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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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‘Against the Grain’ theatre brings opera to bars

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Lindsay Sutherland Boal [Nikola Novak photo]

When most people picture a night at the opera, they see tuxedos and gowns and a large, beautiful concert hall, but Toronto’s Against the Grain (ATG) theatre company is creating a new, more casual way to experience opera.

“There’s something powerful about experiencing art in a much more intimate setting,” said the theatre company’s musical director Christopher Mokrzewski, 27.

ATG brings together professional musicians and performers for opera and classical music shows at small bars and art galleries. The venues are selected for their atmosphere’s suitability to the performance piece and for their acoustics.

Mokrzewski, an accomplished pianist who has worked extensively with the Canadian Opera Company, has been a part of ATG since last year, when it was founded by artistic director Joel Ivany.

The idea, Mokrzewski explained, is to present the audience with great art on their own terms. As its quirky and charming website explains, ATG would like audience members to listen to “an aria while you curl up on a couch.”

The attitude is not yet a popular one in opera circles, but the ATG style is gaining steam. So far, its experimentation in venue and musical arrangement has garnered the theatre company rave reviews in Toronto’s art scene.

“I think what we do is important in attracting new audiences,” Mokrzewski said, adding that while there is always a place for traditional opera performances, the casual and close-up atmosphere of a bar will bring in people who might not feel as comfortable at a concert hall.

“I think people respond to what’s different about it and what’s most visceral,” he said. 

ATG first made waves on Toronto’s art scene in December, with its sold-out performance of Puccini’s La Bohème (translated from Italian to English for the audience’s ease in understanding) at the Tranzac Club, a bar popular with the downtown indie music crowd.

Now, ATG is preparing a production of German-Jewish composer Kurt Weil’s The Seven Deadly Sins, set to be performed in March, at Toronto’s Gallery 345.

The lead soprano for the show, Lindsay Sutherland Boal, 35, agrees with Mokrzewski about the enhanced intimacy between the audience and the performers at small, unconventional venues.

“I think that you can experience so much more when you can see it and feel it and hear it and taste it when it’s that close,” she said, adding that she feels this type of performance is the future of performing arts.

“You’re saying, ‘We want you, we want you involved, we want to include you,’” added ATG’s general manager Nancy Hitzig, who, along with Mokrzewski, represents the Jewish members of the executive.

Hitzig, 25, who has worked with the baroque theatre company Opera Atelier, said her day job as a fundraiser for the Institute for Canadian Citizenship has helped her in attracting diverse audiences for ATG performances, what she calls “bridging the gap” between traditional and newer opera-goers.

“The established classical music audience is coming with us because they’re seeing new and innovative ways of presenting their favourite works,” she said. They also get to enjoy the same calibre of performers that they might see in a concert hall. “They’re not amateurs, they’re really powerful and they perform tremendous art,” said Hitzig.

 Even among the veteran opera audience, the less familiar crowds have no reason to feel intimidated in the casual settings where ATG holds shows.

“I have had so many friends tell me how excited they are that they can drink beer and listen to classical music,” she added with a smile.

The thrill of the relaxed environment is not just for the audience’s benefit.

“I rather enjoy the places that we work, and it’s a great opportunity for us to, so to speak, let down our hair,” said Mokrzewski. “I can drink beer while I’m playing, which I like doing, but is not always OK in other circumstances,” he added, laughing.

Though, it’s surely not just the beer that’s making the crowds and the musicians happy.

“There’s a power that comes with just being 100 people in the room, where it’s just you, and the artist, and the piano, and your friends, and strangers,” said Hitzig.

She added that while many performing-arts companies are struggling to get a younger audience in the door, ATG is having no trouble appealing to the next generation of opera patrons.

The youthful, vibrant energy in the audience gives the ATG performers a greater opportunity to discover new ways to display their art.

“What’s wonderful about our group is that we’re not hindered by conventional boundaries, and consequently, I think we can really explore all our options musically and artistically,” said Mokrzewski. “It’s good to be able to do what you want.”

For more information about ATG and for tickets to upcoming performances, visit www.againstthegraintheatre.com.

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