Here's a sales pitch you don't often hear. "Free Beer – Opera Included."
But Rachel Krehm and I have decided this is a perfect way to attract audiences to her opera company's creative production of Die Fledermaus that opens Wednesday for a four-performance run at the Bathurst 918 Theatre. Opera 5's performance will turn Fledermaus's famous Act 2 party into a fully immersive, fully participatory experience.
The chairs that the audience sit on for Act 1, before intermission, will disappear. Instead, a party scene will unfold – with aerialists, dancers, gambling tables and lots of other novelties, including the free beer, that will turn the age-old passive experience of going to the opera into a fun-filled, elaborate piece of performance art. With the audience right in the middle of the action.
It's all part of a growing and remarkable trend here in Toronto, and all through North America, to shake the dust off one of Western culture's most hallowed art forms – high opera – and return it to its earthy, populist roots in sheer entertainment. It's what Opera 5 has been doing for the five years or so of its existence.
Rachel Krehm and Aria Umezawa, the founders of the company, both studied opera performance at McGill, but it wasn't until 2010 that they started working together. Now the company has its fingers in a lot of different artistic pies. They've done live shows – Fledermaus is their most ambitious – but they also have established their presence on the Web.
Umezawa conceived and wrote a hilarious set of introductory videos for people new to opera, called Opera Cheats – three-minute bits of comic hilarity that explain opera to newbies. (Sample: The Three Golden Rules of Opera – Rule 1: If your name is in the title you're probably going to die. Rule 2: There are only three ways to die in opera – murder, suicide and tuberculosis. Rule 3: All operas have exactly the same structure.)
Opera Cheats, which are now used by opera companies from the COC to San Francisco Opera, are a perfect example of Opera 5's philosophy. Krehm quotes her partner in summing up their attitude: "Aria always says, 'We take the art form seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously.'" And their attitude toward the art form is one that they hope can bring new audiences to the music they love.
"Opera can be quite overwhelming when you first encounter it," says Krehm, who is performing Rosalinde in Fledermaus. "There's a lot going on, a lot to take in. For someone experiencing it for the first time, there's a lot you're going to miss. It can be a bit of a blur."
It's partly to help alleviate this blur that Opera 5 has created their online Opera Cheats, but it also led them to their conception of this production of Fledermaus.
"I remember Aria phoning me up right at the beginning of the process," Krehm tells me, "and saying, 'I want to do a Fledermaus where the audience is the party!'"
Krehm loved the idea and the two of them went to work thinking it through. And Krehm found an article online that helped the two of them solidify their thinking about the production.
"It was from a former CEO of an interactive website who said that for the millennial generation, our status symbols are not things like fancy cars or watches. Our status symbols are experiences – that's what we collect and cherish. And that's exactly how we planned this production, with immersive experience as the motivating force."
And so, starting tonight, audiences to Opera 5's Fledermaus will watch a more or less conventional first act (okay, not that conventional): All the props will be two-dimensional to highlight the three-dimensionality of Act 2 to follow – two-dimensional couches to faint on, two-dimensional champagne glasses to drink from – and then, after intermission, the party begins.
As it does in the opera, but this time you as an audience member will be in on the action. Opera singers will be singing just feet away from you, mingling through the crowd. The opera will happen all around you.
And it's clear talking to Rachel Krehm that for her this immersive experience isn't just a novelty or a marketing scheme. She, her partner and their whole creative team take the work they're doing very seriously. In a way, they're translating into a 21st-century experience the spirit of the 19th-century original. Today, we don't just watch a party onstage from our comfortable, faraway seats in a conventional opera theatre – we can go to the party. Wouldn't Johann Strauss, the waltz king composer of Fledermaus, have loved that?
"Live opera is about energy exchange," Krehm tells me, "that exchange back and forth between performers onstage and members of an audience. I know, because I've felt it from both perspectives. But that energy gets stronger when the space in which it is contained gets smaller, and when the barriers between performers and audience members start to disappear. That's what we're hoping we can get at with this production."
Opera 5's production of Die Fledermaus runs June 8 to 11 at 918 Bathurst St. (opera5.yapsody.com).