Edmonton Opera Brunch: “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”

Two Sundays ago Mack and I were invited as guests to attend Edmonton Opera’s Opera Brunch for its upcoming mainstage production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffman). Though we’ve attended the opera and related events before (most recently, Storm the Stage last fall), this was our first time attending an event that would introduce us, in recital format, to the artists that would be performing in the show.

Held in one of the banquet rooms at the Sutton Place Hotel, we were told that the buffet brunch would feature some dishes inspired by the production – namely, the circus setting where this production of Hoffman takes place. We were looking forward to seeing what the kitchen had in store.

Opera Brunch

Table setting

The first few chafing dishes revealed some summer fair favourites, including soft pretzels, corn dogs, fries and popcorn. But for those who wanted more traditional breakfast and lunch dishes, there was an overwhelming amount to choose from, ranging from eggs benedict, sausages and bacon to cold salads, roast chicken and perogies.

Opera BrunchOpera Brunch

It became obvious that some items fared better than others in the chafing dishes – the scrambled eggs remained fluffy and light, while poached eggs became overcooked, for example. The throwback to circus fare was also a mixed bag – we weren’t convinced the kitchen handmade the pretzels (and if they had, why wouldn’t they have sized them down into half or quarter portions?), while the corn dogs were of the Pogo variety. I have to say the kitchen disappointed me that day – given we were told the food would be connected to the opera’s theme, I didn’t expect these feature dishes to come from a box.

Opera Brunch

Mack’s plate

The service staff, on the other hand, were fabulous from beginning to end. We started out the morning with a mimosa (the champagne was topped up generously), and the coffee kept on coming.

The performances began about an hour into the event. We would be treated to a total of ten songs, as well as some words from the Director, Designer and Maestro of Hoffman.

Opera is often said to be pretentious, or at least inaccessible. Part of that is the language of opera, to be sure, but part of it too may be the physical distance between the players and the audience. Compared with a smaller, more intimate theatre production, it can be more difficult to connect with the performers. For me, the Opera Brunch helped erase some of that distance.

Opera Brunch

Teiya Kasahara dashed into the audience

Each of the ten artists chose to sing a song of their choosing, and many of them, surprisingly, were in English – no need for supertitles here! Before starting their song, they provided the audience with a bit of context (the scene preceding the song, the general storyline of the opera), so we were able to understand the character’s frame of mind, or the humour in the lyrics. What amazed me, sitting so close to the stage, was seeing the theatricality of the performers; their physical transformation into the character as soon as the music began – a hunch, a scowl – was a subtlety that sitting in the rafters at the Jubilee, I would never have noticed. And I don’t think anyone will disagree that the finale from Hoffman himself, David Pomeroy, who performed “Danny Boy”, was so wrought with emotion that there were more than a few handkerchiefs out at its conclusion.

Opera Brunch

Krisztina Szabo on stage

We also relished the opportunity to find out more about Hoffman, from the words of those working on it behind the scenes. The passion from Director Joel Ivany in particular was evident, as he described the difference between opera in North America and in Europe – in the former, it is presented as entertainment, in the latter, it is discussed and debated in the culture pages. As Ivany shared his vision for the opera, it convinced us that we should go and see Hoffman – I’m curious to see how the opera manifests itself.

All told, the Opera Brunch was the best Edmonton Opera event I’ve ever attended. We were able to learn more about the forthcoming production, get to know the artists a bit more and listen to some wonderful music, all in an informal setting. I know the EO has tried to target a younger audience with the Explorer’s Club and Storm the Stage, but I think the framework of this event, transposed into an evening wine and cheese, would do more to help those 18-35 connect with opera.

Thanks again to Edmonton Opera for the invitation!

Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs at the Jubilee Auditorium on February 1, 3, 5 and 7, 2013.

Mercury Opera’s Fiamma

On Friday night, Mercury Opera turned a downtown parking lot on 104 Street into a veritable opera stage. You may remember Mercury Opera from their innovative 104 Underground event last year, that saw a live performance orchestrated on the LRT platform of the Bay/Enterprise Square station. This year, Director Darcia Parada brought the opera out and onto the street with Fiamma (Italian for “flame”).

