Making Sense of Modern Relationships

opera’s next generation shows how it’s done, with the help of Maestro Mozart

The Burroughes is decked out tonight.  Sumptuous flower displays adorn the tables, which are draped in impeccable linens; the floor shines as if newly waxed, and the lighting gives the furnishings a soft halo of gold.  Occupying a place of honour near the dance floor is a stately grand piano; the string quartet is quietly tuning their instruments, making final preparations for the evening’s festivities.

You are early, it seems; not even the wedding planner is here yet.  But it isn’t long before the bride and groom sweep in, checking the room over one last time, counting chairs and tables, adjusting centerpieces – but something is different.  Just a second… are they … singing!?

Against the Grain-Susanna and Figaro
Miriam Khalil as Susanna and Stephen Hegedus as Figaro

Now, if you are me, at this point in the proceedings you are filled with such giddiness and joy that you are no longer able to form coherent sentences.  This is no wedding!! you exclaim to yourself.  It’s an opera!  And the opera is happening right now, in real time, around you!

The fact that this is just about the pinnacle of what I define as “exciting, life-changing” might explain why I became an opera singer.  But I’d argue that this kind of theatre can be, and is, one of the most thrilling ways to experience stage dramas for any theatregoer, be it opera, musical theatre, or stage plays – not only because it’s up-close, but because it’s possible to make it intensely personal.

Back in Shakespeare’s time, the cheapest tickets were at the front of the Globe Theatre.  Attendees would mill in the pit — mere feet away from the actors on stage — and cheer, heckle, and comment on what they were experiencing as a group.  The drama was personal – arms’-reach, in the vernacular, and often topical – and their reactions were visceral.

In later centuries, opera-going became a bit of a status symbol.  Grand opera cost a lot of money, and it was fashionable for the 19th-century bourgeoisie, eager to prove their possession of “good taste” and “status”, to appear splendidly dressed to take a seat in a box at the Opéra Comique.  They’d show up for the second half, after a luxurious dinner, and talk all the way through.  Experiencing opera wasn’t about the music or the story – it was about being seen.

It’s my somewhat idealistic hope that those days are slowly disappearing.  There has been an observable shift in the average age of an American opera audience.  Companies anxious to survive have changed marketing strategies, offered discounts for young people, and undone the top button, offering laid-back, no-dress-code symphony and opera performances designed to be less intimidating than a full, formal “evening at the Opéra”.  Indeed, as a wise lady once said in a recent (hilarious) article, “My advice to people who are interested in opera but are intimidated by opera snobs: Give it a try. Your money is as green as theirs.”  I’m not sure anyone cares what you wear, as long as you  get in the door and leave changed for the better.

A huge force in this shifting paradigm is the grassroots opera scene; at the forefront in Toronto is Against the Grain Theatre.  That wedding-opera I mentioned above?  That’s AtG’s latest project, Figaro’s Wedding.  Adapted from Mozart’s masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro with a new English libretto by director Joel Ivany, the AtG version incorporates all of the music, replaces the recitative with cheeky dialogue, and distills the storyline to focus on the two relationships at the center of the drama – Susanna and Figaro, and the Count and Countess (in this version, Al and Rosina).

Ivany has a knack, that’s for sure.  In a cultural climate where relationship dramas and reality shows dominate TV, he spins a story that involves us as closely as we are involved in the lives of the latest Bachelor and his prospective dates, or the hopes and dreams of the American Idol finalists.  He aims his modernized, lighthearted dialogue straight at an audience who is just about at that age where they feel like all they do is plan and attend weddings – who couldn’t relate?  And though the music is still good old Mozart, its trappings are brand-spanking-new – a chic wedding venue in downtown Toronto, a wedding gown custom-made by Toronto designer Rosemarie Umetsu, an attractive and hip cast of characters immediately likeable and human.

Christopher Mokrzewski, the company’s musical director, spoke to me about an important question that continues to come up in discussions about modernized operas.  We think of this music as the type that should be treated with reverence, as if it were a museum piece – is adapting it thus a blasphemy of sorts?  Does it compromise the integrity of the piece?

Against the Grain-Suzanna, Figaro, Cherubino
Miriam Khalil as Susanna, Stephen Hegedus as Figaro and Teiya Kasahara as Cherubino. (L-R)

“Our mandate at AtG,” Mokrzewski said, “is to do familiar works in a new way.  You can see something like Nozze di Figaro anywhere; I land on the side of doing alternative productions, as we will always have the traditional productions.  But we’re doing this right now, so it’s vibrant, and alive, and helps us look at our lives in new ways.  I don’t think being open-minded and having integrity are mutually exclusive.”

For me, that certainly sums up the how and why of traditional pieces in modern contexts.  It’s those age-old tales that can offer so much wisdom and perspective – they just have to be presented with the right spin.  Classical music companies seem to have to struggle to justify their continued existence to funding organizations and to prospective audiences.  The real struggle should perhaps be to refocus those offerings in a way that makes them as relevant as possible.  Many companies are succeeding at this, at the grassroots level — Baltimore’s Figaro Project comes to mind – and the higher levels as well.  

That being said, the impetus for a production like Figaro’s Wedding isn’t the need to create something funny and novel, though that’s a great byproduct.  It’s the music above all.  Director, Joel Ivany said to me, “There’s got to be a way to make our own statements about what’s been around for so long”, and the fact that we continue to feel there is something to be said through these pieces which have endured for hundreds of years is pretty significant.

So, if not for the immersive experience of having an opera unfold around you, as melodramatic as any soap opera, or for the novelty of this highly fashionable production, go for the snappy comedy, the incredible singing, and most of all, the sublime music of Mozart, which, despite any modern twists AtG proposes, retains the intense drama and beauty that makes it timeless.  And hopefully, you’ll learn something about yourself in the process.

If you go (have a drink for me!) –

Against the Grain – Figaro’s Wedding

May 29, 30, 31 & June 2, 2013 @ 7:30 PM 

The Burroughes, 6th Floor

639 Queen Street W., Toronto, ON

From $35 online and at the door

Directed by Joel Ivany

Music Direction by Christopher Mokrzewski

Set Design by Patrick DuWors

Costume Design by Erika Connor

Lighting Design by Jason Hand

Custom Wedding Dress Design by Rosemarie Umetsu



Stephen Hegedus as Figaro

Miriam Khalil as Susanna

Alexander Dobson as The Count

Lisa DiMaria as The Countess


Accompanied by:

Music in the Barns Chamber Ensemble with Christopher Mokrzewski

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