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Darcia Parada was having dinner at a friend's loft in New York when she noticed that the acoustics in the apartment were fantastic. It gave the Edmonton native - a long-time opera student and singer - an idea: Why not perform opera in smaller, unorthodox spaces where people who might never venture out to the Met would feel more comfortable and more involved?

She was reminded of the idea when she attended an art installation at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage, a space inside the bridge's anchorage that was used for exhibitions until post-Sept. 11 security measures closed it off. Finally, she decided to act on it.

It was the beginning of Mercury Opera, named for the planet nearest the sun - tiny, as founder/artistic director Parada explains, but hot.

"Basically [we]take opera out of its conventional form and bring it to the people, make it more accessible for audiences who might be intimidated by going to the opera in a conventional setting like the opera house, where you're so distanced from the scenery and the actors. So our aim is to really bring it up close so that people feel what it's like."

Mercury Opera's first production, Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, was staged in a Manhattan loft called Studio Ze in May, 2000. "It resembled sort of a cross between a Versace fashion show and a Hollywood premiere," Parada says. "We had a long red carpet that ran through the space, the orchestra was almost on top of the audience, the action was everywhere," she remembers. "It felt incredible. It really felt like something exciting was beginning." The run of Cavalleria Rusticana was sold out.

Now, the upstart opera company has relocated to Edmonton, thanks to Parada's marriage to a hometown boy. And tonight the city will get its first taste of the "guerrilla opera company," as she calls it, with a performance of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (The Clowns) inside a tent at Giovanni Caboto Park, followed by a run in a slightly smaller tent at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.

"I've always wanted to stage this particular production of Pagliacci. The setting is Coney Island on the day of the Mermaid Parade and ... I'd always conceived it to be staged inside a tent, so it would be like a circus tent."

The opera, "a bleeding slice of life" (as described in the prologue), features a jealous husband who is the main player and director of the show-within-the-show (Canio), a faithless wife (Nedda), a colleague who pines for Nedda (Tonio), Nedda's lover (Silvio) and another colleague (Beppe).

For Parada, the biggest challenge of producing this opera in Edmonton turned out to be casting.

"When I staged things in New York, the singers that were literally on my doorstep were phenomenal, and everybody wants to work," she says. "Edmonton really doesn't draw opera singers."

She found her Tonio (Roland Burks) in New York, and her Beppe (Dean Kokanos) in Pittsburgh. For the role of Nedda, she cast Cara Brown - who lives in Fort McMurray, but is originally from the Edmonton suburb of Sherwood Park.

Parada was particularly thrilled to cast an actual Edmontonian, Dan Rowley, in the role of Canio, but when Rowley came down with pneumonia three weeks ago she needed to find a quick replacement. She tracked down Percy Martinez in the middle of a move from New York to Los Angeles.

For the role of Silvio, however, she received only a single response to her casting calls - and it was from someone who, as it turns out, wasn't available.

"I tried high and low to find someone who was not from too long a distance to cast. I put notice out in Edmonton and no one wanted to join the production. So that was a real bummer."

Parada wound up casting her husband, Boris Derow, in the role.

"He was originally going to be an ensemble member because he sings [but]he's not very experienced on the operatic stage at all ... and it was a huge risk. But I couldn't find a Silvio." She believes, though, that with Derow's Italianate looks and his chemistry with Brown, it will work out.

There is other local talent in the production: all of the ensemble members and musicians; while the conductor, Mark Hyczko, is from New Jersey.

Despite the casting challenges, Parada wants to continue producing operas in unexpected Edmonton spots. Her plan for next summer is to stage Puccini's Il Tabarro (The Cloak) - set on a barge moored beside the Seine - on the Edmonton Queen Riverboat, which more typically plays host to weddings and school field trips. Parada wants to put the orchestra on the boat and have the audience watch from the riverbank.

"That's my next project," she says, stepping out from a rehearsal of Pagliacci. "So hopefully this one will be such a smashing success that people will start throwing money at us."

Pagliacci runs Aug. 12 at Giovanni Caboto Park and as part of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in the Fringe Tent Aug. 14-22. All performances begin at 9:30 p.m. Tickets for the Aug. 12 performance are available at http://www.tixonthesquare.ca and for the Fringe Festival at http://www.fringetheatreadventures.ca.

*****

Other highlights from the Edmonton International Fringe Festival

Trashcan Duet: London, Ont., playwright Jayson McDonald ( Giant Invisible Robot) teams up with Fringe veterans Black Sheep Theatre ( Bat Boy: The Musical) for a comic drama about the pairing of a beat poet with a deadbeat.

Killing Kevin Spacey: When Charlie (co-writer Elan Wolf Farbiarz) realizes he has much in common with Kevin Spacey's wimpier roles, he decides to go for a more Al Pacino existence. KKS is slated for an off-Broadway run next year.

Balls!: Not (always) as vulgar as one might fear, this work from Toronto's Rob Salerno examines courage, male friendship and testicular cancer. Winner of the Hamilton Fringe New Play Award and the London (Ontario) Fringe Best Original Production.

Mr. Fox: Following up on their Fringe sensation Dishpig, TJ Dawe and Greg Landucci team up once again - this time for a behind-the-scenes look at the twisted world of a rock radio station mascot. Landucci writes and stars in the one-man play; Dawe directs.

Crude Love: About as Canadian a story as it gets: In Alberta's oil sands, a dump-truck driver from Newfoundland falls in love with an eco-warrior. From Vancouver husband-and-wife team Gillian Bennett and Russell Bennett (who also co-star), creators of the award-winning cult hit The Reefer Man. Crude Love was named Outstanding Ensemble Performance at this year's Ottawa Fringe.

Teaching the Fringe: After Keir Cutler ( Teaching Shakespeare) got word of a fan complaint about his play Teaching As You Like It (the accusation: Cutler was teaching the seduction of children), he responded by writing this new work. The reviews and audience reaction have ranged from raves to rants - but Teaching the Fringe always seems to spark a discussion.

M.L.

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