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Darcia Parada takes opera to the back alleys

Darcia Parada, who trained at the Banff Centre and the Mannes College of Music in New York, launched Mercury Opera in 1999.

If you are in a dark alley, and are feeling some high-decibel tension in the air, chances are you have just stumbled onto a clandestine performance by Mercury Opera.

The Edmonton-based company is known for staging opulent operatic productions in back alleys, not to mention inside subway cars and cube vans and on top of scissor lifts and cranes assembled around construction sites.

It's all part of founder Darcia Parada's commitment to bringing high art (in the form of high C arias) to the masses.

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"People avoid classical music, thinking they didn't like it, because it isn't geared to them," says the classically trained singer who named her company after the Roman god of mischief and communication.

"Even I have been bored attending performances some of the time, and I adore classical music. So I could see a hole in the market, and I decided to fill it because I was fearful that opera was losing its audience."

The Banff Centre- and Mannes College of Music-trained performer launched her company in New York in 1999. She moved back to Edmonton, her birth city, in 2005 and today divides her time between both cities, staging operas where she can.

She staged her production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci inside a circus tent at New York's Coney Island in 2010, garnering rave reviews. She presented her production of Giacomo Puccini's Il Tabarro on an Edmonton paddle river boat, seating the audience on the riverbank. And she held Ottorino Respighi's La Fiamma in an industrial lane way, also in Edmonton, lighting it with flame-throwers and other pyrotechnical manoeuvres in the dark.

"For me, art is all about communication, and getting people to feel something," Parada says. "So many of us, day in and day out, are just going through the motions, numbed by competing images, and the day to day monotony of life. Music and theatre are supposed to lift us up and out, and make us feel something extraordinary. "

While the productions have a whiff of the renegade about them, each has been designed as if for the finest opera houses. The singers and musicians are all skilled professionals, and the lighting, production design, choreography and elaborate costumes by Natasha Lazarovic are all top-notch.

Audiences, and also critics on both sides of the border, lavish praise on Parada's company which is already spawning imitators.

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"We may have stirred the giant," Parada says. "Calgary Opera is starting an opera festival in a tent this summer and a small company in Toronto that began in 2011, led by Joel Ivany, is almost a carbon copy. They should hire me."

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