A Thursday night in January in Toronto, at minus-21, is not an enticing time to go out. There is also the semi-final game of the World Juniors on TV. Bars and restaurants do not do well at this time. Unless, of course, they are offering live opera performances. A large pub in downtown Toronto, near Union Station, is packed this night: standing-room only, a queue of unfortunates waiting on the frozen street outside.
Here is opera presented without ornament – just a piano and singing. Performers – some students at the University of Toronto opera program, some professionals from the Canadian Opera Company (whose hall is around the corner) – are volunteering to sing here without pay. They choose a piece to sing, usually something they have been practising for the big stage. Admission is free.
This event happens on the first Thursday of every month – 21 below or not – and is arranged out of a kind of altruism by a small company called Against the Grain Theatre. This troupe, currently the Canadian Opera Company's "company-in-residence" (which means they receive support of various kinds), specializes in traditional opera that is staged in unusual settings. Recently they put on a full performance of Puccini's La Bohème in another rather grungy pub – staging a story about impoverished artists in a genuine hangout for impoverished artists. The next show they are planning is an unusual staging of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice – a baroque opera for which they are creating a prerecorded "digital chorus" made up of a collage of YouTube videos. They also plan to have a troupe of "baroque burlesque" dancers from New York on stage, and a stripped-down orchestra with electronic instruments. "The idea," says artistic director Joel Ivany, "is to imagine what Gluck would have done had he had this technology available to him."
Ivany says the pub idea came from seeing a similar opera pub in Norway, where events like this will happen sometimes twice a week.
Professionals from the COC will often show up at the opera pub for a pint and a performance. Miriam Khalil, Krisztina Szabo and Andrew Love have all sung here. On the night I attended, called "New Kids on the Block," the singers were all students in the U of T opera program. The host was a voice coach from U of T. Student Matthew Cairns sang a passionate aria from La Traviata, in as good a performance as I have heard from professionals. Emma Thamer Bergin sang an amusingly mannered piece by the melodramatist Meyerbeer. Joshua Clemenger sang a gentle and lovely bit of Donizetti. A group of five students did selected arias from Don Giovanni, with a narrator briefly explaining what happens in between them. Jamie Groote as Donna Elvira was particularly strong.
There are drinking breaks for both performers and audience, and this leads to loud appreciation – even some whooping. It feels like a pub during a hockey game (and indeed, the game was on in one corner). The last act of the evening was lighter fare – some Gershwin and Bernstein songs that are closer to Broadway musical, and so less exciting to my ear, but chosen for an audience that was probably at that point ready for a little schmaltz.
The audience – lots of bearded youth mixed in with the white heads – is not typical for opera. Quite a few hands went up when asked who had never seen an opera before.
Full-scale opera is daunting to attend largely because of the cost of it. Making it free and intimate is showing to ever-larger groups of astonished newcomers how thrilling it is to hear a beautiful trained voice singing a famous work of art. Ventures like these, as they pop up around the world, are the best way of publicizing this most secret of pleasures.