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Director Joel Ivany delivers a production of Carmen you can trust

Joel Ivany, stage director for the upcoming production of Carmen in his COC mainstage directing debut, is photographed at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, Ontario Wednesday March 23/2016.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

You wouldn't immediately cast soft-spoken, gentle Joel Ivany as a superhero, but there's something of a Peter Parker/Spider-Man vibe about him nonetheless. By night, Ivany is the founder and one of the artistic leaders of Against the Grain Theatre, perhaps Toronto's most creative opera producers, responsible for their great and highly original Mozart adaptations (Figaro's Wedding, #Uncle John, A Little Too Cozy), as well as their Schubert/Messiaen mashup, Death and Desire, one of last season's greatest shows.

By day, however, at least by day these days, Ivany can be found in the cavernous Toronto rehearsal space of the Canadian Opera Company, preparing his singers and chorus for the COC's next main-stage presentation, opening next week – the ever popular, ever tuneful, heart of mainstream opera – Carmen.

And if there's a connection between the two Joels, the AtG Ivany and the COC Ivany, it's the deep humanity that informs his work on both stages. Those Against the Grain fans who revel in that company's daring modernizations of Mozart may be somewhat disappointed in the relative conservatism with which Ivany is approaching this Carmen. Or, more to the point, those COC customers who fear yet another Regie-driven extravaganza on their hands can be comforted with the notion that this will be a Carmen they can trust.

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It's not just that Ivany is inheriting a production that has been presented twice before at the COC, in 2005 and 2010, with basically the same set and costumes – it's more that for him, Carmen should be presented in a more or less traditional way.

"It's true there's so much luxury working at the COC," he says, "but I don't know how you can do Carmen on a smaller scale – if you can't do Carmen like this, then why do it? Carmen is a spectacle, the Broadway musical of the day. It's got great tunes, tons of people on stage, jokes, violence, passion – it's all in there and if you can just spike it at the right time, that's what will make it work perfectly."

Ivany is not a complete neophyte in the world of the big, conventional opera house. He has directed before in Vancouver, Edmonton and Minnesota. He was an assistant director on several previous COC productions, working with Peter Sellars and Dmitri Tcherniakov, among others. But this is his first COC gig as the main director. And as much as he'd like to, he can't help but notice the difference between his "daytime" and "nighttime" artistic endeavours. "At Against the Grain, we're so grateful to be able to rehearse at all. Let alone saying: 'We need the background fire pit installed for today's rehearsal, can you get that done?' There's so much luxury at the COC, so many different people involved. On the other hand, I'm involved with every aspect of an Against the Grain production – the schedule, where we're rehearsing, who I'm rehearsing with. I'm responsible for everything – so the show lines up completely with who I am. Here it's much more of a collaborative effort."

Ivany welcomes the collaboration, however – one of the most challenging and ultimately satisfying aspects of the real world of big-time opera. Those productions we see in all their polished glory on the Four Seasons stage are the result of an immense collaboration between designers, directors, singers, musicians, conductors, administrators – and sometimes consular officials preparing visas and travel agents working out complicated international airline routes.

Ivany is right at home in this atmosphere. Because where Ivany most shows the similarity of his work in his two worlds is in his collaborative building of character and drama in his shows. And that's especially true of Carmen, which, when all is said and done, is a character study of four people thrown together by fate and circumstance.

"Carmen, from the first time you see her to the end," notes Ivany, "says: 'This is who I am, take it or leave it. Today I'll love you, tomorrow I won't, but you'd better watch out.' She's consistent. So is Micaëla [the betrothed of Don José, the man who Carmen dazzles to his ruin]. I think she's very strong. She's very young, but she knows what she wants as well. Escamillo [the bullfighter, Carmen's other lover] is not a caricature, but someone who gets off on the thrill, the rush of 'I may die today.' And Don José – he starts in Act 1 somewhere and he goes somewhere completely different by Act 4."

And who of these characters surprised Ivany the most when he started working on the opera?

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"Don José. He's incredibly more complex than I would have thought. There's a rage inside him, but we don't really see it. We kind of sense it's there. What I've been telling my Don Josés [there are two casts for this production] is – 'I don't want to see the violence, I don't want to see him abusing Carmen.' If we see any of that, the audience just checks out, loses all sympathy for him. Rather, there's just an itch that is stirred in him as soon as he commits to going down the path Carmen beckons to him. And it's not fully scratched until the end."

And Carmen herself? Does Ivany think she's a sympathetic character?

"I think she is for some, and not for others. I don't think it's so one-sided. That's the real challenge for anyone playing the role – to have strong opinions about the character but to see the contradictions in her as well."

Carmen runs from April 12 to May 15 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Arts in Toronto (coc.ca).

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