La Bohème opera at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse on Nov. 4. In this scene, the four poor friends drink with the landlord, sitting on right, as they try to find a way to avoid paying rent. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Opera returns to Dawson after more than a century with modern take on Italian production

Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre has brought their national tour of La Bohème to the North

Dawson City, a town once notorious for its elaborate opera shows, will be getting its first taste of the genre again in more than 100 years on Nov. 7.

“We consulted with a historian and the last opera in Dawson City was 1908 at the Palace Grand,” said Yukon Arts Centre CEO Casey Prescott.

After combing through the archives and talking with experts, it was found that even Whitehorse has not had a traditional operatic canon in half a century.

“The last time we can find evidence of opera in Whitehorse was a Canadian opera tour and that was in 1967,” said Prescott.

But the dry spell has been lifted thanks to Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre and their national tour of La Bohème.

La Bohème opera is performed at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse on Nov. 4. In this scene, one of the performers engages with an audience member. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

The show itself is unlike any other opera people may have attended or seen on TV before. Against the Grain Theatre has completely modernized the 1896 Giacomo Puccini opera for a new generation of viewers and listeners.

“Ten years ago we wanted to do a new opera to start our company and we were looking for a piece that people may have heard of,” said Joel Ivany, Against the Grain’s founder, during an interview in Whitehorse on Nov. 4.

“We couldn’t afford a theatre or proper period costumes, so we said, ‘What if we just present it as is?’” said Ivany. “But people may have trouble understanding Italian, so what about English?”

The original production is about a group of artistic friends who are having trouble making ends meet to pay rent in 1830s Paris, while also dealing with love.

Against the Grain Theatre didn’t change the original plot (they didn’t have to because apparently not much has changed with low wages and high rent in the last 123 years), but modernized the location, clothing and language.

The plot of the opera in this rendition takes place in a dive-y apartment and local cheap bar in whatever city the cast is performing.

And instead of a traditional opera house, Against the Grain decided to perform the opera in bars and legion halls across the country, attracting a completely new type of audience.

The theatre also filled the new English song lyrics with local colloquialisms and destinations, making the opera hyper-relatable for attendees at every destination.

During the sold out shows in Whitehorse at the Old Fire Hall on Nov. 4 and 5, the cast sang about The Dirty Northern, The Miner’s Daughter and Baked Café.

A warning for younger audiences though — there are some swears and off-brand topics in the new lyrics.

Against the Grain Theatre’s national tour started in September in Banff, Alta., and travelled to nine other locations across Canada before ending up back in Toronto.

The Yukon was not originally on the tour list for the company, but was contacted by the Yukon Art Centre’s Prescott to come north. A mandate of YAC is to fill artistry gaps, said Prescott, and opera is one of those gaps.

“I’m a big champion of art being relevant and what I get really excited about is working with artists who blow the dust off and make old art forms like opera new again,” said Prescott. “And Against the Grain Theatre is at the forefront of that.”

All the main characters come together during the last act of La Bohème at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse on Nov. 4, 2019. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Fifteen-year-old Jaxson Sheardown attended the opera at the Old Fire Hall with his class from the MAD (Music, Art & Drama) Program on Nov. 4.

“I have never seen La Bohème or any opera in general,” said Sheardown, “so this is a first-time experience for me.”

The young MAD student chose to attend the opera because he was interested in seeing the modern take on the classic performance.

“I did really like it,” Sheardown said. “The singing was really impressive, I liked all the acting, and the story was nice.”

While he admitted that he did have a hard time understanding some of the operatically-sang lyrics, the acting made it easy to follow the storyline.

Based on his first experience of opera, Sheardown said he would be interested in attending more productions.

“It was a very good experience and a very entertaining play,” said Sheardown. “I would recommend it.”

Sheardown and other Yukoners may have the opportunity to attend more operas in the future since Prescott is hoping to have Against the Grain Theatre visit yearly.

“A hundred years ago, (opera) was the show to go to,” said Prescott. “(Against the Grain Theatre) breathes new life in to it.”

The last show of the tour will be preformed at the Klondike Institute of Arts and Culture in Dawson City at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 7.

Contact Crystal Schick at crystal.schick@yukon-news.com

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