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Where Against the Grain productions rarely exceed 1,000 tickets sold, the ticket registrations for Messiah/Complex climbed to more than 30,000 through the company’s website.

Alistair Maitland/Handout

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdown on live performances, Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre abandoned its planned Messiah stage production this past December. Instead, the tiny company partnered with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra on Messiah/Complex, an ambitious film adaptation of Handel’s beloved masterpiece that they billed as a “timeless piece of music with a distinctly Canadian twist.”

There was a twist all right. Where most symphony orchestras and opera companies are downsizing and scrapping productions within unfavorable creative conditions and daunting financial circumstances, Against the Grain hit the jackpot with Messiah/Complex. The 80-minute film has drawn more than 100,000 YouTube views, along with cash donations from 28 countries (there is no charge to watch it online).

Hoping to break even with its pandemic pivot, Against the Grain turned a small profit. By any measure, Messiah/Complex (which streams until the end of the month) has been the gutsy company’s most successful production ever – a viral hit, thanks (in part) to the virus.

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“Had there been no pandemic. this film would not have been made,” says Joel Ivany, ATG’s artistic director. “Because the pandemic forced me to be creative in how we approached it, that just made the reach far greater than anything we’ve ever done before.”

Clearly an online film would be accessible to a much wider audience than a local limited-run production or even a national touring show could ever tap. Where Against the Grain productions rarely exceed 1,000 tickets sold, the ticket registrations for Messiah/Complex climbed to more than 30,000 through the company’s website.

A film adaptation of the baroque-era oratorio widened Ivany’s creative canvas as well. For Messiah/Complex, four choirs, including the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, were commissioned. A boldly diverse group of 12 soloists representing every province and territory sang in French, Arabic, English and a variety of Indigenous dialects, all filmed in eye-catching vistas.

Gay Chinese-Canadian tenor Spencer Britten sang Comfort Ye My People wearing a black velvet tuxedo while walking in black stilettos in downtown Vancouver. Inuk soprano Deantha Edmunds performed her aria in Inuttitut, filmed in Petty Harbour, N.L. Tunisian-Canadian Rihab Chaieb put a secular spin on He Was Despised in Montreal.

The provocative presentation of the Bible-based text stirred a media swell that included multiple features in The Globe and Mail and The New York Times. “A Messiah for the multitudes, freed from history’s bond,” the latter publication heralded. The BBC picked up the story. And the strong endorsement on social media from author Margaret Atwood could only boost interest.

What it all means for ATG and the TSO is still being considered by those two organizations.

“It’s opened our eyes as far as how we rethink projects,” Ivany says. “It’s hard to imagine going back to the smaller audiences of maybe 1,500 when you’ve had 100,000 people view your last project.”

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Certainly the bar has been raised. Two years ago, CBC livestreamed ATG’s pub-set La Bohème from Toronto’s Tranzac Club. The production values were as modest as the scope of the staging – a single piano player instead of one of the world’s greatest orchestras, to start.

“I’m much more sensitive now in terms of what kind of production we put out there,” Ivany says.

Big productions cost big money, of course. Just how something such as Messiah/Complex can be monetized is unclear.

“There isn’t a direct monetary return on these type of activities that will ever supplant the live music experience,” says TSO chief executive officer Matthew Loden. “Where I see the real impact of livestreaming is not in highly produced programs but by simply turning on a video camera to give a concert to isolated seniors or to school classroom. It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect.”

Indeed, eight high schools and universities (including the Juilliard School) have already contacted ATG asking to use Messiah/Complex.

Perhaps education is what the film was all about in the first place. It’s hard to imagine a more awe-inspiring lesson on reconciliation and inclusion than the one presented. A masterpiece has been made masterclass to those open to the message.

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“What you see and hear in this film is diversity, equality and Indigenous singers,” Ivany says. “People have heard our government talk about these things, but they might not know how to participate in that. It might not be available in their community.

“But this film kind of had it all. Here’s incredible music, here’s language. I mean, you can talk about it, or you can do it.”

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