In a few days Joel Ivany, Artistic Director of Against the Grain Theatre, will be premiering his new Hansel and Gretel at the Four Seasons Centre, in a Canadian Opera Company production. Singled out for last year’s Against the Grain creations (Figaro’s Wedding and Kopernikus), impressive in his COC debut (and managing to make a well-worn opera such as Carmen seem fresh & new), this is his eagerly anticipated return.
It’s a pleasure & a privilege to get a chance to ask him about the new show that opens February 6th.
BB: Whose idea was it to do the opera? Did you come to Alexander Neef (the COC’s General Director) and say “I’m dying to do this” or was he doing it anyway and plugged you in?
JOEL: He approached with the title. We had always talked about the Carmen [that Joel directed at the COC in April 2016], and he knew of my desire to do something new.
He approached with this piece, and considering where I was at in life, it just made a lot of sense.
BB: Your relationship with the company is a really interesting thing. I’m not saying Alexander is like your dad, as he’s closer to being your brother, but it seems that the COC have mentored Against the Grain and on a separate pathway, yourself as a director.
JOEL: Yeah… my first relationship with the company was as a light-walker and then as a supernumerary, at the O’Keefe Centre. I was also fortunate to see all the dress rehearsals of the Ring Cycle back in 2006. When Alexander started, I had my first assistant job working on their Bohème. He saw AtG’s original Bohème…so all those things, it all started together.
BB: So… you’re a dad. The second child is on the way. But is that the main lens? You’re not “just” a dad. Do you have a special relationship with the father in this show?
JOEL: Sort of. This opera and its characters are so familiar.
Even my son (5 years old) knows this opera through a kids’ TV program. There’s one episode of Curious George where he goes to the opera and it’s Hansel and Gretel in English.
He knows the tunes and some choreography. The whole episode is 15 minutes, but they’re able to get quite a bit across. So I can’t help bringing my life into the production based on who the characters are in the opera, bringing this family dynamic.
BB: Are you doing it in English or German?
JOEL: Our production has both. They have an English performance for schools but also one in German for the subscribers.
BB: So the cast has to learn it in both?
JOEL: The Ensemble is doing the English one. But they’re also covering the German one. They’ve got two versions bouncing around in their heads.
BB: That’s hard.
JOEL: And they don’t get much time on stage, so they’re getting put through their paces.
BB: Great idea though. So glad to hear that the Ensemble Studio get to do a show. That’s something that was missing the last couple of years.
JOEL: They’re doing two performances, February 13 & 15. One is for schools and then one is on a Saturday for families.
BB: Do you find yourself troubled in your gut with where the story goes?
JOEL: Sort of… In the Grimm fairy tale it’s a step-mother who sort of … life would be easier without her kids so she leads them off into the woods (!). I believe that humans in their heart do have good natures. But the Grimms’ tale was difficult to reconcile. The librettist of the opera removed that aspect of it and made the story with a husband & a wife. Her intentions are not meant to be so evil.
BB: It’s very Christian too. Can we talk about that? You have pagan stuff, faeries, you have a witch(!), and angels. And it’s modernized. So could you speak to where pagan & Christian shake down in this morality play, in a modern version?
JOEL: Yes, it’s a thing where in Toronto, we’re not living in a Christian-valued city. (while a lot of it kind of conservatively is). That’s a tricky thing to reconcile in the arts, because one way to move forward is that we have to be as inclusive as we can be. And that can be hard as the text is so explicitly mentioning these angels & God…
BB: You could cut stuff out. They did that with Magic Flute. The surtitles omitted the racist parts. Has there been any talk about adjusting the text?…either in the titles or what’s actually sung?
JOEL: Yes, in the English performances we’re looking into keeping what they meant while seeing about leaving out intentional Christian words. The German is trickier because of how authentic the company is in producing these works.
BB: So let me back up again. The modernization. You’ve got this big picture on the front of the theatre… Is this an opera for children? Or is it an opera that mature children can handle? It’s right on the boundary.