Mercury Opera's Fiamma

Performers at the Eyecare Group

It wasn’t clear on the website what the “gala” preceding the performance entailed, so we had a full supper before purchasing the $25 tickets at the Armstrong Building. At that time, we were given a passport that would be honoured at nine different locations around 104 Street for drinks and treats.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma

Mack tries on some velvet shades at the Eyecare Group

We didn’t end up having enough time to patronize all of the sites, but were able to sample from several of the businesses. The flow of food and drink was much more controlled this time around when compared with the 104 Underground as we had to redeem our passports to imbibe and eat.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma

The crowd at Dauphine

We enjoyed the return of Skinny Legs and Cowgirls (now as a “roaming chef”, or caterer), who served tasty wild mushroom crescents, snacked on fresh pretzels from Cook’s Corner, and satisfied our sweet tooth with cupcakes from Delish. I think the organizers did a fantastic job of engaging small caterers and businesses to supply the food for this event.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma

Skinny Legs and Cowgirls

Evoolution also participated, serving sweet concoctions of drinking vinegar and club soda. We’d heard about this use for their flavoured vinegars, but hadn’t tried it ourselves yet. It was definitely an interesting spin on an Italian soda.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma


It was great to see Amber’s Brewing Company out and about, serving their first batch of beer produced at their new location of Hog’s Head in St. Albert.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma

Jim Gibbon of Amber’s Brewing Company

At 8pm, we gathered in the Melcor parking lot, admiring the lights that transformed the space. Then, led by a stilt walker, paraded down the Alley of Light to the other side of the parking lot.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma


A cube van was curiously parked in the lot, but the mystery was soon revealed – the back door rolled up and exposed the musicians gathered inside. With that, the show began, a spotlight directed at an opera singer situated on the top of the Armstrong Block fire escape.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma

All the world’s a stage

The performer must have been freezing, but didn’t show it at all, her voice penetrating the cold night.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma


The show progressed to include other performers, located in the lot itself, and elevated slightly on mechanical lifts. At this point, the vantage point for spectators suffered a bit. The risers helped, but for any audience members not situated in the front row, the view was obstructed by the parking arch.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma

An aerialist from Firefly Theatre

But in a way, the location couldn’t be as perfect as a typical opera stage because of its guerrilla nature, and it was a suitable trade-off for this unique presentation of opera. Vibe Tribe, known for their fire dances, was a great inclusion, adding more visual interest with their flaming displays.

Mercury Opera's Fiamma

Fire and song

With the rousing applause granted to the performers at the conclusion of the show, there was no doubt the crowd enjoyed Fiamma! We can only look forward to whatever Mercury Opera dreams up next, but surely, it will again be opera “where you least expect it”. Bravo!

Date Night: 104 St Grill and Edmonton Opera’s Storm the Stage

Since Ric’s Grill became 104 St Grill earlier this fall, Mack and I have been meaning to give this new incarnation a try. I had signed up for the electronic mailing list early on, which entitled me to a $60 gift certificate, really giving us no better excuse to have dinner there. We finally had the chance to do so on Saturday.

We arrived just after it opened, and were seated in a booth towards the back. What struck us most at first was how the interior remained remarkably unchanged. Sure, the bar area was a little more open, but the rest of the space retained its formality. I guess it was most surprising because we had heard that the location was originally in talks to become Soda Jerks, but when that didn’t pan out, I assumed the final plan for 104 St Grill would still based on a more casual upscale model, instead of nominal adjustments.

104 St Grill


The menu, however, in both dish selection and price really communicated that not much had changed at all. Entrees, ranging from $17-29 were very traditional plates, and really didn’t excite or interest us. We instead chose to share several of the starters.

The best of the four appetizers was no doubt the poutine ($11), though not named as such on the menu. The potatoes was prepared well, flecked with crunchy bits of bacon.

104 St Grill


The risotto ($12) was quite a generously sized appetizer, served with an (overdressed) side salad. Again, the bacon popped, and the risotto was creamy enough, but not exceptional.

104 St Grill


The carrot and ginger daily soup ($6) had a great texture, smooth but with some body, though I was hoping for a little more zing. The order of Brussels sprouts ($10) was probably enough for four people, but could have probably used a bit more of the brown butter sauce.

104 St Grill

Carrot and ginger soup

104 St Grill

Brussels sprouts

Although service was professional and attentive (we were familiar with the server from The Copper Pot, which used to be in the same family of restaurants), 104 St Grill just doesn’t offer a menu that would invite us to return on a regular basis. Only time will tell if the rebranding will result in success, but for us, it isn’t the type of restaurant we would frequent in the neighbourhood.

After dinner, Mack and I headed to the Jubilee Auditorium for Edmonton Opera’s annual Storm the Stage party. Though we’ve attended a few of Edmonton Opera’s productions in the past, I will admit that it is an art form that hasn’t appealed to us as strongly as others. That said, we have enjoyed Mercury Opera’s attempts to make opera more successful (with another, Fiamma, coming up on October 26, 2012), and was curious about Edmonton Opera’s attempts at trying to broaden their audience.

Storm the Stage

Aida set

I’d read that Storm the Stage was literally that – an opportunity to have party on the set. It seemed like a great behind the scenes peek, though we weren’t really sure what to expect.

Storm the Stage 2012

Treats from Duchess

Well, that’s not entirely true – I suppose we anticipated some opera-related content, especially given the audience may not often frequent opera productions. As a result, the highlight of the evening for me was the two short performances by two members of the Edmonton Opera chorus.

