Look up! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no it’s an opera singer on the roof: drive-in opera and other experiments from Edmonton Opera

Cara McLeod Robert Clark, and accompanist Leanne Regehr at an Edmonton Opera Al Fresco Backyard Patio Series concert. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

The thrill of live: it’s undeniable, yes, both for artists and their audiences who thrive on connection, the charge of closeness, of being part of a gathering. If we hadn’t fully realized it before, by default we’ve sure had time, lots of time, to learn what we’ve been missing.

It’s been no picnic for any part of the performing arts industry. But the tragedy of a sudden ice age for crowds, where proximity is to be avoided at all costs, seems particularly acute for opera:  the epic scale, cast size, and expense of productions, long lead times for artist booking, international travel proscriptions, few performances. And hey, singing is involved, and that has until very recently, a Molotov cocktail for these pandemical times.

Extreme ingenuity, flexibility, and an experimental spirit (not to mention persistance) is called for, as  Edmonton Opera’s general director Tim Yakimec says. On Saturday you’ll see those qualities in action. The company, in exile from its usual performance venue the Jubilee Auditorium, presents two live 45-minute drive-in concerts ( 2 and 4:30 p.m.) — from the Jube roof. For free, in honour of Alberta Culture Days.

There’s a certain cheeky esprit de corps in performing from the roof over the backstage, which has been shut since two hours after the dress rehearsal of Candide on March 12. The audience will be safely in their cars, maximum of 60 vehicles (with 120 free tickets available that have been raffled by lottery). And the 45-minute live performances by Oilers anthem singer Robert Clark and soprano Cara McLeod, with accompanist Leanne Regehr, will be transmitted to car radios tuned to FM. Expect to hear opera, pop, and Broadway show tunes.

“Well, at least there’ll be good sightlines,” says Yakimec drily.

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Like many theatre companies Edmonton Opera has experimented with live-streaming, from assorted venues. In this the Summer of Virtual, their “al fresco backyard patio series” had singers performing in the great outdoors. Their weekly Edmonton Opera At Home online series includes Kitchen Concerts featuring members of the chorus (and their favourite recipes), Happy Hour with stars from the upcoming season (singing and offering tips on the perfect Negroni), and D.I.Y. Opera activities for kids. 

And check out two new episodes of Opera Tots!, Edmonton Opera’s online education program, one available now and one Sept. 24, free . They’re free on Facebook, YouTube, and at edmontonopera.com.

“It’s so difficult to look long-term,” says Yakimec, echoing the sentiments of artistic directors across town. “So much depends on, well, everything. Including the confidence of the audience.” And “the sheer scale of it” makes opera a particularly hard-hit art discipline. The average Edmonton Opera production, he says, might run to 200 people, when you add up “eight to 15 principals, up to 40 in the chorus, 56 musicians, a crew of 25, volunteers….” It’s just not economically viable to have even an audience of 500 (currently, the indoor limit is 100) in a 2500-seat house.

With hope in his heart (and uncertainty in his mind), Yakimec has delayed the 2020-2021 season’s offerings for a late January launch: Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte Jan. 30, Puccini’s La Bohème in April, and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena in June.

Meanwhile, off-centre small-scale experiments continue. Among them “we’ve commissioned a song cycle (from composer Jen McMillan and the poet Lisa Martin) to feature our chorus,” says Yakimec. It’s in progress, and will be rehearsed remotely with the ultimate goal of performing it live.” 




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