JOEL: It’s a good question, one I’ve tried to have in the forefront. Companies all across North America program this opera for children. Often they are turned into smaller school tours. There have also been interpretations that have been strictly for adults.
So our team – we’ve tried to make it so that a 9-year old could be as entertained by it as the 9 year old that is inside the thirty-year or seventy-year olds as well. We did a room run-through just before we moved into the theatre. The childrens choir were watching the scenes they weren’t in, and again to have them laughing at certain parts where the adults weren’t laughing is a good thing, because they’re getting something we’re not and vice versa…
BB : I want to ask you about the character of the witch. Are we talking about someone who is kind of a theatrical over-the-top grotesque? OR someone who is a manifestation of –dare I say it—evil? I guess it’s a matter of how you frame it.
JOEL: So…what you may see is a bit over the top.
BB: making it fun, wacky rather than too scary? To make it safer.
JOEL: Yes, a lot of people have asked how the witch’s end is met, in this opera. What’s important with her character is how important it is to conquer evil, to be faced with it, yet knowing that the kids can win over that evil. It’s a powerful thing for kids to see.
BB: Are you having individual meetings with your cast, to work through their motivation?
JOEL: Right away we met with the cast, and looked through the whole text. For example, we take a different approach in Act II. A lot of what we’re after, was inspired by reading Where the Wild Things Are. It’s a book that I’ve read to my son.
For the cast, we had someone read it to all of us. The hope was to trigger something, to remember. This is the power of imagination and make-believe. When a child imagines something it’s real to them, even if we don’t think it is.
BB: a child’s understanding of reality is different than an adult’s.
JOEL: Yes . So for this production, we’re living through their eyes.
BB: So Hansel & Gretel is an opera that’s concerned with poverty. And it’s right there on the first page.
How do you modernize that? Poverty in a forest home is distant & safer, but if you put it right in Toronto? that’s scary. Do you frame it as a neighbourhood in Toronto? is it like Regent Park?
JOEL: Well it certainly triggered memories. In my 20’s I was much more heavily involved in the Salvation Army. My parents still work for the Salvation Army and we were all more heavily involved with ministry in Regent Park.
BB: It’s such an interesting place.
JOEL: We did a lot of kids programming there. There’s obviously hundreds and hundreds of kids in these neighbourhoods. And you’re seeing generational impact. How did these communities form? At some point the government said “these sort of buildings will fix this issue”. And fifty years later they destroy it all, to make it brand new.
So we looked at brutalist government housing. Even right around the COC rehearsal spaces there are many low-income houses. Those communities played a part in what we were doing, and they’re all over North America.
BB: Is it kind of a universal look, how the set is designed? Does it seem “Torontonian” or is it more North American?
JOEL: North American. There will be some specific references that will show that it’s Toronto. But those could easily be adapted.
BB: Do you think this show could have a life somewhere else, as a co-production, exported to other cities, the way the COC has the Barber from abroad?… take Toronto to Madrid or NY?
BB So can I ask you about the opera itself? What’s your favorite scene? [no answer] Do you have a favorite scene?
JOEL: Ha… that’s a good question. Maybe this is a cop-out answer, but it’s very blocky, like little chapters. But they all flow really well, one into the other. And we have lots going on while one scene is equally going on at the same time. We’re lucky to have so much tech-time, to sort out how sharp we make those other stories, if that makes sense…?
BB: like projected stuff?
JOEL: That, and new stories. This opera is typically set in one house set in the woods. For us it’s set in an apartment building where you know most of your neighbours.
BB: Did you grow up in a building like that?
JOEL: We moved around a lot, because my parents worked for the Salvation Army. I don’t think we ever lived in a building like that. But we visited many…
BB: it’s nice to have that sense of trust. Would you say that underlies your work… like a social contract we would see onstage. The world is a safe place: did you used to play on the street as a kid?
BB Me too.
It’s a hard thing to reconcile in my head, having had to drive the kids everywhere, because it was deemed unsafe for them to walk to school. This sense of safety underlies our sense of trust though, doesn’t it.
