It's tough to imagine an opera singer wiping off sweat and bicycle grease before walking on stage, but a new company is all about defying the opera clichés.

Members of the Bicycle Opera Project are bringing the classical art form to cities across Ontario, by bicycle.

The freewheeling gang has only one rule: no divas allowed.

CBC Arts reporter Deana Sumanc has the story

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"You have to be OK with cycling through the rain, for example," says the company's co-founder Larissa Koniuk during the company's stop in Hamilton last week. "You have to be OK with changing a flat tire."

Three years ago, Toronto-based Koniuk, a soprano, was about to start her professional career as an opera singer. But she wanted to do something different than what the conventional wisdom prescribes for young singers: small roles in big productions. 

The environmentalist in her was also unimpressed.

A touring opera without the footprint

Big touring operas, like many other elaborate entertainment productions, require trucks loaded with props and costumes that log many miles on the road. So Koniuk, a cyclist, realized her favourite hobby could also become a new way opera singers could travel between gigs without harming the environment.

Larissa Koniuk

'You have to be OK with cycling through the rain' says the company's co-founder Larissa Koniuk (CBC)

With a few like-minded singers and musicians joining, the Bicycle Opera Project hit the road.

"I'll admit that the project is quite ambitious," says Koniuk. "We require that our singers and instrumentalists not only cycle up to 80 km in a day, but also that we perform a fantastic show."

It wasn't easy.  

Getting a warm-up and getting in gear

Many of the singers who joined, like mezzo soprano Stephanie Tritchew, had never done long distance cycling before. But Tritchew says logging such long miles has been an unexpected boon to her performance.

"It's like doing a full body warm-up!" says Tritchew." So then when we get to our venue, we just do a couple of quick warm-ups and we're ready to go"

And all the hard work, physical and artistic, is paying off. 

Now in its third year, the tour has grown from two to five weeks, and from a handful of shows to 20 per summer.

To make their trek easier, the company has had to learn to travel light. All the props, costumes and instruments have to fit into two bike trailers. And the company has a unique way of powering the few stage elements that need it: a stationary bike hooked up to a generator linked to the projector on stage. 

Bicycle Opera Project

Audience members help power the show with a stationary bike hooked up to a generator linked to the projector on stage. (Deana Sumanac/CBC)

The audience members are asked to use the bike, effectively helping to power the show. Koniuk says many people in their audience are first-time operagoers, who delight in the company's unconventional approach.

"Some people have never seen opera, they think of opera as an elitist art form – a woman standing on the stage in a bull horn helmet singing in a language you don't understand. We try to break down the barrier and i think that people are drawn in because of the cycling element and then they think, 'Oh, I'll check out an opera!'"

Koniuk says the repertoire the company performs – exclusively shorter works by contemporary Canadian composers like Dean Burry, sung in English – makes the material even more accessible.

They're currently powering their way through a five-week tour of Ontario. They say it feels like summer camp, but their hopes for the future are big.