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FEATURE | How A Toronto Neighbourhood Inspired A Homegrown La bohème

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Against The Grain Theatre brings Puccini’s La bohème back to the dive bar

(Illustration: Jessie Durham)
(Illustration: Jessie Durham; Design: Eitan Zohar)

After hearing Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, the French Symbolist composer Claude Debussy remarked to Manuel de Falla, “If one did not keep a grip oneself one would be swept away by the sheer verve of the music. I know of no one who has described the Paris of [the 1830s] as well as Puccini in La bohème.”

Few opera composers held as much fascination with musically depicting a place as the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini. From his pentatonic, modal depictions of Japan and China in Madama Butterfly and Turandot respectively, to the French usage of fragmentary, elided cadences, seventh harmonies, borrowed scales and suggested, rather than overt tonalities in his musical portrait of Paris in La bohème, few have captured the spirit of a place not their own quite as well as Puccini.

Yet while Debussy’s comment praises Puccini’s depiction of Paris, it also touches on the layer of remove present in La bohème: Puccini’s overt, Italianate style of composition, or “sheer verve.” The sense that La bohème is written by a foreigner prevails throughout the opera, both in its compositional style and its use of an Italian libretto.

Toronto’s acclaimed Against the Grain Theatre has added yet another layer to this Italianate depiction of Paris in the 1830s. Joel Ivany, the mastermind behind AtG’s Ayre, the Canadian Children’s Opera Company’s Brundibar and the Canadian Opera Company’s Carmen last season, has trans-adapted the libretto of La bohème into English, making it focus around Torontonian struggling artists and writers and setting the scene in the Toronto Annex in 2017.

“We’ve grabbed onto the sense that this story is about young artists who are great friends who don’t have enough money to live on their own and are sort of madly in love each other, whether they’re friends or whether they’ve found their soulmate,” Ivany explains in an appropriately bohemian alleyway behind the Tranzac Club. “That is sort of a universal theme and unfortunately applies today in Toronto, with rent and real estate skyrocketing.”

Against the Grain Theatre Founder and Artistic Director, Joel Ivany
Against the Grain Theatre Founder and Artistic Director, Joel Ivany (Photo: Nikola Novak)

Ivany sees Toronto’s downtown neighbourhoods as perfect places to glean inspiration for a modern-day Bohème.

“I’ve been lucky enough to walk everyday on Augusta to get here,” he continues, describing the Kensington Market Street in Toronto, “and that is so La bohème. If you want to character study, just stop in one or two places and walk along that street. That’s them.”

Adding yet another layer of change to Bohème, Christopher Mokrzewski, Against the Grain Theatre’s music director, will play Puccini’s score on piano, rather than using the full orchestration for which the opera is scored. Mokrzewski believes playing Puccini’s score on piano lends a degree of intimacy to the piece.

“You have a lot more flexibility without an orchestra,” he describes, “which has made the musical process quite fascinating. Applying the orchestral lens to an art song-like mentality gives you a greater degree of flexibility. It’s more collaborative in a way.”

This production of La bohème has become something of a signature for AtG, as its 2011 production firmly established the company as a new, vital force in Toronto’s cultural scene. Ivany’s libretto has gone on to be used by Cowtown Opera in Calgary and Opera Columbus in Ohio. AtG’s remounting of their Bohème establishes the company as having a repertory of its own, something Joel Ivany calls a “milestone.”

“It’s like a new production of the same show going into the Four Seasons Centre,” Ivany explains, laughing. “But instead, it’s a new production of our Bohème going into the Tranzac Club.”

Against the Grain’s production of Bohème has undergone various changes since its 2011 premiere, mirroring the changes Toronto has undergone as a city.

“Certain references [from 2011] no longer applied,” Mokrzewski slyly notes.

“It referenced our former mayor,” Ivany continues, “who is no longer even alive. Buildings have been reinvigorated… It’s crazy how quickly the city can change.”

Watching a small portion of AtG’s rehearsal, the production’s accessibility to Toronto audiences is unmissable, with references to familiar locations like Future’s Bakery and William Lyon MacKenzie on the Canadian currency.

A cast member and I muse on how watching Bohème set in our day feels strikingly like watching a production of Rent, Jonathan Larsen’s famous adaptation of Bohème, which makes me wonder what a newly composed Bohème for Toronto might sound like.  Streetcar sounds portrayed by woodwinds, as in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 come to mind, as well as the mimicking of bike bells by percussion, or multi-tonal musical languages to depict Toronto’s many multiethnic neighbourhoods.

I ask Ivany and Mokrzewski if they would ever consider commissioning a new work for Against the Grain, to which they respond positively.

“We love doing everything,” Ivany imparts. “I think it’s just giving ourselves enough time to plan that process out.”

“One of our mandates is that we would not limit the scope of the process,” Mokrzewski adds. “The sky’s the limit.”

Against the Grain Theatre founding member and Music Director Christopher “Topher” Mokrzewski
Against the Grain Theatre founding member and Music Director Christopher “Topher” Mokrzewski (Photo: Darryl Block)

In a way, AtG’s multi-layered take on Bohème feels appropriate for Toronto, a city filled with immigrants and different cultures. It seems plausible that characters named Mimi, Rodolfo and Marcello, who sing in passionate, Italianate manners (with a bit of a French sensibility encircling them musically), and who speak in the Torontonian vernacular, might find themselves falling in love over beers in Toronto’s Tranzac Club.

From what I briefly witnessed in rehearsal Monday night, Toronto audiences are sure to get swept up in the magic of Against the Grain’s ingenious production against the backdrop of Puccini’s glorious music.

I can only imagine how Debussy would react to the “sheer verve” of this production.

Against the Grain Theatre’s runs May 19 through June 2, 2017. All dates are sold out, but rush tickets will be available each night of the performance, at the door.

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Sara Schabas
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Sara Schabas

Sara Schabas is a soprano and writer born and bred in the heart of Toronto’s musical community. When she’s not singing opera, you can find her covering Carole King on the ukulele, biking through the Annex and advocating the merits of Puccini.
Sara Schabas
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