"A very Bohemian undertaking": AtG's La bohème
"Would [Puccini] be proud? Probably not," says Joel Ivany with a wry smile, of Against the Grain Theatre's updated, translated version of La bohème, playing at The Tranzac Club in Toronto May 19 to June 2. "I think he would think it was a very Bohemian undertaking," adds baritone Andrew Love, singing Marcello.
This is the third iteration of Ivany's adapted Bohème, which features an original English libretto of his own, and a re-imagining of the famed story which places the action in present-day Toronto. "The story doesn't change," says tenor Owen McCausland, who sings the role of Rodolfo. "It's about real people, young people, and their love lives."
It's a tale that's universal enough, and easily transported to Toronto's Annex neighbourhood in 2017. These young people are the same kinds of folks who wander Bloor West during patio season, run into exes on the King streetcar, and furnish their meager apartments with a combination of Ikea, Craigslist, and Value Village. "You really know these people," says Love. "You walk past them on the street, or you've been them."
Even more interesting is the dynamic of friendship between the four male roommates, who embody a closeness that rings true among men who are artsy, hipster, and unafraid of showing affection. It's a fascinating and touching reminder that heterosexual men - a demographic who, of late, seem to walk on eggshells - are tender-hearted beings, affected deeply by breakups and loss.
"[Puccini] would probably be annoyed that we've bastardised his piece," quips Christopher Mokrzewski, Music Director of Against the Grain Theatre. "On the other hand, the broader need is met." That "broader need" lies in everything that's preserved in this adapted Bohème; Mokrzewski adds that the original Italian opera "had a very visceral effect for people, which is what we do."
The new libretto and localised Toronto setting make it easy for contemporary audiences to recognise the other big theme in Puccini's work: what it means to be surviving in poverty. "These aren't the science students, not poli-sci, not economics," says Ivany of these characters. "They're not even in [U of T] Opera School." The six young people in this story represent the huge population of working artists in Toronto, the kind who live under the enormous pressures of urban rent hikes and rising costs of living.
Poverty - and the limited options that come with it - is a major theme in the original story of 19th-century Paris. Today, young people across Toronto still have the same limitations, particularly those who choose to pursue the arts. "There are a lot of constraints on their ability to live," says Mokrzewski. "Bringing [La bohème] into this context exaggerates, almost, the underlying class stuff that was happening."
Based on our visit to a rehearsal session, AtG's La bohème is just as likely to make you laugh as it is to make you cry. "We have a great English translation, and it's really, really funny," says McCausland of Ivany's libretto. This 2017 iteration of the company's much-loved staple features a new design team, and save for Gregory Finney in the roles of Benoît and Alcindoro, the cast is entirely made up of new voices.
AtG's La bohème runs from May 19 to June 2, 8pm at the Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Ave. Interest has been at a record high, but a limited amount of rush tickets will be available before each show. Line up early (think 7pm) for these, and note that the rush tickets may be for standing-room only. (But honestly, it'll still be worth it.)
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