Storm the Stage 2012

Edmonton Opera chorus members

Given we were on the gorgeous set of Aida, in the shadow of an imposing sphinx, it really would have been neat to have a tour of sorts, learning how the set designer came up with his ideas and executed them (I did want to run up and touch the “statues”). It seemed like a missed opportunity to connect the audience with the show in a more direct way.

Storm the Stage 2012

F & M

That said, the evening was enjoyable enough, with performances by alternative folk trio F & M and the always energetic and engaging Mitchmatic. Thread Hill also put on a fashion show, utilizing the tiered stage as a visually interesting runway.

Storm the Stage 2012


Storm the Stage 2012

Thread Hill fashion show

Mack mentioned that the evening could have been improved with a host to unify the performances. It was a little strange that both F & M and Mitchmatic had to introduce themselves, while the fashion show and opera performance just seemed to spontaneously begin.

In all, it was an interesting experience, though one that could have used more opera.

104 St Grill
10190 104 Street
(780) 429-4333

Edmonton Opera

Mercury Opera’s 104 Underground (an operascape)

Last Friday, Mercury Opera brought opera to the people – is there any place more democratic than a public transportation platform?

Although the show itself was free (transit operators weren’t checking for fare payments), a $25 ticket gave opera revellers access to some pre-show food and drink at four street-level businesses. I really loved the design of the entire event – from its transformation of an everyday space to a glorious stage, and its recognition and utilization of existing shops.

Given the event started at 6pm on a Friday night, we thought patrons would trickle in, and adoption of an early bird mentality wouldn’t be necessary. We were wrong; by the time we stopped into some of the participating retailers at 7pm, the trays were empty and the pitchers dry.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

The crowd at Coup

In hindsight, the expectation of any event starting at 6pm with the promise of alcohol would be accompanying food of some substance (especially with the $25 admission price). Instead, there were platters of cheese and pretzels at deVine’s, and olives and pickles at Coup. We heard 29 Armstrong had been serving croquettes (long gone by the time we arrived), and the Eyecare Group had offered up desserts (also since devoured), but in the end just wondered whether the organizers simply didn’t anticipate the crowds that turned up.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

Food at deVine’s

Thankfully for Mack and I, we had both eaten, but happily had some wine at deVine’s, and champagne at the Eyecare Group. People were clearly enjoying themselves, and we almost regretted not arriving at the party earlier.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

Ed serving wine at deVine’s

At 8pm, the group was encouraged to head down to the LRT platform to ready for the show. Chairs for the Vif Quartet had been set up at the centre of the platform, and while the crowd eagerly waited for the arrival of the performers (by train, of course), volunteers and peace officers held caution tape in place to make sure all observers remained safe.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

A packed platform

The show, in a word, was spectacular. The singers used the circular benches as their stage, and in their gorgeous Natasha Lazarovic gowns (it was as much a fashion show as an opera performance), colours reflecting on the mirrored panels surrounding them, it was a sight to see.

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground

Arriving by train

Mercury Opera


The acoustics were better than expected, and the live musicians that accompanied them elevated the show even more. When trains full of passengers drove past, their aghast and puzzled expressions were priceless – these kinds of things don’t happen in Edmonton, do they?

Mercury Opera's 104 Underground


When the operascape was over, the performers left as they came – on the train. The void they left was palpable – we didn’t know what to do with ourselves! There should have been an after party to capture the buzz and energy in the air.

Congratulations to Mercury Opera for a fabulous event. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next!

You can read Mack’s post on the event here (including videos of the performance), and take a look at his photo set here.

Edmonton Opera: “Falstaff”

When I purchased an Edmonton Opera Explorers’ Club membership last year, my intention was to use it to see Stewart Lemoine’s take on HMS Pinafore and nothing else. After thoroughly enjoying that operetta, to really maximize the membership fee, I thought it best to use my discount towards the last opera of the year, Verdi’s Falstaff.

From the website:

“Based on Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, it tells the story of an aging-but-still-randy Sir John Falstaff, who is determined to mend his financial situation by seducing two noblewomen simultaneously. However, (as one would suspect), disastrous, convoluted and wildly funny results arise…. what a man won’t do for love and money!”

As I mentioned in my review of Pinafore, Falstaff was to function as a better litmus test for me determine whether or not I could enjoy opera. Turns out, not so much.

As Pinafore was in English, I didn’t have to rely on the supertitles. For the Italian Falstaff, they were indispensable, and though they helped disseminate the plot and outline the characters, it was exhausting having to dart back and forth from the projected words to the stage antics. As well, I found that I really wasn’t invested in any of the characters – a failing of this particular opera, I admit, and not necessarily true of all productions. But still, I couldn’t care less about the women’s revenge, or the B-plot involving the two young lovers.

