Prying opera out of its standard choices: Opera Nuova’s 2017 festival

Jessica Kos-Whicher in Eugene Onegin, Opera Nuova Festival of Opera and Musical Theatre. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The performance venue is unusual. The stagecraft is unusual. And there’s this: I think we can safely call the Opera Nuova production of Eugene Onegin (opening Thursday at the west end Oasis Centre) a moving experience. In advance.

As the company’s exuberant artistic director Kim Mattice Wanat describes the traffic of her intimate production, “we’re moving the audience and the orchestra three times during the evening…. For the first 23 minutes, we’re outside in the courtyard garden. Then we move to the ballroom.” And then, we move again.

It’s one thing for theatre audiences to rub shoulders with actors in houses, backstages or warehouses, as we do in Sleep No More, say, or in Tiny Bear Jaws’ recent Nextfest house party production Everyone We Know Will Be There. But opera up close? Eye contact with double-bass players?

The Opera Nuova Opera and Music Theatre Festival, which launched last week with an obscure Gilbert and Sullivan, Patience, at Fort Edmonton’s Capitol Theatre, continues this week with the 1879 opera Tchaikovsky culled from the Alexander Pushkin verse novel Eugene Onegin.

And it also includes the wildly conventional, rarely performed Leoš Janaček opera Cunning Little Vixen. Directed by Brian Deedrick who calls it (with gusto) “a really cool and wacky piece!” it runs June 23 to 29 at Festival Place in Sherwood Park. It shares that  venue with the festival production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

Most of the ensemble Mattice Wanat has gathered for Opera Nuova’s 17-year-old festival — 60 emerging artists from across the country on the brink of pro careers — have multiple assignments, usually three shows, in this year’s edition of the festivities. “I do the auditions with open ears,” says Mattice Wanat of her fall auditions in 11 cities, where some 132 hopefuls showed up. “And I let the artists inspire me as to the (programming) choices.”

Eugene Onegin, Opera Nuova Festival of Opera and Music Theatre. Photo supplied.

This year is the fourth that’s included musicals in the festival roster, a response to the realities of the profession. “Most opera companies are programming one classic musical per season,” as she points out. “We should be training people to be flexible, to cross between genres….” In spoken dialogue and in physical eloquence, musical theatre is a challenge for opera singers.

Her Eugene Onegin, done without theatrical lighting, in Russian and without surtitles, is a way to dislodge opera from its formal conventions. “It’ll feel vey immersive,” she says of the story of the jaded Russian aristocrat of the title, who spurs the open heart of Tatyana, who falls in love with him. Scenes segué into each other with motifs delivered by “a single thread of instruments.” And you might find yourself two feet from Tatyana (Jessica Kos-Whicher, in the role made famous by Renée Fleming) as she pours our her feelings for Onegin in the letter.   

“Bold choices” are what’s required to rejuvenate the form. “Opera needs to be a visceral experience for people,” declares Mattice Wanat. “Especially nowadays, it’s what we’re attracted to, what we’re longing for. Our lives are so tuned inward…. We have to figure out how to get the audience to not sit back.” Hence her production: People will feel freer, less confined. You get a glass of wine and move on!”

Cunning Little Vixen, Opera Nuova Opera and Music Theatre Festival. Photo supplied.

As for Cunning Little Vixen, a 1924 opera by the Czech composer Janaček inspired by a newspaper comic strip, consider the intriguing oddity that the lead characters include one human (The Forester), a couple of foxes, and a blue dragonfly, “the mystic spirit of the forest,” as director Deedrick puts it. “If most operas are populated by princesses, knights, dukes, this one has eight fox babies, countless chickens, bears, woodpeckers, jays, foxes…. The single most human scene is the wooing scene between the fox and the vixen.” Deedrick laughs. “I love the fact there’s a cigarette-smoking fox!” 

His cast of two dozen species-crossers, enhanced by the addition of three dancers from Citie Ballet, “is mostly wearing fur and feathers!” as he says of a piece that sings to the heart of the harmony between the human and the natural world.

Says Mattice Wanat, “it’s brilliant, fun, and ends under two hours! The costumes alone are worth the ticket price.”

PREVIEW

Opera Nuova Opera and Music Theatre Festival

Running: through June 30 (Eugene Onegin June 15 and 16, Cunning Little Vixen June 23 to 29, Carousel June 24 to 30).

Where: Eugene Onegin at Oasis Centre, 10930 177 St.; Cunning Little Vixen and Carousel at Festival Place, 100 Festival Way, Sherwood Park.

Tickets and full schedule: operanuova.ca

   

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