In 2011, a new group of young directors, singers and musicians mounted what was an enormous gamble in the Toronto music and theatrical scene of the time. They decided to rewrite the libretto to Puccini's La Bohème, set in contemporary Toronto, and present the resulting show not in a theatre, but at Toronto's Tranzac Club, just the kind of bar the bohemians of La Bohème might have frequented had they been struggling artists of the 21st, rather than the 19th, century.
The show was a hit and the company that presented it, Against The Grain Theatre, announced itself as a force to be reckoned with in Toronto and Canada's, musical/operatic scene. Six years later, starting Friday, Against The Grain is back at the Tranzac with their Bohème, but a great deal has transpired for the group since that first, "let's-put-on-a-show" production.
Against The Grain, led by artistic director Joel Ivany and music director Topher Mokrzewski, has realized a great deal of the promise they hinted at half a decade ago. They now stand as one of the most creative theatrical and musical groups in the country. Perhaps best known for their reworking of Mozart's great Da Ponte trilogy to create Figaro's Wedding, #UncleJohn and A Little Too Cozy, the group has also been active at the Banff Centre and has presented straight musical evenings such as last season's Death & Desire and last fall's stunning Ayre. The renewed Bohème has given them a chance to look back at their accomplishments and ahead to their future.
"It's been a regrouping year," Ivany tells me over coffee a block away from the Tranzac, "a year where we're gearing up for the next phase. Our team has evolved and changed and we're getting new people with new energy into the company. That changes the vibe of what excites them and what excites us. And we're able to plan ahead. So we're sort of growing up a little bit more and needed just a bit of time to do that."
But if Against the Grain's season has been a bit less ambitious than usual, it has not been without its successes. The production of Oswaldo Golijov's Ayre, which they presented in November, with texts from Jewish, Arab and Christian Middle Eastern sources, provided a powerful antidote to the shock of a polarizing political landscape. And Ivany and Mokrzewski themselves have been busy on individual projects. Ivany just finished directing a production for Vancouver Opera Festival of Dead Man Walking, by composer Jake Heggie, and Mokrzewski is preparing for his first mainstage conducting gig, with Calgary Opera and Rossini's The Barber of Seville, starring Russell Braun in the lead role, next season.
And the Banff connection is still an important part of Against The Grain's evolution. ATG has been a sort of resident opera company in the foothills for a few years now, first creating two of their Mozart projects there, and work shopping their ideas (such as last summer's "No One's Safe," a murder mystery walkabout, where the audience roamed a building following a plot at random, all music taken from Mozart operas).
This summer, Ivany is presenting Claude Vivier's Kopernikus, a chamber opera meditation on death by arguably Canada's greatest composer, if less known in Canada than elsewhere in the world. Ivany took on the Vivier as sort of his own Canada 150 project, but with a twist.
"With Canada's big 150," Ivany says, " I tended to look at it from the other side, in terms of – we want to celebrate this, but there's a group of people who don't feel like they want to be celebrating." This led him to a personal trip to the Northwest Territories and the incorporation of some First Nations death culture into the piece. Several Canadian cities have expressed interest in Kopernikus once it completes its run in Banff this summer.
In terms of future productions, Against the Grain is presenting a production of Gluck's Orphee et Eurydice for Opera Columbus next season, in the version reorchestrated by Hector Berlioz, but with the addition of electric guitars and synthesizers in an attempt to meld the old and the new, a goal that is becoming their trademark. It's a show Ivany would love to bring here. And the company has an ambitious three-year project to use the music of Handel to create a new production called Bound, about a group of people detained by the government.
But first, it's a return to the Tranzac Club and Bohème. Ivany is excited about the new production, on which he has a little bit more money to spend than for the original (he dipped into his own savings account to help bridge finance that first show, before box-office revenue helped close the gap, something he says he'd "never, ever" do again).
But he thinks the show stands up. "It's funny looking back six years," he says, "we didn't know whether it would be good, but Topher and I were saying yesterday – it is good, it meets everything we've done over the past six years, we still believe in it now. There was magic in that, I think, in hearing Bohème with a piano in a small intimate space, you get something you don't get in the big hall and what you get is incredible."
Against the Grain's La Bohème runs May 19 through June 2 at Toronto's Tranzac theatre (againsthegraintheatre.com).