Against the grey backdrop of a Toronto winter, an entire forest of colourful creatures has taken up residence downtown, as the Canadian Opera Company presents The Cunning Little Vixen
by Leoš Janáček. The opera, making its first appearance in more than 25 years on the COC stage, follows a young female fox—our title Vixen—as she is captured then breaks free… with a little help from her friends. Using clever and colourful design elements, director Jamie Manton has incorporated thought-provoking metaphors throughout that invite audiences to contemplate the contemporary resonance of Janáček’s cautionary tale of humanity’s impact on the natural world.
1. Not your typical forest landscape
For an opera about a sly fox and her friends, one might expect the story’s action to unfold against a leafy woodland. In this production, however, nature’s colourful creatures have been juxtaposed against a minimalistic set that features plywood elements and intentional glimpses of the COC’s actual stage, immediately calling to mind the idea of deforestation and a landscape left bare. With the show’s foundational premise of exploring humanity’s relationship with nature, audiences are immediately given the impression that destruction looms on the horizon for the romping creatures.
2. A clever shifting set piece
Throughout the opera, large rollers suspended from the ceiling unfurl continuous banner imagery that stream to the ground, revealing changing scenes that mark moments and milestones in the opera’s storyline, as well as representations of the various characters themselves. For example, at the beginning, we see an illustration of a child unfurled from one of these rollers, representing the birth of the Forester and humanity’s perception of man as the centre of the universe. The imagery that follows represents the passing of time, moving us from the Forester’s home, where the Vixen is held captive, to a bright morning in the woods, to the ravaged treescape as logging steadily destroys the animals’ homes.
3. Playful costumes
Set and costume designer Tom Scutt has infused the various animal characters with a wonderfully eclectic sense of fun. While some of the cast—like the adorable mushroom family, voluminous lacy hens, or scampering fox cubs—are easier to discern, others are delightfully more abstract, their larger-than-life colour palettes and costume design serving as a pointed contrast to the muted tones of the human characters’ clothing.
Meet just some of the opera’s most colourful characters!
Lapák, the Forester’s dog, is designed here as an enormous frilled puff, reminiscent of a very sad clown
This Mosquito has traded fluttering wings for a zippy trolley
The bright and colourful Woodpecker does the honours of marrying our title Vixen
These matter-of-fact hooded figures keep our shared mortality front of mind
4. Time passage
Throughout the opera, there are several allusions to the natural cycle of life. This can especially be seen in the Dragonfly, Forester, and the Vixen herself; all of these characters have been cast with multiple artists representing childhood, adolescence, and fully grown adults.
5. Exit this way
A unique design feature in this production of The Cunning Little Vixen is the inclusion of a visible “EXIT” sign through several scenes of the opera. As the story follows the lifecycle of its characters, the signage glows, a neon reminder of the inescapable nature of death; as several of the characters pass away, they pack up the banners representing their lives on earth and make their way toward and through the doorway.