This Medium packs a punch Opera Fright Night, Flipside Opera & The Little Opera Company, 2019. Photo: Heather Milne.

This Medium packs a punch

Neil Weisensel

When I had first heard about the upcoming performance of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, I was a bit apprehensive (full disclosure: my wife is a medium). I was worried that this show would be mocking mediums, and I wasn’t so sure I would be comfortable with that, given my wife’s talents in that area. But, The Medium in fact shows us that there are things some can see in this world, that are not of this world.

Being a huge fan of both Little Opera Company and Flipside Opera (full disclosure: they have both produced operas of mine) I knew I wanted to see this show. The Medium was certainly compelling, and the ending, where the “fake medium” actually had a real-life encounter with a being from another plane of existence, brought me back to the movie Ghost, with Whoopi Goldberg playing the shyster medium and Patrick Swayze being the ghost.

Opera Fright Night, Flipside Opera & The Little Opera Company, 2019. Photo: Heather Milne.

Briefly, the conceit of The Medium: A shyster, Baba, posing as the medium Madame Flora (a perfectly cast Donnalynn Grills) has been peddling her wares to gullible people, giving them the idea that they are communicating with their dead children in weekly blindfolded séances. These weekly meetings feature Baba’s daughter pretending to be the ghost of a new séance member’s daughter, while Toby, a young mute boy living with Baba (brilliantly acted by Alex Menec) pretends to be the 2-year-old son of a couple that have been coming every week for the last two years. This whole scene is played quite camp and I felt myself getting drawn into the fun.

Things take a harrowing turn quickly however, as it soon becomes apparent that Baba has a drinking problem, and her treatment of mute Toby is psychologically and physically abusive.

Opera Fright Night, Flipside Opera & The Little Opera Company, 2019. Photo: Heather Milne.

During one séance, Baba freaks out and jumps up, having felt “a cold hand” at her throat. Toby, who was in another room at the time, becomes the scapegoat for Baba’s fear. Baba also hears a disembodied voice singing the same song that her daughter usually sings as the ghost of her client’s daughter, but there is nobody around. She starts to unravel, things take a very bad turn, and Toby ends up dead at the end.

To see this opera in such an intimate space as the Salle Antoine-Gaborieau at the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain was very interesting on so many levels. How often do you get to hear, up close, exquisite voices like Jessica Kos-Whicher’s (who expertly sang and acted the part of Monica, Baba’s daughter)? It makes me think back to the times where operas were more typically performed in smaller spaces, not in giant concert halls. There is something about having the singers moving dynamically through the audiences that is very appealing in this intimate venue.

Opera Fright Night, Flipside Opera & The Little Opera Company, 2019. Photo: Heather Milne.

In the opening piece, The Face on the Barroom Floor by Henry Mollicone, Don Larsen was in fine voice as the bartender Tom/John, with thrilling top notes, a suitably menacing disposition and bona fide acting chops. The dual characters of Madeline/Isabel (beautifully sung by Karen Santos) and Larry/Matt (brought with believable style and verve by Nolan Kelher) showcased Flipside and Little Opera Company’s dedication to the finest young singers in Winnipeg.

The efficacy of the intimate venue was brought to the fore many times, but memorably when Tom/John comes over to far stage right, and our eyes follow him there as his performance is so compelling. Meanwhile, the other part of the performance space is being silently reset with new characters, and when they start to sing, we look over there and they have been magically transformed! I love simple stagecraft – doing more with less. Kudos to stage director Jacqueline Loewen for these small but effective details, and for keeping all the action moving, everything vibrant and interesting. (You can read more about Ms. Loewen’s expertise.)

Opera Fright Night, Flipside Opera & The Little Opera Company, 2019. Photo: Heather Milne.

Musical Director Lisa Rumpel played the piano with skill and panache, partnering the singers superbly and holding everything together on scores that were far from simple. (I’m very lucky she’s going to be playing a piece of mine on October 31st.)

Donnalynn Grills was absolutely devastating at Baba/Madame Flora. Grills left it all on the stage floor (to use a sports metaphor). The amount of emotion and energy she put into her character’s maniacal laughter, fear, abusive pummellings and Jekyll-and Hyde remonstrations of poor pitiful Toby were awful to observe – and I mean that as a compliment.

Opera Fright Night, Flipside Opera & The Little Opera Company, 2019. Photo: Heather Milne.

Here are the things that didn’t work for me: in the opening piece, there was a fight with a gun, and then Isabel was “shot” - although we did not hear the report of the gun. From where I was, it didn’t make sense – maybe other patrons closer to the action were more convinced. I found myself slightly irked that the clever bar menus on each table serving as programs, had no mention of the composer of either piece. Also, I didn’t really understand that Baba was drinking booze – it looked like water to me. Some colouring or iced tea, to make it look more like actual booze, could have been more effective.

But these are minor quibbles; on the whole this was a highly engaging, passionate delivery of two effective chamber operas extremely well performed.

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