Chatting with the Bicycle Opera Project Photo by Gary Lloyd-Rees

Chatting with the Bicycle Opera Project

Jenna Simeonov

The Bicycle Opera Project has announced its 2015 season, which will take them from Toronto to Cape Breton, and back again. I’m so thrilled for BOP, who have a packed season of new Canadian works, including a couple of premieres.

They’ll be heading out to Cape Breton to workshop Dean Burry and Lorna MacDonald’s opera The Bells of Baddeck, on top of appearing at the Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival (May 21st, 10pm, Mazzoleni Hall), and touring their new production, shadow box, a collection of Canadian operas. Of course, they’ll do all of this by bicycle, which I think is pretty rad. This season’s BOP artists include:

  • Liza Balkan, stage director
  • Larissa Koniuk, soprano
  • Stephanie Tritchew, mezzo-soprano
  • Graham Thomson, tenor
  • Alexander Dobson
  • Christopher Enns, tenor
  • Geoffrey Sirett, baritone
  • Wesley Shen, piano
  • Ilana Waniuk, violin
  • Erika Nielsen, cello
  • Sonja Rainey, set designer/projectionist

I had the chance to chat with soprano and Bicycle Opera Project co-founder Larissa Koniuk about their exciting season, and all those kilometres the team will cover this summer.

1. Can you tell us any details about what audiences will hear from BOP this summer?

Yes! We’re so excited to share our 2015 production, shadow box, with audiences this season. Eight Canadian contemporary opera scenes make up the show, but they will be told with single narrative through-line. shadow box explores the mind’s relationship to memory: what we treasure dearly and what haunts us in turn. Working with returning stage director Liza Balkan and set designer and projectionist Sonja Rainey, we’ll be creating our first visually unified show that uses live projection art to enhance the storytelling.

shadow box is: The Yellow Wallpaper by Cecilia Livingston and Nicolas Billon, The Auction – Prologue by John Burge and Eugene Benson, What time is it now? by Anna Höstman and P.K. Page, The Blind Woman by James Rolfe and David Yee, Dreaming Duet (from The Bells of Baddeck) by Dean Burry and Lorna MacDonald, Our Lady of Esquimalt Road by Leila Lustig and Geoff Hargreaves, and Submission by Dean Burry and David Yee.

Back by popular demand, our program would not be complete without Bianchi: A five-minute Bicycle Opera, basically a five-minute long bike pun.

And finally, we are pleased to be premiering a brand new Bicycle Opera commission: Ride of the Bicycle Bells, a miniature piece by Chris Thornborrow for 11 bicycle bells and one bike horn!

Photo by Gary Lloyd-Rees

2. What can you tell us about The Bells of Baddeck?

The Bells of Baddeck is a new music drama created by Lorna MacDonald and music by Dean Burry about Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell. Alexander and Mabel were true movers and shakers whose legacy extends far beyond the telephone.

We’re really thrilled that all four BOP cast members, plus cellist Erika Nielsen, will be engaged as artists in residence for seven weeks in Cape Breton this summer. Bicycle Opera’s baritone, Geoffrey Sirett will be playing Alexander Graham Bell, I play his daughter, Daisy, mezzo Stephanie Tritchew plays his mother, and tenor Chris Enns plays their dear friend, pilot Tom Selfridge.

I’m probably most excited about living together in a big house by the sea for seven weeks!

Bicycle Opera is taking advantage of our residence in Baddeck to embark on our own East Coast tour of shadow box. Once The Bells of Baddeck closes on August 2nd, we’ll be testing our legs on the Nova Scotia terrain for a mini 9-day tour with concert dates along the way.

3. How do you guys manage to bring everything you need for a tour, just with bicycles?

We create minimalist sets and staging to ensure that we can tour exclusively by bicycle. Typically cast members pack their personal stuff into two panniers/saddle bags that are carried on bike, and two bicycle trailers are used which are packed with props, costumes, and instruments. Sonja is creating a set and costume design that is based on economy, utilizing bicycle gear that we will be bringing along anyway. While we will always stay true to our pared down approach, adding set and projection art elements for shadow box means we will have to expand from a two-trailer show to four! (Well, actually this is still up for debate. Geoff thinks three trailers will be plenty after consulting the Google maps altitude graph for Nova Scotia.)

Photo by Gary Lloyd-Rees

4. How much of your travels to the east cost will be strictly on bicycle? Have you calculated your kms yet?

I’d love to cycle all the way to the East Coast, but having done it before, I know that it takes a month…and that’s without putting on opera simultaneously. We’ll be cycling from Baddeck to Halifax, 383 kilometers, while putting on four shows and all in 9 days! From Halifax we’ll be taking the train to Toronto and commencing our tour of Ontario all the way until September 6th. Our exact route is still being finalized, but my current calculation has us beating last year’s record of 1,007 kilometers.

5. BOP is a supporter of new Canadian opera. What do you think makes an opera “good”, and what makes it relevant?

I’m passionate about works that have a degree of social relevance. Opera is, at its most basic level, storytelling, and we need our audience to connect to the story. Opera’s fusion of drama and music has the ability to move people intensely and if a composer is able to create music that moves people while telling a well-written story, that’s the stuff. We work to break down some of the barriers to opera and a major way we do that is to produce opera in English. We feel strongly that opera should be done in the vernacular way more often than it is. We are interested in producing works that showcase a variety of contemporary musical styles; we love new music that challenges the listener and we love simply beautiful music. Either way, the music has to be compelling and must be bound to the story.

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