Canadian Opera Company recruits sumo wrestlers for Semele

Talk about a couple of heavyweight performances: the Canadian Opera Company has cast two sumo wrestlers for its upcoming production of Semele.
Elmer Gale, seen at his Sumo school in Toronto on Tuesday, has been recruited by the Canadian Opera Company to perform in the upcoming opera Semele. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

Talk about a couple of heavyweight performances: the Canadian Opera Company has cast two sumo wrestlers for an upcoming production.

The company had a tough time finding a pair of gigantic grapplers to perform in Semele, which runs May 9 to 26 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

"We started the search probably in December and it had not been easy because the sumo community in North America is obviously not at all the same as it is in Japan," COC spokeswoman Maria Lioutaia said Tuesday.

After a long, fruitless search, a casting call was sent out south of the border and U.S. sumo wrestler Emanuel (Tiny) Yarbrough — who holds the Guinness World Records title as the "largest professional athlete in the world" — was recruited. Yarbrough is about 6'8" and weighs 625 pounds.

But word of the talent search eventually made its way to the Ronin Judo studio in Toronto, where owner Elmer Gale teaches judo and sumo wrestling. Gale is part of the small amateur sumo fraternity in Canada and actually faced off against Yarbrough a few years back.

"I hit him with everything I got and I bounced right out of the ring," said Gale, 47, who weighs around 320 pounds.

However, he notes that edged out Yarbrough during a previous bout.

"I got to fight him a few years earlier in a judo tournament in Colorado and at that time I happened to best him, I threw him — it was cool." 

Gale said he's "absolutely thrilled" to be taking part in Semele and to see Yarbrough again.

"I love new opportunities to try anything new and when you wear one of these you've got to be a bit of a hambone," he said, gesturing to his revealing sumo garb. "It's a perfect venue for me."

The sumo wrestlers will have a three-minute staged match as part of the story, which Lioutaia described as "a love affair between the god Jupiter and the princess Semele that goes horribly awry when Semele sets her mind to become immortal."

Gale doesn't know much about his part yet but figures he can handle the role.

"I'm pretty sure there's only so many things we can do, right? And I'm not going to let Manny land on me no matter what," he joked. 

"We'll slap each other around and try not to steal the show." 

Gale said sumo is a pretty a small niche in North America, Canada especially, but he believes it has a universal appeal.

"The beauty part of sumo is every kid has played it, it's king of the hill, it's the most simple of all sports. It's really easy to see who wins, who loses, and you can win or lose that fast. 

"And you just get up and say, 'Get you next time.'"