Opera Luminata defies opera stereotypes in its run at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre
Opera Luminata sets itself a challenge in its Toronto premiere at the Harbourfont Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre: presenting opera not as an aloof and complicated performance trapped by formality, but rather as a musical and theatrical spectacle. The end result is to change the perception of opera as an art form by making it accessible, exciting, and new.
Such an ambitious goal presents interesting questions about the future of historical genres on the stage, and whether the performance status-quo needs to evolve to capture a new audience. For opera, specifically, what happens when we remove the context of the opera to focus solely on the individual moments of the whole? What does it mean if there is no need for context to listen to operatic songs? And, if opera becomes more accessible by removing the conventional structure, how do we reconcile the traditional with the new?
Judging from the results of the company’s hard work, there is no easy answer. The show succeeds as much as it, at times, disappoints. While I thought it was a fun evening, I left more convinced than ever that opera should focus on the music rather than the spectacle, and that perhaps the biggest mistake of the evening was trying to reinvent it for a new era.
Split into two acts, Opera Luminata stages an evening of back-to-back selections from popular to lesser-known operas. Using dramatic staging and choreography, each performance is delivered as a miniature scene, a small taste of the operas from which they were selected.
I really believe the show suffered because of its theatricality. While I genuinely enjoyed the show overall, I was frustrated by the inundation of special effects when, in returning to the basics, the entire performance excelled.
I think there is a difficult marriage between the spectacle – constantly adding visual stimulation or elaborate choreography – with an art form that is mostly concerned with the music. I found this problem illustrated by the use of superfluous pyrotechnics in a show where the lighting design was more effective.
Tommy Smith’s lighting design was so much more in keeping with the music than the sporadic fireworks onstage. Partly, this perception stemmed from the lighting functioning in tandem with the singers. I could easily connect the lights with the music, and Smith’s design capitalized on little moments of wonder. For example, at one point, the theatre was filled with stars, and the cast seemed just as awestruck as the audience. In contrast, the pyrotechnics felt out of place, relying on some kind of context that I, as an audience member, lacked.
Pyrotechnics were used to emphasize parts of the operatic music that an outside audience could not fully grasp without the opera context – a paradox that works against the very goals the company has outlined for itself.
At the same time, where Opera Luminata succeeds is in its four soloists: soprano Shoshana Friedman, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Elisabetta Centrone, tenor Pablo Benitez, and baritone Marco Petracchi. Each singer is integral to the performance. Plunked on-stage and given their solos, it did not matter if I had context for their songs.
There are few opportunities to have an epiphany about opera music, a complex artistic statement that can often defy even the most knowledgeable in the audience, but these four singers simplify the music. When they are given space to shine – like Petracchi in his version of Votre Toast, or Friedman in The Last Man In My Life—you can’t help but get swept away. They take down language barriers, destroy the need for plot, and let you live the moment.
What stands out about Opera Luminata is its desire to open up a traditional art-form and try to create something new. I will, personally, always support a group willing to push the envelope. But I can’t help but wonder if the show will annoy opera aficionados because its spectacular theatrical burdens cause it to so blatantly reject embracing the music.
- Opera Luminata runs until November 15th at the Harbour Front Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre (207 Queen’s Quay West, 3rd. Floor)
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm; there is a Saturday matinee at 2pm
- Tickets range from $47.50 to $56.50, seniors and student prices range from $40.25-$48.00
- Tickets can be purchased at the door, online here, or by calling the Harbourfront Centre Box Office at 416-973-4000