La Boheme: A dive bar opera is touring Canada and stopping in Sudbury
Setting a classic Italian opera in a dive bar made perfect sense to Joel Ivany when he first did it in Toronto in 2011.
Now, about to tour a modernized English-language version of La Boheme across Canada, Ivany hopes to reach even more new audiences.
“We just want to share opera with as many people as we can, in communities that may not have opera all the time. And to do it in a way which is kind of boundary-breaking,” said Ivany, artistic director and founder of Toronto-based Against the Grain Theatre.
“I think people think of opera and there’s still sadly this misconception of large ladies with horns on their hats, and that’s not what it is at all.”
During three sellout runs in Toronto in 2011 and 2017, Ivany said the dive bar performance of La Boheme resonated with people.
“‘This is incredible. It’s opera, but it’s in a bar. And it’s in English and I understand it. And I’m laughing when the jokes are supposed to happen,’” Ivany described. “And it was kind of transformational for us as a company to kind of say, ‘There may be something in this.’”
Against the Grain started somewhat of necessity in 2010.
After graduating from the University of Toronto’s opera program, Ivany realized he would probably have to create a job if he wanted one. So he and a few colleagues decided to put on a show.
They worked within their means: Financially, a $4,000 grant from the Ontario Arts Council was not enough to stage a production in a big theatre with period costumes.
“A lot of what we couldn’t do sort of pointed us to what we could do. And so we chose La Boheme. And we couldn’t afford surtitles, so we said, ‘Well, let’s do it in English,’” said Ivany.
La Boheme’s story — which inspired the Broadway musical Rent — is “about poor, starving artists who are choosing their art … and their dreams over reality and mortgages and life,” added Ivany. “And so we said, ‘Well, let’s find a venue that kind of suits that.’”
In Toronto, that was the Tranzac Club, where the audience could drink and wear casual clothes while hearing opera for perhaps the first time.
The current tour began Sept. 27 at the Legion in Banff — where Ivany works part-time as the artistic director of opera at Banff Centre. In Regina, the venue was the Fat Badger. In Kenora, Ont., it’s Bob’s Burger Bar tonight. In Sudbury, it’s the SRO Nightclub & Lounge on Oct. 8.
“I think (people) feel like they have to pretend to be someone else when they go to opera; they either have to dress up or they have to pretend like they know a lot about arts, whereas you don’t. You just kind of have to be open to giving it a chance,” said Ivany.
While spectators may be able to let their guard down in these dive bar settings, it’s a little different for the seven singers and one pianist who are performing.
“You see everybody when you’re that close. There’s no distancing yourself from the big giant stage,” said Ivany. “So it’s really in your face; you’re totally focused the entire time. You have to be willing to put up with some clinking glasses. And … (serving staff) walking by and delivering food and drink.”
Regulars at these bars will have a challenge, too: They’ll either have to pay for a ticket to patronize the pub that night, or find somewhere else to drink.
Against the Grain Theatre brings La Boheme to cities along the Trans-Canada Highway. The show tours to Whitehorse and Dawson City in November.
For tickets, visit againstthegraintheatre.ticketleap.com.