When sellout crowds turned up for opera in a tent

Rossini might have "ruptured himself" to know that his operas were being performed under a circus tent. But in the summer of 1982, the novel approach was earning him a whole new audience in Toronto.

Canadian Opera Company offered a cheaper ticket in casual surroundings in the summer of '82

Sellout crowds fill up a circus tent in downtown Toronto to watch opera in fun and casual surroundings. 3:02

Rossini might have "ruptured himself" to know that his operas were being performed under a circus tent.

Mozart may not have liked it either, said the CBC's George McLean. And Beethoven would have been livid.

But in the summer of 1982, the long-dead composers were being revived in a novel way when their operas were performed under a striped big top in downtown Toronto. 

"Lineups start early, sometimes two hours before showtime," said reporter John Grier.

'Turn-away business'

"We do turn-away business every weekend," said Michael Howell of the Canadian Opera Company. "We just stand around and pinch ourselves." (The National/CBC Archives)

'We're doing turn-away business every weekend," said Michael Howell of the Canadian Opera Company. 

Grier sounded a note of incredulity at the crowds that were turning up.

"These people are here for opera," he said. "That's right, opera."

He said many of them were apparently seeing an opera for the first time ever, and they didn't "act the way we imagine an opera audience should," nor did they dress like it.

"Besides, they look as if they're having too good a time," he added, as audience members including a shirtless man  were seen clapping and singing along with the performers on stage. 

Opera gateway 

"They certainly don't dress the way we imagine they should," said reporter John Grier, speaking about the audience at the opera in a tent. (Saturday Report/CBC Archives)

Grier said the C.O.C. believed it had found a "successful new way" to boost the audience numbers at its "much more expensive" performances during the regular season. 

Howell conceded that customers of the more traditional show might not "exactly like" the shorter summer presentations, but they were outweighed by new converts.

"We find so many people who ... walk out of the tent and say, 'My god, I've never been to an opera but wasn't that fun?'" he said.

The summer season was a boon for new opera singers, too. 

"It's been part of my operatic development," said singer Ted Baerg. "It behooves all young artists to try this kind of thing."

"I came last week, and I had to come again," said a patron of the opera. (Saturday Report/CBC Archives)