Baroque Opera:
Opera Atelier

The Baroque opera company Opera Atelier holds a unique place in the Toronto music scene. This rare performing ensemble has been producing opera, ballet and drama from the 17th and 18th centuries since 1985.

When I was touring the Chateau Versailles some years ago, I had the chance to see the royal couple’s in-home theatre.

Above: Photo by Bruce Zinger / Artists: Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg & Curtis Sullivan

The “Opera Royal” is a live performance space created for Queen Marie Antoinette and her hubby and 712 of their “close-personal-friends” in 1770. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before: so rich in detail and décor that it rendered me temporarily speechless.

As I stood gawking, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to have been in the audience back then. What performances took place then? What did the music sound like? What kind of sets and costumes did they use? Unless I had a time machine, I thought, I’d never really know.

I never suspected that I’d get my chance to experience a trip into opera’s past until I stumbled upon Toronto’s own Baroque opera company, Opera Atelier.

OA is a homegrown treasure that is probably more famous abroad than it is here in Canada. The company has been invited to perform in Tokyo, New York City, Germany, Singapore, London and – yes – even in the “Opera Royal” at Chateau Versailles.

They have been producing opera, ballet and drama from the 17th and 18th centuries since 1985. Each year they mount two productions, one in the fall and one in the spring. Each show runs for about seven performances each, so you have to be careful to catch this Rare Treat while you can. They come and go in a flash like perfect summer days.

So far the company has produced operas such as Don Giovanni, The Return Of Ulysses, and Persée. Mozart is a big favourite. They seem to produce one of his works each year.

The music you’ll hear at an Opera Atelier is authentic and exquisite, performed by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir on period instruments. Where else do you get a chance to see two of the city’s finest creative companies for one ticket?

Dance (ballet) is a really important part of an Opera Atelier production. This comes as no surprise because this Baroque opera company was founded by two dancers, a husband-and-wife team, who still produce and choreograph many of the shows.

Some opera companies put all the emphasis on the singing alone, and the “background” stuff is just that … background (nothing worth noticing). Opera Atelier however pays attention to every tiny detail. The costumes and sets are an important part of the whole rich artistic experience. The period costumes are just amazing. I saw Mozart’s The Magic Flute here in 2006 at the Elgin Theatre and was floored by the elaborate costumes, especially those of the birds. The children in the show were laughing and giggling so hard that at times they drowned out the instruments! Their giggles and hoots added to the hilarity and boisterous joy of the experience. I’ve never attended a show where the audience was this engaged in the performance.

FAQs for Opera Virgins

What is Baroque opera?

Baroque operas are operas written between about 1600 and 1750.

Will I understand it?

“Opera… isn’t that mostly in Italian or other foreign languages?” Don’t worry: if you don’t understand the language, you can just read the English translations on the “sur-titles” above the stage. Or better yet, read your program in advance so you’ll have a general idea of what’s going on just by knowing the plot. The gestures of the performers usually help a lot too.

Can I afford opera? Isn't it only for the rich?

The ticket prices start at $35 – a lot cheaper than most rock concerts, ball games or amusement parks.

Where can I see this?

Opera Atelier performs at the Elgin Theatre Toronto, located at 189 Yonge Street. This is a lovely old theatre built in 1913. The décor isn’t quite as lush as the Chateau Versailles’ theatre, but it is much more posh than many of today’s soulless new performing venues. Lots of red and gold and velvet and chandeliers … the gaudy but charming grandeur of the Edwardian era.

For more information

You can buy tickets at the box office of the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St., Toronto. Telephone: 416-872-5555.

Or you can buy them online at www.operaatelier.com.

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