A pub. A pint. A Puccini?
Against the Grain Theatre is touring its pocket-sized production of La bohème at taprooms and eateries across the country and the reviews are in.
“I was blown away,” Rob Taylor, owner of the Mainliner Pub in Medicine Hat, Alta., said over the phone. “The response was unbelievable.”
“A really professional production,” added John Murray, owner and head chef at Thunder Bay’s Red Lion Smokehouse. “They rocked up at 5 p.m., and when the doors opened two hours later they were ready to go. It was a high-calibre setup.”
The world premiere of La bohème took place in Turin on Feb. 1, 1896, at the Teatro Regio. The young Arturo Toscanini conducted. Today, an orchestra-less, modernized, localized and English-sung version of the Puccini classic is up and running at Toronto’s Tranzac Club, where an 11-show residency is part of the indie opera company’s groundbreaking national tour in partnership with Alberta’s Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. The run of jalapeno-popper joints began at Royal Canadian Legion Branch 26 in Banff and ends in Dawson City on Nov. 7.
Founded in 2010, Against the Grain is the Toronto-based company run by the innovative opera creator Joel Ivany, also director of opera at Banff Centre. This year Ivany won a pair of Dora Awards for his production of Kopernikus at Theatre Passe Muraille. Ivany has staged operas in bars for years, including a monthly night of beer and bel canto at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club.
This is the first time Ivany has taken his Opera Pub project on the road. “We hit so many communities where people have never seen a full opera before,” Ivany said. “It can be such a powerful art form, but not just anyone can put it on.”
Ivany spoke to The Globe and Mail on Thanksgiving Sunday, a night that saw the first-ever professional live stream of an opera in Canada, by CBC Arts. From the Tranzac folk club, Puccini’s tragedy about high rent and the doomed bohemian love of Mimi and Rodolfo was live and nationwide. “So many things could have gone wrong," laughed Ivany after the show, “but I think it turned out really well.”
One of those who watched the CBC stream was Bob Firth, the namesake proprietor of Bob’s Burger Bar in Kenora, Ont. Firth had hosted one of the La bohème performances earlier in the tour and enjoyed the production. “It blew me away,” he told The Globe. “They converted me.”
Though he was worried about selling tickets for an opera production – “Elton John was playing in Winnipeg that night, plus we had Octoberfest here in Kenora” – all 85 tickets were snapped up for the Kenora La bohème. Firth saw more professionals in the audience that night than usual. “Lawyers, doctors, that kind of thing,” he guessed. “A lot of wine went out that night, and we sold out of prime rib.”
At the Red Lion Smokehouse, more than 100 tickets were sold. One couple showed up thinking they would be watching a streamed production from the Metropolitan in New York. “Where are the screens?” they asked. The opera enthusiasts were pleased to learn they’d be getting a live piano-and-singers performance. “The feedback I received from the audience was extremely positive,” said Smokehouse operator Murray.
Whether in the Fat Badger in Regina or the Pyramid Cabaret in Winnipeg or the Tranzac in Toronto, the Against the Grain singers don’t stick to one spot. Some of the action is on stage; one scene takes place at the bar. At the Mainliner in Medicine Hat, where video terminals get more action than Verdi and where karaoke is favoured over Kopernikus, a crowd of 50 tire-kickers took in La bohème. “I made some money, and I hope Against the Grain did too,” said bar owner Taylor.
Tickets for the pub-based Puccini run from $25 to $40. Ivany figures the tour will break even. “We had to add a couple of Toronto shows to make it balance out financially,” he said. The most memorable show for him, however, was an unscheduled one that sold no tickets at all.
On the road from Regina to Medicine Hat, Ivany noticed a sign for an opera house in Wolseley, Sask. Pulling the van off the Trans-Canada Highway, the troupe made its way to Wolseley Town Hall and Opera House, constructed in 1907. A cooking class for the local Indigenous community was being taught at the hall at the time, but after a working piano was discovered the students were treated to a mini Mimi and Rodolfo concert.
“It was just a beautiful moment," Ivany recalled. "We all thought, ‘This is what this is all about.’ ”
Ivany, who directs his first Canadian Opera Company production (Hansel & Gretel) in February, hopes for more Opera Pub tours. Certainly an audience has been tapped.
“In Alberta, especially in Medicine Hat, there’s a lot of bars struggling to make ends meet,” said the Mainliner’s Taylor. “Thinking outside the box, like these opera productions, is going to be the way to go.”
Puccini’s okay with that. Whatever pays the rent.
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