To be honest, the most enjoyable part of the evening was the opening five minute video introduction of the 2008/2009 Edmonton Opera season, as presented by Artistic Director Brian Deedrick. He is one excitable man, and for an artform sometimes seen as archaic and irrelevant, I think someone so passionate is exactly the right person to lead the company. When he finally announced the names of each of the three (plus one) shows, Mack and I both could not believe the volume of the collective gasps and sighs emitted by the audience. As someone who would probably do the same upon hearing the new Teatro la Quindicina or Shadow Theatre seasons, I can put myself in an opera-lovers’ shoes, but on that night, I couldn’t help but laugh. If anything, it is good to know that the “opera community” is alive and well in Edmonton.

Would I go to the opera again? Perhaps, for a well-known knockout like La Boheme. Short of that, my opera days are done.

Edmonton Opera: “H.M.S. Pinafore”

I had heard about Edmonton Opera‘s Explorers’ Club a few years ago, but it didn’t seem economical to join until I read about their 2007/2008 lineup. The venerable Stewart Lemoine would be rewriting Gilbert & Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, and thus, even if I didn’t use my membership to purchase tickets for the other shows that season, it would still be worthwhile.

As the play neared, it was released that Jeff Haslam would be among the cast members. At the time, I thought his involvement was more of a token gesture; a thoughtful inclusion of a longtime Teatro associate. Little did I know that he would play a leading role, if not one that upstaged the rest of the cast all together.

While this was my first opera, it wasn’t my first experience at the opera. I had volunteered during the earlier run of Carmen, so I knew that many, if not most of the patrons dressed to the nines (yes, cocktail dresses and four-inch heels in the dead of winter). The majority of the audience was not surprisingly comprised of the older set, though I do think the Explorers’ Club is doing a fine job of trying to foster appreciation of this art form with younger professionals.

I convinced Mack that the Opera Talk prior to curtain was a good way to orient ourselves to the history, plotline and characters of Pinafore, so we arrived earlier enough to join a modest crowd in the Kasaa lobby. I didn’t understand all of Dr. David Cook’s jokes, but the overview of the story would be helpful to my appreciation of the show later on. Mack and I both thought that he seemed a little too keen on Jeff Haslam, however.

I don’t know Gilbert & Sullivan well enough (well, at all, really) to recognize how Lemoine “improved” the script, but in the end, Pinafore really didn’t seem like that much of a leap for him – farce is his specialty, romance his standard, and unusual settings his forte. This opera could be considered typical Lemoine…with musical interludes. I will admit that it was no small joy on being able to hear “He is an Englishman” sung live, as it was used in one of my favorite episodes of West Wing (“It’s from Penzance!” “No, it was from Pinafore!”). And Haslam? He was tailor-made for the role of flamboyant, self-centered Sir Joseph Porter, so much so that I can’t help but think that Lemoine must have specifically requested his participation, as the part was undoubtedly written with him in mind. He was hilarious in his mannerisms, delivery, and even his uproarious laughter (because no one has a cackle as distinctive as his).

As for the production itself, I had a few nitpicks. The lighting was odd throughout, bordering on distracting, actually (was the blue, spinning, simulation of the waves really necessary?). It also seemed that the costume designers should have given Ralph Rackstraw’s character some kind of distinctive piece to wear; otherwise, he too easily blended in with the rest of the ship’s crew. The symmetrical set was functional and allowed for great visuals and movement during the chorus numbers, but I couldn’t see how it was as “special” as continuously touted in the program and in the show’s introduction by Artistic Director Brian Deedrick.

As a member of the Explorers’ Club, Mack and I were able to partake in a pizza and beer reception during intermission. Getting to and from the second balcony to the basement of the Jubilee Auditorium in twenty minutes was a slight challenge though.

Opera really isn’t my area of expertise, but all I hear is how expensive it is to produce, and how ticket prices barely cover the costs (Deedrick offered the statistic that only 42% is reimbursed through ticket sales, while the rest is supported by government donations and private sponsorship). If that’s the case, isn’t it possible to offer more than three shows, given what must be a very large overhead to construct sets and costume from scratch, on top of rehearsals and expenses that I can’t even begin to know? Perhaps there isn’t enough demand (or people who can afford to see it) in Edmonton, but it just seems an extraordinary waste of resources to only offer three opportunities to see a very good local production.

I’d like to attend Falstaff in the spring (my last chance to get “cheap” tickets this year), and I do think that will be a more genuine litmus test as to whether or not I truly enjoy opera. Pinafore was a treat, there being just a slim chance that I wouldn’t find it entertaining – it was in English (making the availability of supertitles less of an issue), penned by Lemoine, featuring Haslam, and more light hearted than what I’d expect from more traditional operas. This was “opera-lite”, so after Falstaff, I will reassess my feeling about the medium then.

Haslam in H.M.S. Pinafore