This spring’s Carmen marks the closing of a circle for Joel Ivany, the acclaimed Canadian director and founder of Against the Grain Theatre collective. In 2005, when the COC premiered the production that audiences are seeing again this season, Joel was building his directing career after studying theatre and music theatre. His friend Brent Krysa was assistant director for the 2005 Carmen, and he advised Joel to take a closer look at the world of opera, to see if it appealed to him. So Joel joined the roster of supernumeraries (extras) for that production, and was hooked. Eleven years later, he returns to direct it.
The young photographer in the Act II crowd in the COC’s 2005 Carmen was to become the director of the 2016 production.
“It was exciting because Carmen was my first real experience of live opera—and I was in it! I saw everything, including how an opera director works. I saw how people treated each other, as groups and individuals—and supers. And that had an impact: for me, whether it’s Carmen herself or the one kid who is on stage for a moment and doesn’t sing, they’re all an important part of the show.”
At that time, the COC was performing in the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. The following year the company moved into its own home, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Since then Joel has been assistant director on many productions in the COC’s opera house.
“I love this space so much; it’s such a beautiful hall. I’ve had the opportunity to explore every part of it from every angle. I know the sightlines, and how the stage looks and sounds from all parts of the auditorium. I’ve experienced how the space has been utilized in different productions, whether it was Iphigenia in Tauris, where a singer was positioned above the curved ceiling of the auditorium, or the proscenium-high videos for Tristan und Isolde. Now, during this rehearsal process, I’m asking myself how we can bring the audience into Carmen in a way that hasn’t been done with Carmen, or this production, or in the Four Seasons Centre before.“
“I love this space so much; it’s such a beautiful hall. I’ve had the opportunity to explore every part of it from every angle.” — Joel Ivany
At the heart of Carmen is a crime of passion that could happen anywhere and any time. Joel approaches this cautiously but with great enthusiasm. He asks, “Why do you need to tell the story? Why tell the story over and over again? Why is it important? How can it be told differently?” Joel has been working with two casts so the plot, of course, remains the same but, with different performers, the way the story is told is altered. “We have two incredibly different but talented Carmens so that’s a great start, but with the way rehearsals are scheduled we didn’t start off with everyone in the same room, and we have real time to work with the two groups individually. The other important factor is that everyone in this cast has done this opera more times than I have so they have more experience with these characters than I do, which is pretty great! I’ll learn a lot from them and hopefully I’ll bring an angle that’s new to them. They also haven’t worked with each other and that will bring added excitement to the process. It’ll also be wonderful to work with some of the same people from 2005: Alain Coulombe is back as Zuniga and Mike Lewandowski is back as part of the stage management team. Some of the same choristers and supers will be there, so it’s going to be fun!”
After his initial experience as a super, Joel knew he wanted to direct opera. He went on to complete two formative years at the University of Toronto Opera School studying opera directing with Michael Albano. From there, not having immediate access to a large company and the infrastructure that provided, he thought to himself, “‘If I want a company, why not just start one?’ It kind of exploded from there. When we were forming Against the Grain [AtG] in 2010, there was maybe one other indie opera group in Toronto at the time. And now there are something like 10 or 12. Thankfully I had other opportunities to work with other directors elsewhere and I kept AtG going, but assistant directing gave me directing and administrative skills and I got to experience productions on a big level. It made me less nervous about handling large productions, and gave me a lot more confidence to make AtG what it is today.”
AtG had an immediate resonance for Toronto opera lovers with its first productions, such as a bold, pared-down La Bohème performed in a bar, and a startling The Turn of the Screw in an attic space at the University of Toronto. What makes Joel’s work consistently intriguing and illuminating is what his approach attempts to reveal and unearth: “I try and attack everything and ask, ‘What new thing can be said about this? Everything has been done this way, so—within the parameters that we have—what can we do differently, to say something new?’ Other people will always do it the way most people want it done. Does it mean that my way is THE way? No, it’s just something different.”
