We knew going in that starting an opera company would be a huge challenge, requiring lots of time and resources. I wish someone could have reaffirmed for us from the beginning that we really would be okay to simply trust in strong material, talented performers, and that audiences are smart and curious.

Erin Bardua & Maureen Batt, photo by Katie Cross

Maureen Batt and Erin Bardua are the co-artistic directors of Essential Opera, almost a guerrilla operation. With limited resources, they draw on their experiences in language studies and theatre production to create an experience that speaks to the seasoned opera-goer without alienating a general audience. They translate much of the dialogue into english themselves to convey the story, and create their own english subtitles when they sing in other languages. There are no fancy sets, which offers a creative challenge for an art form that is known for being over-the-top.

Essential Opera offers a very immediate and intimate way to experience an operatic repertoire that is well loved by singers but rarely performed to the public. They are perfect for this budding opera company that does not seem to be daunted by obvious challenge of being both the producers and the performers of their own shows.

Their 5th production next Friday, aptly titled “Two Weddings and a Funeral” featuring two one-act comic operas by Puccini and Donizetti. Check out the trailer to their show at the end of this post. We’ll be running a contest to give away two tickets to their show on Monday, so stay tuned for details!

Erin/Maureen, tell us about yourself. What is your interest in opera and performing in general?

M: I started out as an instrumentalist—I didn’t start private singing lessons until I was in high school. I fell in love with performing as a singer in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. I didn’t apply for a B. Mus. directly out of high school because I figured I was late to the singing game, and that more time would work in my favour. Instead, I studied languages at St. Thomas University, while maintaining private lessons and competing in local festivals. I knew I’d want to continue my music education, and so I went to Dal for my B. Mus and finally to University of Toronto for my M. Mus. The funny thing is, I never had a specific goal about being a certain kind of singer. I knew I loved singing, I knew I loved performing, and I wanted to keep getting better. I maintain this philosophy today. It allows me freedom among music and performance genres. And it lets me keep growing as an artist.

E: I also started out with instruments as well as with theatre as a kid. Throughout my studies of flute performance during my B. Mus. I was leaning more and more toward singing. I didn’t take singing lessons until I was already in the midst of that degree, and the bug bit me right away. Fortunately, I went to a smallish school (University of Victoria) and there were many vocal opportunities on campus even for a non-voice-major. The conservatory in Victoria also offered opera and musical theatre workshops and private lessons. I’ve always known I wanted to make art and to perform, I just explored different musical expressions until I found the thing that spoke to me the most, which was opera. It’s the combination of music and drama that gets me.

James Levesque and Fabian Arciniegas in 2011 production of “Cherubin”, photo by Vic St. Pierre

Tell us about “Essential Opera”. What was the impetus that led to its creation? How has it been growing?

M: We started out by planning one show: The Marriage of Figaro. We brainstormed a company/group name, and Ludwig Design volunteered to start us up with a logo and a website. By the time we had a logo and a website, we had an opera company: Essential Opera. I distinctly remember us thinking, “We should make sure we have a name that will apply to potential future productions.” We talked about other types of shows we might present, but it was very much a “just in case” or “if we survive this first show” scenario. The moment we finished the Figaro show, we found ourselves planning our next production, and we just kept going from there. I honestly can’t believe we’re already working on our fifth show!

Can you tell us more about “Two Weddings and a Funeral”? What kind of audience are you reaching out to?

E: I really see this as a “back to our roots” show, because Puccini and Donizetti are such standard, bread-and-butter opera composers. There really is something for everyone in this performance—such gorgeous, romantic music, on top of funny characterizations and witty plotlines. It’s going to be a really fun show with a huge contrast between these two one-act comic operas. This will be a great “first” operatic experience for someone who finds the epic over-the-top stories of many popular productions overwhelming. Even for the seasoned opera-goers, Il campanello or “The Night Bell” is a rarely performed pice by Donizetti. Now that we’ve had a rehearsal or two, we’re even more excited for everyone to see our cast’s wonderful performances.

What do you see as the main challenges for performers in general, and opera performers in particular?

E: So many things come down to money and funding. I don’t think anybody wants this to be true, and so many people feel awkward talking about money and how much is needed or where it’s coming from, but it’s a fact. Opera is particularly precarious, because it is so multi-disciplinary. In order to work within limited funds, we do a lot of juggling and prioritizing. In a way that’s been good for us, because it forces us to boil each production down to the true essentials.

M: The most obvious challenge is mastering the art form; and in order to do that, you need support and resources. Another challenge is letting the world know that being a performer isn’t always a labour of love; it’s a job and a living. Any professional performer has experienced the highs and lows of being in this industry. The main thing is to remember why and how you got here in the first place, and to stick with it. I can’t see myself doing anything else, so that’s why I’m here. You just find a way to make it work.

Maureen Batt, Jeremy Ludwig and Erin Bardua in their 2012 production of “The Threepenny Opera”

Tell us a cool story that sums up your journey as co-artistic directors of Essential Opera thus far.

E: We’ve had a number of amazing little moments. At every show, someone comes up to us who thought they didn’t like opera, or simply hadn’t been to an opera before, saying they had a great time and plan to come back for more. That’s awesome, especially when there’s always some panic-monger out there saying this or that art form is dead. It’s clearly not true, or we wouldn’t have been able to undertake something like this with anything resembling success.

M: A woman in the audience approached us backstage just before our Threepenny show was about to start. She said she had seen Threepenny in New York in the 50s… and she hadn’t had the chance to see it since. She was so excited for our production.

What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?

E: We knew going in that putting on an opera—never mind starting an ongoing opera company—would be a huge challenge, and take up lots of our time and require lots of resources. I think I wish someone could have reaffirmed for us from the beginning that we really would be okay to simply trust in strong material, talented performers, and that audiences are smart and curious. What we’re doing is working.

M: I’m laughing as I read Erin’s response. It’s so true; we knew what we were getting into. We knew that it was going to be hours and hours of work and would require us to wear 20 different hats. But I have no regrets. I love what we do. And we have a great team.

Here are some trailers for their recent production of Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” and their upcoming show this Friday: