Like a much, much nicer version of hanging around schoolyards offering kids their first hit for free, our Canadian Opera Company has begun to expand its programs aimed at introducing young people to the wonders of opera early, so that their appreciation for the art form can grow and mature as they do. The Magic Victrola, this year’s specialty offering from the COC, is a magical journey assisted by an old trunk and a record player that a pair of children — Gracie and Sam — find in their grandfather’s attic. As the opera unfolds, not only do they get to hear the music on the old records, but fully-formed and dramatic operatic vignettes spring to life before their delighted eyes. Over the hour, children are introduced to a sort of Greatest Hits of operatic moments (with themes suitable for children, that is) by Bizet, Delibes, Donizetti, Mozart, Offenbach, and Puccini.
To find out what goes into making a piece like this, what to expect and what surprises there might be in store, we spoke to Ashlie Corcoran, the director, and Bruno Roy, who alternates as Papageno (the beloved everyman character from The Magic Flute):
Mooney on Theatre: What’s different about making an opera designed for children than one for grown people?
Ashlie Corcoran: I try to approach every project with a unique outlook specific to it. So, when directing opera for young audiences, I try to get inside of the piece and understand what makes it tick – just like when I direct an opera for older audiences. That being said, with The Magic Victrola, we spoke about how the piece is sung in various foreign languages, without surtitles. As a result, the singers need to be extra clear about what the narrative is.
Bruno Roy: Opera is always a little larger than life, but from my experience of doing opera for children I’ve found that it’s about bringing even more energy into the room. Children have also reacted well to direct eye contact during our performances and although that might put off grown-ups, it really seems to draw in the children and make them feel involved and excited about the performance. Involvement in any form is probably the biggest difference.
MoT: How old were you when you first encountered opera, and how did it happen?
AC: It wasn’t until after I was done my undergrad! I was working at Tarragon Theatre as their administrative assistant, and the administrator Craig Morash, sang in the COC chorus. He gave me dress rehearsal tickets – and I fell in love.
BR: My mom and grandma have had a subscription to Opéra de Montréal ever since I was a little boy. One year – I must have been eight or nine – my grandma could not make it and I took her place. The opera was Madama Butterfly. Needless to say I was hooked (even though I did sleep through the entire second half).
MoT: Is there one piece in The Magic Victrola that you especially love? Which is it?
AC: All of the tunes are pretty phenomenal – fantastic arias, duets and trios. What I specifically love about The Magic Victrola is seeing how the characters, Gracie and Sam, fall in love with opera – through great adventures! And how that brings them even closer to their Grampa.
BR: I will say that the doll song (“Les oiseaux dans la charmille” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman), which happens early on in the show and is one of the on stage children’s first exposures to opera, is one of the pieces and scenes that I really love being a part of. My colleague Danika Lorèn sings it beautifully and it becomes an important turning point in the story.
MoT: If a kid finds that they loved this, what should they listen to or watch next?
AC: I am really excited that The Nightingale and Other Short Fables by Stravinsky returns to the Canadian Opera Company this spring. When I saw it a few years ago, I was struck by its beautiful puppetry and whimsical storytelling. I would encourage our whole audience to check it out!
And if kids are eager to listen to more opera, I would suggest giving The Magic Flute a go. There are actually three pieces from that opera in The Magic Victrola! So if they liked those, they should check out the rest of the great music that Mozart packed into the original.
BR: Our wonderful director Ashlie Corcoran has made sure there are a lot of fun details to look out for, both in the lush set and the staging. Papageno takes on the role of a trickster at times, bobbing and weaving through the mysterious magical cabinets that make up the attic that the two children are in. One might even begin to think he can be in two places at once…
The Magic Victrola will play at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Theatre, 227 Front St E, on December 1-3. Several performances are already sold out, but as of this writing tickets remain available for both performances on Friday, Dec 1st (10:30am and 1:30pm) and for the 11am performance on Saturday, Dec 2nd. Doors open one hour before showtime, so children can enjoy thematic pre-performance activities.
Tickets may be purchased online or by phone (416-363-8231) and are free for children with an accompanying adult (adult tickets are $30 and allow two children to attend for free; additional child tickets are $10 each).
Photo by Gaetz Photography, provided by the Canadian Opera Company