One of Joel’s great hopes is that there will be more opportunities for opera artists to work in Canada. His own career is country-wide now. He will return to Vancouver Opera in 2017 to direct Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. And, once again this summer, he is program director for Banff’s Open Space: Opera in the 21st Century. A partnership between Banff, AtG and the COC, the program is a performance-based collaborative training experience for emerging opera professionals and brings in faculty members such as Russell Braun, Paul Curran and Judith Forst, as well as staff from the COC. Having these resources available allows the faculty to work with young artists, and “dream and plan without having to worry about raising funds at the same time!”
But before then, AtG remounts A Little Too Cozy in Toronto, which opens tonight and runs until May 21, 2016. As he did for the other two Mozart/Da Ponte operas, Joel developed the production last year at Banff, taking the score and basic idea of Così fan tutte and writing a new libretto around a modern-day wedding reality TV show. “It’s taking place in Studio 42 at the CBC Building. We all get to go to a live studio experience in one of the city’s coolest venues.”
As for the future: “There’s been so much greatness before us, like developing all these companies across the west. We need to find people who love this art form enough to understand that they’ll have a few rough years, but if they can commit to it, they’ll be investing in something very worthwhile. You plant seeds and bear fruit later. We see that with AtG. I can’t wait to find the next person who says, ‘Joel did this,’ but they do it better than me. Where is that person now? Are they in theatre or accounting? What is it that’s going to change them to follow that dream? Young directors need as much experience as they can get in small companies and big companies.”
In 2005, Joel would watch from the wings each night as the singers walked off the stage at the end of the final, devastating duet. “They would be exhausted. They put everything into it, the singing and acting was so physical. To witness that is huge—it just grips you. That duet is so beautiful and strong and the performers have to be so powerful in their focus, their intention, and their musicality. With our Carmen there will be some audience members who are experiencing this opera—or any opera—for the first time, and that’s one of the reasons it has to be excellent because it could stick with them, change their life, you never know. Standing in the wings as a super, seeing that final duet every night… that stuck with me.”
Carmen is on stage at the Four Seasons Centre until May 15, 2016. To buy tickets, visit coc.ca/tickets.
Photo Credits (top to bottom): A scene from Carmen (COC, 2016), photo: Gary Beechey; (centre) Paulo Szot as Escamillo in Carmen (COC, 2005), photo: Michael Cooper; Joel Ivany (2016), photo: Nikola Novak; (centre) Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and Alain Coulombe as Zuniga in Carmen (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper; (l-r) Charlotte Burrage as Mercédès, Clémentine Margaine as Carmen and Sasha Djihanian as Frasquita in Carmen (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper; Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen in Carmen (COC, 2016), photo: Michael Cooper
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By Gianmarco Segato
The historical Maometto Secondo, or Mehmet II (1432-1481), captured Constantinople in 1453, thus ending the Byzantine Empire. Rossini set his opera in 1470, the year the Venetian colony of Negroponte off the coast of Greece—a trade gateway to the Eastern Mediterranean—was besieged by the Turks. In order to further his plans to invade Western Europe and conquer the Holy Roman Empire, Maometto needed to take Negroponte. Historically, Mehmet was an enlightened ruler, enforcing religious tolerance and freedom in his conquered territories.
After his arrival in Naples in 1815, Rossini signed a series of contracts with Neapolitan impresario Domenico Barbaja, and at the remarkably young age of 23 he became musical director of all the city’s theatres, composing new works for them—a post he retained until he left for Paris in 1822. This put Rossini in an ideal position to experiment with new compositional forms, not having to cater to the public’s whims and freeing him from the pressures of seeking out commissions. Also, as Italy’s leading impresario, Barbaja assembled the most accomplished company of singers available at the time for Rossini.
