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The 500th performance of a 21st century opera

Daniels Spectrum, Ada Slaight Hall
12/07/2012 -  & December 8, 2012, and onward
Dean Burry: The Brothers Grimm
Owen McCausland (Wilhelm Grimm), Cameron McPhail (Jacob Grimm), Neil Craighead (Brentano/Col. Krause), Claire de Sévigné (Dortchen Wild), Lindsay Barrett (Frau Viehmann)
Timothy Cheung (Music Director)
Ashlie Corcoran (Director), Kevin McAllister (Designer)

O. McCausland & C. de Sévigné (© Chris Hutcheson)

Unless someone can come up with a 21st century opera that has received more than 500 performances, we must declare Dean Burry’s The Brothers Grimm to be the most successful opera of the century so far.

The 45-minute work, premiered in April, 2001, chalked up its 500th performance on December 7 (then two more on the 8th), culminating a month-long tour of Ontario elementary schools. By far the greatest number of the work’s performances have been in Ontario, but it has also received productions in other provinces, and internationally (Cardiff, Wales and Nashville, USA).

It also ranks as the most successful Canadian opera ever, unless one thinks that the “rock opera” Hair is really an opera. (It’s not.)

Mr Burry, a young man from Newfoundland with a music degree, started his career with the Canadian Opera Company working in the ticket office. In 1997 he established the company’s After School Opera Program (ongoing) and in 1999 was commissioned by Richard Bradshaw to create this opera (words and music) expressly for touring by members of the company’s Ensemble Studio. He has created several other works as well.

The work breezes along, telling us of the gestation of three of the folktales collected by the two Grimm brothers: Rapunzel, Little Red Cap (aka Little Red Riding Hood), and Rumpestiltskin. The cast of five all get to play multiple roles. There is an element of audience participation much like in a traditional pantomime. Not only do we get to see the stories depicted, we also learn something about the brothers - for example, they embellished the tales they collected to give them the form we know today. While the piece is geared toward children, there’s much to engage an adult as well. The current cast are all very engaging and display promising voices. Also amusing is the q&a session that follows the performance.

Kevin McAllister’s ingenious set features oversize books that open out to reveal props for the unfolding stories. The whole thing packs neatly into a van so that performances can take place at two schools in a day.

A major source of amusement for the kids is to see adults being silly. For example: an attractive young woman (Lindsay Barrett) portrays a nasty old crone (who picks her nose) in the Rapunzel segment, and then becomes the wolf in the Little Red Cap segment. Meanwhile, strapping baritone Neil Craighead embraces the role of the grandmother.

The brisk score keeps the accompanist very busy throughout.

A note on the venue: the Daniels Spectrum is a new $38 million art centre hosting a variety of arts organizations. Along with a dazzling recreation centre across the street, it provides a focal point for a redeveloping neighbourhood in central Toronto, where a reviled, stigmatized public housing project (Regent Park) is being rebuilt with a mix of subsidized and market-rate housing. The local music school has had a relationship with the Canadian Opera Company going back decades. The performance space within the Spectrum, Ada Slaight Hall, is a spacious 400-seat adaptable auditorium with ample room down front for a mosh pit of youngsters. It was designed by Diamond and Schmitt, the firm responsible for the COC’s Four Seasons Centre and other successful theatres.

The year 2012 marks the bicentennial of the first publication of the Grimm brother’s compilation of Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen). This little opera might not become as immortal as the tales but, having had 500 (now 502) performances, it certainly has legs.

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Michael Johnson



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