Edmonton Opera celebrates 60 years with Bizet's Carmen starting the new season

Discount, and free youth tickets will help mark the milestone and bring opera to a new generation

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Edmonton Opera will acknowledge the past while also looking toward the future for its 60th season.

“If we want to be around for another 60 years we have to start to think differently,” says artistic director Joel Ivany over a coffee at Remedy in Old Strathcona. “We have to innovate. This season is a bit of a reflection of that in terms of titles that people know, but how we’re approaching them is very different from what you would have seen when Edmonton Opera was celebrating their 50th.”

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Joel Ivany
Edmonton Opera’s artistic director Joel Ivany. Photo by Julie Oliver /Postmedia

That includes the classic Don Giovanni, an opera Edmontonians are very familiar with from constant productions. Ivany is also quite familiar with it, having directed it twice at the National Art Centre in Ottawa and once at the Banff Centre. Unlike his previous productions, the version taking place at the Jubilee Auditorium on Feb. 1 and 3 with Ivany directing and Elliot Madore in the title role will not be sung in Italian.

“We’re going one step further by presenting it in English, and it will be set in Edmonton in the present,” he reveals. “The other neat, or for other people maybe infuriating, thing is we don’t have recitatives, we have dialogue. So, we’re removing a huge part of the opera, but it’s going to be a very interesting, more theatrical presentation of this opera. For many people Mozart’s operas are considered to be perfect already, so why mess with it? But this is kind of the only time that you can see this show this way, which makes it special.”

Ayre, which takes place April 10 to 12 at the Triffo Theatre in MacEwan University, is a song cycle written by Argentine-American composer Osvaldo Golijov. Commissioned by soprano Dawn Upshaw, the 45-minute suite is sung in Arabic, Sephardic Hebrew, Spanish Andalusia and more, reflecting the various cultures that lived in Moorish Spain. As Ivany explains, it’s a kaleidoscope of people and culture, how they’ve been displaced over time and the tension that results from that.

“So there’s a nod to tradition with these incredibly old folk songs,” he says about the concert, which will feature his wife, Juno-nominated soprano Miriam Khalil, as soloist. “But then you have someone in the middle of the ensemble who’s doing digital electronics. There’s an electric accordion player who does incredibly weird and cool sound effects. The horn player plays a conch like a seashell at some point. So it’s an older traditional demographic who loves the tradition but isn’t fazed by these contemporary elements, and vice versa. This is one of the coolest song cycles you will ever hear, and we’re presenting it on stage with lighting and costumes.”

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For many people the most exciting event in the season will be Das Rheingold, the first opera in Wagner’s legendary Ring Cycle. Taking place May 28 to June 1 at the Maclab Theatre at the Citadel, this adaptation of Germanic myths by Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick will be sung in German with English surtitles, but Ivany notes the setting will be somewhat contemporary. Simon Rivard is conducting, Peter Hinton-Davis is on board as director; Neil Craighead leads the cast as Wotan, Roger Honeywell is Loge, god of fire.

“It’s a chance to present it authentically but in a reduced setting. It’s more intimate and closer to the action. It’s also a way to do this,” he says frankly. “The opera is too big. It costs a lot of money for the stage, for the orchestra and for the cast as well. Dove and Vick found a way to do this so that it could be toured with 18 musicians. I mean, these are long operas but we’ve found a way to do it for just over two hours. Right now Pacific Opera Vancouver is doing Die Walküre, the second part of the Ring Cycle, and it’s just over five hours long. We’ve definitely slimmed it down.”

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Classic Carmen starts the season

Get ready for a new wave of homegrown talent at Edmonton Opera’s production of Bizet’s Carmen next week at the Jubilee Auditorium.

“I think our unique spin on this is that we’re bringing in a lot of first-time artists,” says Ivany. “They’re really good, and they’re itching to attack this repertoire and this industry. I think that somewhere around 98 per cent are Canadian, and we’re really proud of that. For many of them, this is their first professional opportunity in Canada.”

Montreal’s Rose Naggar-Tremblay is one of the new Canadian artists taking part in the 60th season opener. As the “fiery gypsy” of the title who seduces soldier Don Jose and sets in motion a tragic series of events, Naggar-Tremblay is described by Ivany as a “force.” Ivany believes that she’ll be a huge star in the coming years.

“To my ears, her voice is just otherworldly in terms of its richness, beauty and interpretation,” he says. “She’s listed as a contralto, which is even lower than a mezzo-soprano. With Carmen, it’s traditionally a mezzo-soprano, which is kind of lower, like an alto. I’ve heard sopranos do this where they take the voice down a little bit, and contraltos take their voice up a little bit. It’s really interesting how that role can be cast.”

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Carmen features what Ivany calls a “tag team” of stage directors, with original helmer Maria Lamont working alongside revival director Anna Theodosakis. Simon Rivard is conducting, and Adam Luther, last seen as Rodolfo in the 2021 production of La Boheme, plays Don José. American baritone Lester Lynch is suiting up as the toreador Escamillo, while Ontario soprano Jamie Groote plays the title character’s antithesis, Micaëla.

“Adam is really the Canadian Don José right now, so we’re very lucky to have him,” says Ivany. “Jamie is sweet, beautiful, strong and fiery as Micaëla. It’s also wonderful that we have Lester as the toreador. He gets all the great music, he gets all the glory. Lester sings all around the world, it’s just kind of great that we were able to get him for this.”

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As Ivany says, it’s an interesting time for opera everywhere as companies try to figure out what audiences want.

“A year and a half ago you were seeing Carmen and operas like that everywhere and people were going to that and not anywhere else,” he notes. “So we want to see what our community wants as well. Will they come out for Carmen? We have a huge ESO orchestra, the Edmonton Opera Chorus with 40 people there, another 20 from our kids’ chorus at Cantilon. So you’re looking at 75 on stage and then another 50 in the pit. That’s 130 artists, which is a lot of people, and it’s a rare kind of spectacle art form where you get that many people all focused on one idea. I mean, that’s special.”

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Anniversary discounts

There’s now no longer any excuse for curious youngsters putting off a trip to the opera due to expense. For its 60th anniversary, Edmonton Opera has brought in a “Youth for Free” initiative, which means audience members under 21 can now check out performances for free. Further to that, those between the ages of 21 to 35 will get 20 per cent off on both tickets and subscriptions. Seniors aren’t being left out in the celebrations; tickets for those 65 and older are now 10 per cent off.

PREVIEW

Bizet’s Carmen presented by Edmonton Opera

Where Jubilee Auditorium, 11455 87 Ave.

When Oct. 19-24

Tickets Youth are free, regular admission starts at $55 at edmontonopera.com

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