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Coming up: The venue is the medium for Against the Grain Theatre's brush with art song

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Christopher Mokrzewski rehearsing the Agasint the Grain ensemble at a Canadian Opera Company rehearsal space earlier this week (Joel Ivany photo).
Christopher Mokrzewski takes the Agasint the Grain ensemble through their vocal paces at a Canadian Opera Company rehearsal space earlier this week (Joel Ivany photo).

A theatrical concept rattles around in director Joel Ivany’s brain much like the film character stuck inside John Malkovich’s head. In the movie, the character repeatedly ends up on the shoulder of the same New Jersey highway. But Ivany’s concepts invariably land somewhere new and unexpected.

Ivany, founding artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, has brought us a Bohème in a bar, a Turn of the Screw in a claustrophobic upstairs university meeting hall and, later this week, intense art song in a yoga studio.

This is no place to look for a traditional song recital, with a gowned singer standing still next to a grand piano on a bare stage.

Instead, Ivany is creating a series of theatrical gestures, which begin at the Extension Room’s front door.

“The design is more of an art installation,” says Ivany. “You are meant to walk in a feel a part of what you’re going to experience.”

So the space needs to be a willing partner from the earliest stages of artistic planning.

Although Ivany officially lives in Toronto, the life of a freelance opera director has him away for many weeks of the year — most recently directing a critically praised production of The Tales of Hoffmann for Edmonton Opera.

Against the Grain projects are planned around weeks when Ivany can enjoy Toronto. And that means planning as well as putting on actual shows. And, for this group, matching a concept to a venue is key.

Ivany typically spends many days walking and cycling around the city looking at any sort of building or space that could double as an envelope for theatre.

This season’s first show is at a yoga studio. The next one, coming in late May, will feature Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro turned into a real wedding, set in a post-industrial, loft-like wedding-reception venue above the Design Republic store at Queen and Bathurst Sts.

Ivany has even written a new English libretto and renamed the affair Figaro’s Wedding. (He smilingly describes how there will even be an actual string quartet playing in the space, just like at a real wedding reception.)

This week’s shows are a bit less boisterous, more interior — perhaps a bit like how the true practice of yoga is as much about spiritual alignment as  stretching muscles and connective tissue.

The music comes courtesy of living Hungarian composer György Kurtág — his Kafka-Fragments, for voice and solo violin — and 20th century Czech composer Leos Janácek — The Diary of One Who Disappeared.”

Ivany says he had seen the Kurtag piece performed while working with the opera company is Oslo, and the Janácek song cycle was an ideal complement.

“I was looking for something complete, rather than pared down this time,” Ivany explains. “We’re going heavy, all-in,” he smiles.

That includes the space — as designer Michael Gianfrancesco is using the yoga studio’s full wall of mirrors for dramatic purposes.

Ivany has cast some wonderful singers, including tenor Colin Ainsworth, mezzo Laruen Segal and sopranos Jacqueline Woodley and Lesley Bouza (who has done stellar work with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in recent concerts). The music director is fellow Against the Grain Theatre founder, Christopher Mokrzewski.

But venue and artist quality aside, this is still about some pretty intense music.

“This is  a hardcore purist concert,” says Ivany. “We hope it doesn’t scare anyone away.”

For more details on the performances, which take place at 30 Eastern Ave on March 1 and 2 at 8 p.m., click here.


Here, as background, is a fascinating documentary about The Diary of One Who Disappeared, featuring English tenor Ian Bostridge:

John Terauds

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