• Going Against the Grain: Learnings from the COC Company-In-Residence Program

    By COC Staff

    (l-r) Miriam Khalil, Topher Mokrzewski, and Justin Welsh in
    Against the Grain Theatre's Bound v. 2, 2018, photo: Darryl Block.

    At the end of this month, indie opera collective Against the Grain Theatre (AtG) will formally conclude its run as the COC’s Company-In-Residence, bringing to a close three years of mentorship, learning, and guided growth.

    The Company-In-Residence program is a part of the larger COC Academy, an array of learning opportunities designed to transform the COC into an incubator for the future of the art form. The COC Academy helps to provide space, resources, and training to Canada’s new wave of opera creators. When the Company-In-Residence initiative was announced in 2016, its goal was to support an indie opera company during the critical transition from initial formation to established organization, complete with a viable infrastructure.

    At the time, AtG was still a relatively new operation. Formed in 2010 by a group of friends looking to shake up the traditional classical repertoire, the company staged its first performance to a sold-out audience of 50. Shortly after came a contemporary rewrite of Puccini’s La Bohème – this time set in Toronto and staged at Tranzac Club, a local-area dive bar that would meet the approval of Marcello and friends. The fresh approach was a hit and in the years to follow, the company took on The Turn of the Screw (2012), Figaro’s Wedding (2013), Pelléas et Mélisande (2014), #UncleJohn (2014), and Death & Desire (2015), among others.

    A scene from AtG's La Bohème, 2011; photo: AtG

    Nina Draganić is the COC’s Director of Access and Training. She’s also the head of the COC Academy and served as the primary mentor in a network of mentors made available to the AtG team by the Canadian Opera Company. As Nina recalls, launching a project as large as a Company-In-Residence was truly a learning opportunity for everyone involved.  “We always knew that we couldn’t  map out exactly what this residency would look like,” she says. “And, it was as much about us learning about what developing companies need most during that critical transition as it was about supporting an emerging company through its journey to becoming more established .”

    Since 2016, AtG has taken up residence in the COC’s home base at 227 Front St. E. The convenient proximity enabled both organizations to remain in close contact throughout with team members able to reach out at any time for help or guidance in tackling unfamiliar challenges. The residency also gave AtG access to rehearsal and meeting space, freeing up its members to focus resources and energy on other artistic and administrative matters.

    In the past three years, the company has mounted an impressive number of innovative productions and collaborative ventures that push the envelope of traditional opera expectations. In 2016, the company teamed up with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity for two productions: No One’s Safe, an outdoor, interactive murder mystery opera, and Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre.

    A scene from AtG's No One's Safe, 2016; photo: AtG

    That same year, the company put on Kurtág’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared with Ottawa Chamberfest and A Little Too Cozy, a Mozart opera unorthodoxly staged as a reality TV show which the Globe and Mail called “a risk-taking production that soared to victory.”

    A scene from AtG's production of A Little Too Cozy, 2016; photo: AtG

    2017 saw the first installment of Bound, an ambitious three-year performance piece meant to explore the challenges faced by the displaced and the dehumanized in the wake of a growing refugee crisis.

    Justin Welsh (foreground) and Miriam Khalil (background) in AtG's production
    of
    Bound v. 1, 2017, photo: Darryl Block.

    A second installment followed in 2018, Bound v. 2, along with Orphée, a technicolour burlesque revamp of Gluck’s baroque masterpiece, Orphée et Eurydice. The co-production with Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and Opera Columbus brought in a whopping nine Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations and ultimately won in five categories.

    A scene from AtG's production of Orphée⁺, 2018. Photo: Darryl Block.

    Finally, this year the company staged Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus, an opera performed so rarely that its last staged showing on Canadian soil was its world premiere at the University of Montreal in 1980. The production won two of its seven Dora Award nominations, taking home Outstanding Musical Direction and Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble.

