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Meet the pianist who's doing the job of an entire orchestra (and conductor!) on a Puccini opera tour

David Eliakis is the music director of Against the Grain Theatre's touring production of La bohème.

David Eliakis is the music director of Against the Grain Theatre's touring La bohème production

Pianist David Eliakis is a vocal coach at the University of Toronto and the Royal Conservatory of Music and is an artistic associate at Against the Grain Theatre. (Darryl Block)

"Normally there would be a conductor and an orchestra, and we don't have either of those things," said pianist David Eliakis, laughing a little nervously. It was two days before the opening performance of Against the Grain Theatre's touring production of Puccini's La bohème, and he and the cast were deep into rehearsals at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

A scene from Act 1 of Puccini's La bohème performed at Mainliner Pub in Medicine Hat, Alta., on Sept. 30, 2019, by the travelling troupe of Against the Grain Theatre. (Against the Grain Theatre/Twitter)

Set in modern times, sung in English by an age-appropriate cast and performed in bars rather than opera houses, this is La bohème on a shoe-string budget, intended as an alternative to the usual opera-going experience. As its musical director, Eliakis accompanies the performances on piano, runs all rehearsals, and since there's no conductor, well, he does that, too.

"As the pianist replacing the orchestra, I try and conduct certain moments, especially in some of the larger ensembles," he explained to CBC Music during a rehearsal break. "But this tour is challenging because we don't know the spaces that we're showing up to. And quite often, I don't know if I'm even going to be able to see the singers from wherever the piano is going to be played."

Mother nature served up some snowy realness for the cast of Against the Grain Theatre's production of Puccini's La bohème in Alberta. (Against the Grain Theatre/Twitter)

The tour began on Sept. 27 at the Banff Centre with nearly daily stops planned in cities and towns across Alberta, Saksatchewan, Manitoba and Northern Ontario. Then, there'll be a run of 11 shows at Toronto's Tranzac Club. The Oct. 13 performance will be live-streamed on CBC Gem and CBC Arts' YouTube page.

There are a couple of exceptions to the bar setting on this tour. "One of them is actually a hamburger joint, which is hilarious," Eliakis notes. "One of them is, I think, a library! I don't know how they agreed to this, because we're going to be making a lot of noise for two hours [laughs]. But yeah, mostly bars, and every place is a completely different setup. So, with our staging, we're always going to have to adapt to whatever the room allows us to do. We don't get any rehearsal time in there. We literally just show up the day of, and figure it out. We've had to keep a very open mind about it. But I think it's the kind of show that we will make it work no matter what. It'll be a challenge, but I think it'll be a fun challenge more than anything."

An additional challenge for the singers in this production of La bohème has been getting used to the English adaptation of the Italian original. "It happens in rehearsal all the time where someone will start singing in Italian and it's like, 'Well, wait now, sorry. I have to do the English.' So, yeah, that's the main thing — just getting them on board with a new musical language."

'Oh, yeah, we have a piano'

One variable for Eliakis is the quality of piano that he will play in each venue on their tour. "There are a few places with actual pianos for me, but generally, to be safe, we're bringing a digital piano with us as well," he said. "Because sometimes someone will say, 'Oh, yeah, we have a piano,' and then you get there and like, eight keys are broken and it hasn't been tuned since 1952. So just to play it safe, we are bringing a digital piano with us." For the 11 performances planned at Toronto's Tranzac Club, they'll have a grand piano.

In strictly pianistic terms, Eliakis admits he plays differently in these unconventional surroundings. "The whole thing is so much more intimate. It's not that I'm just going to play everything softly. It's got dramatic moments. And you know, believe me, I'm giving it the whole time. But there are moments that I find are so much more personal when we're doing it in a small space like this. And so that's when I treat it more like it's song repertoire or even like a solo piano piece. And I love that I have the freedom to do that."

With his hands constantly busy on the keys, Eliakis is limited in what he can do, physically, to cue the singers. So, preparation has been key, as he explained to us:

'They’re such solid artists that my job has been so easy.' — musical director David Eliakis on the cast of Against the Grain Theatre's travelling production of Puccini's La bohème. (Against the Grain Theatre/Twitter)

"If you know La bohème, you know there are a lot of ensembles. It's a lot of group action all the time, and all those little details that you need to work out, like who picks up the bread, who's putting the beer bottles away, like, 'Oh, watch out, the landlord is here!' — all those things. It can take forever, but basically everyone on this team has done La bohème at some point, except for our lead, Jonelle [Sills]. But it's coming together so quickly that we all just kind of look at each other like, 'OK, I guess we'll move on to the next scene!' So, I would say it's my team that has made it so easy, because so many of them already have this music in them. They're such solid artists. I could not have picked a better group of singers to work this with."

'Wandering through the audience'

Acts 1, 3 and 4 of La bohème involve relatively few characters in domestic settings. But Act 2 is perhaps opera's most famous crowd scene, set at a bustling outdoor café in Paris, with the involvement of a huge chorus — not easily staged in the close confines of a bar.

"We will be at a bar, and we're going to try and utilize their bar space," said Eliakis, explaining how they're adapting the scene. "So, we'll actually have our own bartender behind the bar serving them drinks. And all of the action will take place essentially at the bar, with a bit of movement here and there where the cast will be wandering through the audience."

Does it work? Does operatic music — loud, lavish, effusive — really sound good in an intimate setting?

"The thing that I hear constantly from the audience who are literally sitting maybe three feet away, is that they love how immediate it is," Eliakis reflects. "Because in a hall, you're sitting so far away from them. But when these singers are pouring out their guts in this beautiful music, and they're standing right in front of you, it's amazing to see the audience get so entranced. So, I don't think it's actually something that we feel we have to adjust or pull back or anything. I think it is that immediacy that pulls the audience in."

Against the Grain Theatre's touring production of La bohème runs through Oct. 25. For details on cast, dates and venues, head over here.