The Current

Indie opera is enticing newcomers, but is it enough to keep the genre relevant?

There's a growing indie opera scene in Canada, led by troupes determined to bring the artform to a wider audience. That might mean ditching the concert hall for a performance in your local pub, but it also means more work for performers, and could boost the industry overall.

'They can’t work 10 different jobs while also running a small opera company,' says opera critic

Miriam Khalil, both a performer and co-founder of Against the Grain Theatre, says bringing opera to local pubs introduces the genre to many new faces. (Darryl Block)

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The founder of an indie opera troupe says people are lining up to attend her free concerts in pubs and bars around Toronto — but not everyone thinks the trend will save Canadian opera.

"A lot of people haven't seen opera before and it's just like this friendly easy kind of way in," said Miriam Khalil, opera singer and co-founder of Against the Grain Theatre.

"A lot of them come back and say, 'Well, we're going to come back to one of your shows because this was great. Now I want to see an opera.'"

The monthly shows organized by Against the Grain attract opera fanatics and newcomers alike because of the unique setting, Khalil told Anna Maria Tremonti on The Current.

"It kind of brings them closer to the action," she said. "When you're that close and you're seeing the facial expressions, you can't lose the story. It's really lovely."

Khalil launched the troupe 10 years ago after graduating from the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio. At the time, she said, work for performers was scarce, and her agent told her to get used to waiting tables.

In recent years, Canadian opera companies have faced financial struggles amidst an aging target demographic and high production costs. 
Lindsay Connolly, an indie opera performer and director, works multiple part-time jobs. (Donald Lee)

Opera critic Lydia Perović cautioned, however, that while companies like Against the Grain often start strong, they may not maintain the enthusiasm and support in the long run. 

"Where we lose these companies is when they have to move from project-to-project funding to something multi-year, when they can start really planning, have a proper budget, have a proper board of directors," she said. 

"Our arts funding bodies just don't have enough of multi-year funding for companies like this."

The staff for these small companies often rely on other part-time jobs to stay afloat, she argued, which can become too much for some people.

"They burn out! They can't work 10 different jobs while also running a small opera company."

To discuss new-age opera and its future in the Canadian arts landscape, Tremonti spoke to:

  • Miriam Khalil, opera singer and co-founder of Against the Grain Theatre.
  • Lindsay Connolly, opera singer and co-artistic director of 23 Degree Theatre.
  • Lydia Perović, journalist and opera critic.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Produced by Jessica Linzey and Ines Colabrese.

Music credits: 
"Policeman's aria" from "Harrison" by Domenic Jarlkaganova 
Brittany Rae, soprano
Lindsay Connolly, director
Daniel Arthur, music director