There is something about telling stories that is timeless.  Whether it’s a play, a musical or an opera, we are sharing in the telling of a great story.  We (hopefully) slip away from all the things pressing on our minds and enter into something new and different, which then (again, hopefully) stirs something in us afterwards and makes us think.

In the second part of our two-part Q & A with Against the Grain Theatre, founder and artistic director Joel Ivany shares with us his passion for storytelling through theatre and for making opera accessible, as well as some particular challenges of the art form.

If you haven’t checked out their work yet, may we suggest catching an hour-long sneak preview of the theatre’s upcoming production, Figaro’s Wedding, taking place today (May 16) at 12 p.m. at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts? It’s part of the Canadian Opera Company’s Free Concert Series, featuring our friends Edwin Huizinga and Carol Gimbel of Music in the Barns. And yes, it’s free!

In the meantime, this promotional video captures the spirit of their production in off-the-cuff, reality TV style as the camera follows Figaro on his way to propose to his beloved.

How would you describe your role in the performing arts? Is it what you had set out to achieve when you began your career, or did it change along the way?

It totally changed along the way.  I knew that I wanted to work in theatre.  There is something about telling stories that is timeless.  Whether it’s a play, a musical or an opera, we are sharing in the telling of a great story.  We (hopefully) slip away from all the things pressing on our minds and enter into something new and different, which then (again, hopefully) stirs something in us afterwards and makes us think.

My role as a stage director is to tell the story as clearly and creatively as possible.  I think that as soon as you remove the boundaries, then the sky is really the limit.  As Canadians, it’s very easy to think small, to think minimally and conservatively. As soon as I started working with directors overseas and entered my first opera-directing competition, I realized not only how vast the arts community is, but also how the challenges are the same.

Opera is a difficult art form to break into. It is expensive and requires leadership, discipline, and communication skills (as well as creativity).  Despite being opera hotbeds, countries like Germany are feeling the economic crunch, and it is becoming more difficult to produce opera at any level, although Canada is doing quite well. But the seed of what makes good drama is the same in Canada as it is in Germany or Norway. It’s a question of what is driving these characters, or what is moving this piece forward.

When I think of directing an opera now, the context is very different from where it was at the beginning of my career, and thankfully my gut instinct has remained the same. As an artistic director, it is quite different.  I am thinking about what works excite and interest me, but also which works are worth putting on stage for the public.  I get together with Nancy [Hitzig], and we decide how we are going to sell the public on a particular piece and find a strategy that best suits that particular need.

I didn’t think I’d be doing as much administration as I do.  Whether it’s website updating, poster designing, dealing with Equity [Canadian Actors’ Equity Association], budgeting, and ordering postcards, I’m involved with it all.  Indie opera means that if we don’t do it, it won’t be done.  It is extremely demanding, but incredibly rewarding.  To work with colleagues who choose to work with you is a wonderful treat and truly inspiring.

Profile picture of Joel Ivany

Joel Ivany, founder and artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre.
Photo credit: Nikola Novak.

What was the impetus behind the founding of Against the Grain Theatre a couple of years ago? What has been the reception so far?

I am a young stage director, and I wanted to create opportunities to gain experience and do the work that I wanted to do.  I can read many books, but I learn most effectively by doing.  I grew up in the Salvation Army, meaning that both my parents were pastors, and we moved around quite a bit.  I didn’t really have a sense of home.  Community was the friends you had in the place where you were, and if that changed, then your community changed as well.

Against the Grain was meant to connect on a much smaller scale with the audience.  We had no idea how to do that or if there would even be an audience, and we called in favours from friends, who then sang in our first concert.  We received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council—one small grant, but it was enough to keep the flame going.  We presented our first staged work, La Bohème, at the Tranzac Club in the Annex part of Toronto.  We paid Equity rates to our Equity members and sold out four shows of our La Bohème in a bar.  That turnout showed us that there is a market in Toronto for this intimate opera experience, and it propelled us forward.

Over the next couple of seasons, we’ve been raising the bar with each presentation, whether it’s a cabaret, Czech music, a Britten opera or an updated Mozart piece.

Tell us more about your upcoming production of Figaro’s Wedding. What kind of experience can the audience expect?

I’ve been explaining to everyone that they will be coming to a wedding rather than an opera.  Our venue, the 6th floor of the Burroughes Building at Queen and Bathurst, is a venue normally used for weddings, fashion shows, and various other events.  It has not been used for theatre, let alone opera.

The audience will hear Mozart’s opera Le Nozze di Figaro in a way that has not been performed yet (that we know of).  We have an arrangement for string quartet that was written in the early 1800s.  In many ways, this is also going to be a world premiere.  I have written a new English libretto, specifically for the Burroughes and for Toronto.

The audience will be able to connect to the English language right away and relate to the piece in a brand new way.  For me, that is what opera is about: connecting to a work in a new way.

What do you see as the main challenges for opera in particular and performing arts in general? Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a performing artist?

Accessibility is a huge challenge in the performing arts.  We are so inundated with social media, advertising, Facebook, and life in general that of the few promotional notices that performing arts organizations can afford, many are simply ignored.

I know that accessibility to theatre, opera and dance wasn’t offered much outside of Shakespeare in high school and university. And opera can be intimidating.  Salome, for example, playing at the Canadian Opera Company, is a German opera with an orchestra of over 100 players.  Thick music in a foreign language shared with over 2,000 people in a giant performing-arts venue, where (unfortunately) audiences still perceive a need to dress up, exists even now. The arts should be for everyone, but at times it’s difficult to give that accessibility to all.

As a performing artist, the challenges tend to be the sacrifices that you make as individuals.  Working in opera, I am often away from home.  This past year alone, I’ve been to Washington, Minnesota, Ireland, Germany, New York, and Edmonton—all for work and all away from friends, family, and home.  To work in opera, you have to be prepared to live with some form of loneliness.

Other challenges are financial expectations versus reality and also artistic expectations versus reality. I am constantly reminding myself that I cannot rush time, and I cannot buy more time. Things will happen when they are supposed to happen, and they cannot be rushed.  That’s life.

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

Dream bigger.