    The cast and crew of AtG's Kopernikus at the 2019 Dora Mavor Moore Awards; photo: AtG

    Through it all, Against the Grain has kept in touch with its “Bohème in a bar” roots by continuing to host the popular Opera Pub at Toronto’s Amsterdam Bicycle Club. On the first Thursday of every month, attendees can listen to live, free opera, with a beer in hand, in a relaxed space where anything is possible and improvisation is encouraged.

    A scene from one of AtG's Opera Pubs at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club; photo: AtG

    “I can’t believe three seasons have passed!” says Joel Ivany, Founder and Artistic Director of Against the Grain Theatre. “And I actually can’t imagine how our company operated before the residency. It’s brought us to a whole new level of development for how we think and work. If you think of a building…the first thing you have to do is dig a big hole and pour in cement and install beams. That’s sort of what this residency has done for our company: we didn’t have that before. We were doing pretty well, but now there’s this extra layer of strength and support.”

    Jonathan MacArthur served as the company’s most recent General Manager, working with the company from 2016 right up until this past July when he announced plans to move on to new projects. “I believe that the work Against the Grain is doing is crucial to the development of opera, opera singers and creative people in Toronto,” he says. “I feel like people look to it as a source of inspiration because of its grassroots nature and how successful it’s been, as well as the excitement we’ve cultivated around our projects. People can see Against the Grain and all the smaller arts companies – especially the opera ones – as a model to aspire to that proves there is a way to make opera on this scale work. It doesn’t always need to happen in a 2,500 seat hall! You can still stage an amazing production and opera singers will want to be a part of that."

    For Jonathan, the experience he gained through the Company-In-Residence program with the COC has proved to be invaluable in terms of setting him up for success in his next chapter of artistic growth. “I never would have learned what I did over the past years were it not for this program and Against the Grain Theatre,” he says. “Having that kind of eclectic combination of learning all things administrative plus also handling the artistic challenges head-on will be very helpful for me in forming a long-term career as a cultural leader.”

    “The big goal for me was to have this residency lead to self-sufficiency,” says Nina, “and I’m happy to say that this has been attained. Despite having to face all of the challenges that any arts organization in this country is facing at the moment, the fact that AtG now has operating funding, paid staff, and a sustainable infrastructure is truly impressive. They’ve grown from a maverick young company to one with serious credibility, and we’re really proud have been able to be a part of that journey.”

    Founding Member & Music Director Topher Mokrzewski (foreground)
    and Founding Member & Artistic Advisor Miriam Khalil (background); photo: AtG

    As for what’s next for this trailblazing group of artists, one thing is clear: the company is keen to pass on its learnings to an even newer generation of opera creators. In partnership with the University of Toronto, AtG recently launched its own Young Artists Residency, a two-week summer program in Toronto where up-and-coming artists are given help with headshots and video, as well as given stage experience and one-on-one mentorship with AtG and UofT faculty.

    “It’s a really exciting new partnership for AtG,” says Jonathan. “It proves that we’re learning and want to share what we’ve been learning with the rest of our community. Even beyond the residency, as I will soon be engaging with other indie opera and independent grassroots organizations, I look forward to sharing the knowledge I’ve been able to acquire over the past few years in all aspects of production: everything from box office, to marketing, to fundraising and grant writing.”

    “It’s like the film Pay It Forward,” adds Joel. “We’ve been given this, and, I think it could be easy to be greedy with it, but we feel more like, 'Well, how can we then share that and help influence the next wave?' We saw it modeled by a larger company—with the COC saying, 'We’ll take you in, learn from each other, and help you out'—and we’re excited to pass that on.”

    Joel says the company has seen a lot of growth beyond AtG’s early successes with fun adaptations of classic opera repertoire. Looking ahead, he sees the company honing in on more contemporary social issues and challenges. “Next season we’re featuring a transgender opera singer, and we have no idea how that’s going to go because there’s nothing to compare that to [in terms of] what we’ve experienced,” he says. “We’re really focusing on ‘What other stories can we tell that aren’t being told?’ ‘What other communities and people can we involve that aren’t part of our circle now?’ We have the track record and flexibility to adapt that way and I think that’s where we’ll see Against the Grain move toward, as well as keeping the bread and butter of what got us on the map.”



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