Wednesday, June 18, 2014

First-Person: Director Joel Ivany takes us inside Against The Grain's Pélleas et Mélisande

The Human Machine of Inside/Outside Opera
by Joel Ivany

To do this piece the way we are doing it, well… it couldn’t be done with just any cast.
We are fortunate to have an incredibly strong cast, comprising some of Canada’s leading singers.
Our cast members have worked with The Canadian Opera Company, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Metropolitan Opera, Glyndebourne Opera Festival, De Nederlandse Opera and the Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg (among others).

Why are they working with our little group? What’s the catch?

I’ve wanted to work with Étienne Dupuis ever since I heard about him. He was singing with Miriam Khalil in La Bohème at Edmonton Opera. I then had the chance to see him on stage and hear him when he sang Escamillo at Pacific Opera Victoria. He’s an incredibly generous, fun and kind person. He also has a high baritone voice, which is required for the role of Pelléas. We asked Étienne if he was interested in the role, and he replied honestly that he didn’t know the role, but was looking for the opportunity to learn it. We are so fortunate that he said yes. Rehearsals have shown that he’s fluid and has a booming sound to match with the most stunning high notes. The role of Pelléas is written in the treble clef (a clef traditionally attributed to tenors, not baritones and basses, who sing in the bass clef).

When Stuart Hamilton speaks, you listen.

Alain Coulombe was a regular at the Canadian Opera Company while I was in training at the Opera School (U of T). For such a slender frame, his voice was boom-y and commanding. He’ll tell you that Arkel is one of his favourite opera roles. Arkel is a great-grandfather and king of Allemonde. Alain brings such credibility, knowledge, creativity, but more importantly compassion to this role and the production as a whole. He is a true artist and has been a supportive force for our company, which is still very much in its formative years.

And Gregory Dahl is the perfect Golaud. He had performed the role before, but in English. We’ve been scratching our heads to think who in Canada would be suited to sing this demanding role. There are only two words: Greg Dahl. He’s such a nice person and a great complement to our cast.

Miriam Khalil is a founding member of AtG. She is making her role debut with Mélisande. I don’t think there is a more perfect role for her. This is her fourth role with Against the Grain Theatre (Mimi, The Governess, Susanna and now Mélisande) and each has fit her like a glove. As a founding member, she brings consistency to this company, but also sets the bar high for the quality of singers that we are after.

Megan Latham last worked with us during our production of The Turn of the Screw. Early in the creative process for this project, I was looking at ways of cutting the score down and thought of not including the role of Geneviève. Stuart Hamilton quickly put me in my place saying how integral her scene was. Geneviève reads a heartfelt letter from Golaud to his brother Pelléas that establishes the relationship between the two brothers. When Stuart Hamilton speaks, you listen. We made it work and I’m so happy that it’s worked out that Megan was available and interested.

Andrea Nuñez is a young soprano just out of opera school. I first heard her when she sang Norina in Don Pasquale. I then had the opportunity to work with her while I directed Albert Herring at U of T. We were considering using a boy soprano, but we quickly went to Andrea when we saw how well she acted and sang. I’m excited that she’s participating with this talented and experienced cast. To perform as peers alongside one another is the best way to learn and get better.

This has been one of our more ambitious projects to date. We’re performing outside, with no cover above us.

Finally, the last cast member is our guest Music Director. Our Music Director, Topher Mokrzewski had a previous engagement with Saskatoon Opera. He’s out west conducting his first Magic Flute during the same time as Pelléas et Mélisande, so we had to find someone equally gifted at the keyboard with a talent for Debussy. We found that in Julien LeBlanc. He is co-artistic director of the L’Eglise Historique de Barachois, which runs June through September. He is a sensitive performer and an extremely supportive colleague. We’ve put him in a difficult position by playing an upright piano outside, but the skill he brings to the performance is unquestionable. We’re very fortunate that he is able to play these performances.

This has been one of our more ambitious projects to date. We’re performing outside, with no cover above us. We’ve had to prepare two spaces, with two different sets of light cues and two different stages. It couldn’t be possible without our Stage Manager Lesley Abarquez, set designer Camellia Koo, Lighting Designer Jason Hand and Costume Designer Ming Wong. (There is also a list of another dozen people who I should name.) We do it for innovation, artistry and excellence. We believe that the arts can transform lives. If you haven’t experienced it, come on out and give it a try.

June 19 - 25
Read also: Soprano Miriam Khalil's insider piece on the production
Read also: Baritone Étienne Dupuis's insider piece on the production

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