JOEL: Yes…and that’s an overarching theme in this production.
BB: another way to put it, you have scary movies that teach children to be viscerally afraid. I don’t think that’s what you want to do. You want it to be a safe world.
BB: BUT watch out for people offering you nibble nibble mousekin treats.
JOEL: And that’s a great question for adults too. Is the world safe? How safe is it?
BB: I think that underlies a lot of the political splits you see, between liberals and conservatives in Canada & the US. Are we going to be xenophobic? Are we going to slam the door and not let anyone in who comes from another country? In modernizing, you’re dealing with a story-book mythic aspect to the story. It’s not “once upon a time” anymore. Do you have an element of storybook magic around this, or does it… become like a “panto”?
JOEL: That’s been brought up. Even this over the top stuff…We’re viewing it through their eyes. How they draw. And what does that drawing look like?
BB: is there actual drawing happening? Are the kids doing what kids do..? they’re on the floor sketching?
JOEL: yeah. And that’s becoming part of the projected world that we’re showing as well.
BB: wow so it’s self-reflexive.
JOEL: And it was –my five-year old—who helped inspire. It’s also special that he is in the show as well. As a super.
JOEL: At one point he was looking at the set. He kind of sketched the set on a piece of paper. And he called it his “battle plan”. We had also just watched Home Alone. There’s one scene where Kevin sets up all the rooms and what he would do. Well that’s kind of like what it is. The kids leave Act 1 on a mission. Mom told us to get food. How are we going to do that? Where can we get food nearby? So we’re looking to involve elements of their adventure.
BB: so: your cast. Are the angels dancing? Or children singing?
JOEL: so there’s a 30 person children’s chorus. For the two English performances the company is working with assembling a community choir of an additional up to 70 kids who will come in. So for those two performances there may be 100 kids, and for those 70 they’re coming in the day before to get familiar with the stage, and be on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre. It will be very powerful.
Others in the cast, well I’ve never worked with Russell Braun or Michael Colvin. They’re very different from what I thought, but not in a bad way. It’s just they’re very kind and they’re very playful too. I thought they’d be very serious.
BB: And you’ve worked with Krisztina Szabo before.
JOEL: yes it’s always nice working with her, this time in a different capacity.
And Simone Osborne, she was the Micaela when I did Carmen here, so now to see her embodying such a different character is very much a testament to her performance.
So she’s great. So when she and Emily Fons (a joy to work with) are being brother or sister, eight & nine year olds they can really … when they commit to going after it it’s really amazing.
BB: Is that how you’ve identified it, for them? That they’re playing an eight or nine year old?
JOEL: And young enough to still believe in witches.
BB: Are they like twins or do you see one being older than the other?
JOEL: I had an older sister so I view it that the sister is just a little bit older.
BB: Even if they were twins, girls are a bit faster to develop, usually more mature at the same age. They know all the rules. I have an older sister too, so I can relate.
And so the musical side is just rolling merrily along I guess?
JOEL: That’s been good, yeah.
Another artist I’ve been wanting to work with: Johannes Debus.
And so to be able to do that, and he’s been so open to meshing this contemporary world to what he’s doing. The story-telling that the parents do, it’s been a lot of fun.
“Collaborative” has been the key word.
BB: Someday Against the Grain will do their version?
JOEL: someday maybe. It would be fun.
BB: so….Every Christmas they hand over the opera house to the Nutcracker. A lot of opera companies put on Magic Flute or Hansel & Gretel: because it earns money for the company while also recruiting young audience members. I’m sure they’re being paid well for the ballet rental. But… it would be interesting if they could slide some opera performances in there.
JOEL: well I do think they’re hoping that this will be something that can come back easily.
BB: say on March break…?
JOEL: Maybe. We are hoping that it can connect with the kids and parents alike. As I mention to others, one theme that I keep coming back to is how we were all kids at one point. From how we are raised is kind of where it branches off. Diversity is a strength, but in many ways, we all started the same way.
The Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Hansel and Gretel opens Thursday February 6th at the Four Seasons Centre. For further information click here.