"I think it takes a brave artist to do something like an Opera Pub." Neil Craighead sings in an AtG Opera Pub, with David Eliakis at the piano. Photo: Darryl Block.

"I think it takes a brave artist to do something like an Opera Pub."

Jenna Simeonov

Against the Grain Theatre is gearing up for a brand new season of Opera Pubs, their smash-success, line-up-out-the-door series of monthly open-mic-type events at Toronto’s Amsterdam Bicycle Club. Starting with OPUS POCUS on October 5, 9pm, and continuing throughout the season on the first Thursday of every month, AtG’s Opera Pubs showcase talented singers in a comfy pub environment where the pitchers are discounted and the music is truly live.

We spoke with David Eliakis, Toronto-based pianist and host of AtG’s Opera Pubs, about the unique fun of playing without rehearsal for an up-close-and-personal audience of enthusiastic opera fans.

For you, how does an AtG Opera Pub compare to the average concert gig?

As a performer, making sure my audience is connected to what I’m doing, especially when they’re sitting miles away from me, has always plagued me. Opera Pub nights are so intimate that people feel free to cheer and holler in the midst of an aria rather than sitting politely and waiting until the end to applaud. Hosting the event means I get to show a different side of me other than just being just the piano guy. A beauty of the Opera Pub is that I feel so connected to the audience, which is sitting three feet away from me, or sometimes even on stage because there’s just nowhere left to sit! It’s a rock concert atmosphere but we’re rocking out with Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner.

David Eliakis at an AtG Opera Pub. Photo: Darryl Block.

What do you think makes a song or aria a good pick for an opera pub?

We welcome everything, not just the standard hits, but everything from opera, musical theatre, pop songs, to… whatever! I think this mixed bag is part of what appeals to our audience and when we talk to them, it’s amazing to hear how many of them have never been to the opera, or have never listened to classical singing. When we can present such a variety of repertoire, there is always something for everyone, no matter how new or seasoned our audience is with opera. We also program the evening with a variety of voice types as well so our audience can really hear the gamut of colours and timbres that lend themselves better to certain composers or genres.

What have been some highlights of the opera pub series so far?

I sound like a broken record but…the audience! There’s nothing that compares to a rowdy, enthusiastic crowd cheering you on when you’ve nailed that high note. You just don’t get that in your usual recital/concert setting, and there really is nothing more gratifying. Of course the singers involved are the biggest highlight for me. As a coach here in Toronto, I meet new singers on a daily basis, but there’s something about meeting a singer on stage (literally) and performing for the first time with absolutely no rehearsal in front of a live audience that is absolutely thrilling. We’re bound for something special to happen between the two of us; a musical connection if you will, that may not have happened if we did rehearse.

That’s the magic of music – total strangers getting together and sharing a moment that never existed until that first note. I think it takes a brave artist to do something like an Opera Pub, because it is so vulnerable in so many ways, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling.

David Eliakis, pianist.

If you were to sing in an Opera Pub, what would you sing?

Oh dear, this list could go on forever, but as of late a few of my favourite pieces are:

Britten’s “Oh beauty, oh handsomeness, goodness” from Billy Budd. I played this for a wonderful baritone by the name of Tim Bruno, and it was one of those situations where I was playing an audition for him, we didn’t get to rehearse, and for whatever reason it just clicked between the two of us. But while I was learning the piece, it seemed to consume me. The sinister orchestral waves, waiting for them to erupt, paired with that text and Britten’s genius sense of harmony – well, I could go on forever when it comes to Britten.

Puccini’s “Senza mamma” from Suor Angelica. This would actually be the worst thing possible for me to try and sing in front of an audience. Not only is the music sublime, but when Suor Angelica says “non potendo carezzarmi, le manine componesti in croce” (“when you couldn’t caress me, your little hands folded into a cross”) well, I just lose it and fall to the floor crying like a child. And that’s just the beginning of the aria.

Poulenc’s “Mes filles, voilà que s’achève” from Dialogues des Carmélites. This is the very first opera that convinced me I needed to a) work with singers, and b) listen to a lot more Poulenc. I was so young and knew nothing about singing at the time, but the music in this opera grabbed hold of me and has never let go. There’s such tension in this score, from the minute it begins, and it just keeps getting worse until that final guillotine descends – I love it! What is it about me and nuns?

I was going to add Salome’s final scene to this list but I’m afraid that I’ll be admitted to a psychiatric facility, plus, it’s not really my voice type.

AtG’s Opera Pubs start on October 5th at 9pm, and showing up early is highly recommended. To find out full details - and sign up to sing - click here.

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