by Dorianne Emmerton
Against The Grain Theatre’s production of La Bohème at Toronto’s Tranzac Club sucks all the elitism out of opera. It’s opera you watch while tossing back a pint and wearing your jeans. It’s opera where you might be making small talk with the other couple at your table, and then when the lights go out one of your new friend’s stands up and starts singing because, as it turns out, she’s in the chorus.
The interactivity of the show doesn’t end there – but nor is it the painful kind of theatre interactivity where the actors pick some poor sod out of the audience to embarrass him or her with everyone’s attention. It’s the kind of interactivity where the scenes that are set at a bar take place at the venue’s actual bar and if you happen to be up there getting a drink then you’re a part of the set too.
Before going into this show I didn’t know the story of La Bohème at all, but I knew this production was translated into English so I wasn’t worried. As it turns out, it’s about a bunch of poor artists having tumultuous relationships and at least one terminal illness. Think of it as the O.G. Rent – except much better. (I don’t like Rent.)
This translation was done by the director, Joel Ivany, and he strove to make it as relevant to his audience as possible – there are references to partying at the Gladstone and shopping on Bloor Street West. References like that are always good for a laugh but in this case it’s more than just an easy joke because it serves Ivany’s major purpose: making opera accessible. Traditional productions of opera are more likely to be attended by wealthy, over-educated senior citizens who will stroke their chins wisely at the mention of a particular bar in 1830’s Paris. This production says “these experiences are timeless: the kind of shenanigans that went on in those bars are now taking place in Toronto bars like the Tranzac and the Gladstone.”
And he’s right; people still fall in love (though we don’t usually declare it the same night as meeting someone), people still get jealous, people still live in poverty because they’re trying to be artists, people still get sick and die.
The death is the one aspect that doesn’t translate too well in a modern retelling – at least in Canada. Seeing a death take place with no medical intervention is unthinkable in Canada where we have public health care. But I, for one, don’t think it’s worth it to move to the States just to have the plot of a modernized opera be more credible.
Don’t think that because there’s a death this is a sombre piece: there is a lot of joyous humour in the first half of the show.
The singing is superb all around. My ear is entirely untrained but I took my usual opera companion, who has a Master’s in classical music so she knows what’s what, and she agreed. This, also, is important for Ivany’s vision: you don’t need a gilded proscenium stage for good opera; you just need good opera singers (and director, and music director.)
The one thing an opera lover might miss when seeing this show is the orchestra. The Tranzac doesn’t have the resources for one, nor would the ticket price be an affordable $30 with one. However, there is also a certain ascetic beauty to hearing Puccini’s music pared down to a single piano.
If you are an opera lover trying to convince others of the relevance and value of the genre in today’s world, this is show you should take them all to.
Photo of Lindsay Sutherland Boal and Justin Welsh by Gene Wu