Although perceptions are changing, to this day Rossini is mostly known for his comic operas: The Barber of Seville (1816), La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817) and The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813). In reality, the greater portion of his output was opera seria (serious opera). Yet even before his death in 1868, most of these serious works had fallen from the active repertoire. That isn’t to say the works were initially unsuccessful; many enjoyed positive reception and were restaged throughout Italy and in other European centres but disappeared soon thereafter.
Until its 2012 revival by Santa Fe Opera, Maometto II had never been performed in its original form, i.e. the version of the score played at the opera’s premiere at Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo on December 3, 1820. Received poorly by the Neapolitan public, Rossini revised the opera extensively for its 1822 Venetian performance, where many of its experimental elements were removed and, most significantly, the ending was changed from tragic to happy. The opera’s final, most radical transformation came in 1826 when Rossini reworked Maometto II into his first French opera, Le Siège de Corinthe, one of the precursors to the French grand opéra form (lavish, five-act pieces utilizing a huge cast and orchestra, plus ballet; usually based on an historical subject).
5) Knocking tradition
Maometto II was experimental, breaking down many of the finely tuned musical and dramatic conventions which Rossini had codified in his earlier operas. Its most striking musical feature is Act I’s 30-minute terzettone (literally, “a big fat trio”) which flows seamlessly from section to section as three of the main characters confront revelations and personal crises despite the temporary departure of two of them, some intrusive cannon fire, an outbreak of group dismay, and a prayer.
Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni sang Maometto in Santa Fe at this production’s premiere in 2012. Pisaroni’s powerful yet agile voice seems tailor-made for the role, embracing both its declamatory, warrior-like passages and its sections of virtuosic coloratura (derived from the Italian “colorare,” meaning “to colour” or “to enliven, coloratura is an ornamental type of vocal music where several notes are sung for each syllable of the text; it’s one of the hallmarks of bel canto opera). Pisaroni recently appeared in the Met HD transmissions of The Enchanted Island (as Caliban) and Don Giovanni (as Leporello).
The opera’s lead soprano role, Anna, was written by Rossini as a showpiece for his muse, lover, and future wife, Isabella Colbran. By this point in her career, however, her singing abilities were in decline, which, combined with Rossini’s desire for musical reform, meant that the role was not entirely conventional. This is especially true of the Act II finale where in place of the usual, brilliant cabaletta (a relatively short, fiery, up-tempo vocal showpiece), Rossini has the soprano onstage for an uninterrupted 40-minute display of vocal stamina and dramatic artistry. At the COC, Anna will be sung by the exciting, young American soprano Leah Crocetto.
Director David Alden has brought the opera’s action forward from its historical 15th-century setting to the time of its creation in 1820. Alden dubs Maometto II, a “siege opera” but notes it is about war in general, not a specific conflict. He avoids any obvious connections to more contemporary confrontations between east and west.
The simple unit set is a rotunda—a neoclassical colonnade with curved walls which evokes ancient marbled temples. Set and costume designer Jon Morrell has dressed most of the cast in a First Empire-inspired French style suggestive of Rossini’s time, mixing in Napoleonic Grecian revival elements with early 19th-century clothing in striking colours.
At the COC, the opera will be presented from a new Critical Edition made available in 2013 by noted music publisher Bärenreiter in cooperation with the Center for Italian Opera Studies at The University of Chicago (the score is a contribution in an ongoing, 20-volume project of The Critical Editions of the Works of Gioachino Rossini). The score was prepared by Dutch scholar Hans Schellevis, who will be in Toronto on Wednesday, April 27, to participate in the COC’s Opera Insights series, where he will discuss the complicated work involved in preparing a score from multiple sources.
To learn more about Maometto II and to buy tickets, click here.
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Photo credits (top - down): Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II (centre); Leah Crocetto as Anna (kneeling); Luca Pisaroni; Leah Crocetto; (l-r) Bruce Sledge as Paolo Erisso, Leah Crocetto as Anna and Elizabeth DeShong as Calbo. Maometto II (COC, 2016), all photos: Michael Cooper
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001