (2010 – 12) and Needles & Opium (2013)
  • An essay I wrote about it a couple of years ago .
  • Inspiring imports such as The Return ,Triptyque
  • Inspired local creations such as Balancing on the Edge  and Bruce Barton’s experimental YouTopia
  • …and we can’t forget inspiring productions at the Canadian Opera Company (in addition to (Erwartung) such as Love from Afar, and Semele

So it would seem like a natural to remake Amour, aka The Goddess of Love as an aerial goddess of glamour as in the pictures I’ve seen (such as the one at the top of this blog).

As for the music I’m on shakier ground in my projection/ speculation. The Berlioz take on Gluck was used recently by Opera Atelier in their production. But perhaps more importantly there’s also the use of electronics & sound design. Is this too part of a new vocabulary?  One can look at electronic incursions into classical performance, for example:

  • Haus Musik (where Tafelmusik regularly marry their authentic sound with new electronic improvisation + staging to match)
  • The annual Electric Messiah

Electronic and Electro-acoustic music have been there for awhile, and regularly  incorporated into operas, either in the score or in adaptations of older rep.  I could list lots of productions, but I have no idea what AtG’s adaptation will be like, so they’re not terribly relevant, except as a reminder that electronic music and electronic/digital processing of sound & music are normal ingredients in theatre.  We will see & hear soon enough. I sense that AtG want to ensure that their adaptation is an update both in the visual and sonic realms, but I’m just guessing. This weekend they’re in Columbus.

On the AtG website it says
“Against the Grain Theatre, The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Opera Columbus, and NYC’s Company XIV collaborate to present the Gluck/Berlioz masterpiece, the opera Orphée et Eurydice. We all know the original Greek myth: the musician Orpheus is grieving the death of his lover Eurydice—and gets one chance to retrieve her from the Underworld. In 2018, we think this would become an electronic, baroque-burlesque descent into hell. While staying true to the original score — which features the world’s most exquisite melodies of love, loss, and desperation — and honouring the traditions of Baroque opera, this new production pushes the boundaries of operatic presentation through an orchestra that mixes acoustic and electric instruments, features captivating choreography from burlesque dancers, aerial artistry, and a global virtual chorus.

I’m looking forward to seeing Orphée⁺ next weekend, one of the three Toronto performances.  When I went online to buy a second pair of tickets to go with my comps (because four of us will be going; I said I was a fan, remember?) there were still some available.

Find out more & book tickets by going to AtG’s website.

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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