Joel Ivany sat down with our presenting partners, Massey Hall & Roy Thomson Hall, for this feature interview in Soundboard Magazine. On the cover: Joel and AtG’s Messiah choreographer Jen Nichols (left), alongside GlobalFEST’s Emiline Michel and Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics, shot by none other than Matt Barnes. Enjoy a full transcript of the interview below, after this video teaser:
Going Against the Grain: Holiday Edition
Q&A with AtG Founder and Artistic Director, Joel Ivany
Against the Grain is a collective of Toronto artists – most of whom are regular performers at ornate halls and opera houses around the world – with a yearning for intimacy and a desire to turn the “classics” sideways, performing in unique spaces and unconventional ways. They’ve brought La Bohème, in English, to a dive bar; transformed Figaro’s Wedding into a chic, modern Toronto wedding full of love, betrayal, bills and flowers; and more – while drawing wide critical and audience acclaim.
Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Easter of 1742 and has since become a cornerstone of Christmas repertoire. In 2013, Against the Grain presented their version of the opera – at, both fittingly, and not, eastside rock venue the Opera House – and in 2015, bring a new production of the work to the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.
We had a few questions for AtG Founder, Artistic Director and Director of Messiah, Joel Ivany.
Talk about the AtG mission in light of the production of Messiah.
We discovered that in the classical music world, we’ve set up these rituals and habits that aren’t necessarily the most welcoming or engaging. So in order to keep the work alive for a new generation, we’re bringing it outside of the venues where it is traditionally performed. By breaking many of these rituals, we’re allowing the new to creep into the old. And that’s a good thing.
Robert Harris, writing in The Globe and Mail, called Messiah “an extraordinarily perfect construction of musical genius.” In terms of challenging the idea of sacred works in sacred spaces, Messiah would seem a prime candidate for an exception. Why mess with it?
AtG is nothing if not bold. Our mandate is to present classical repertoire in unique and innovative ways. Perhaps by visually re-imagining the Messiah, we can also hear it in a new way and deepen the experience for audience members and artists alike.
Choreography? Barefoot soloists? What’s going on here?
We’re reteaming with acclaimed choreographer Jennifer Nichols and pushing our exploration of how the addition of movement can affect something that we perceive as sacred, static, and “untouchable.” An incredible cast of soloists are game to experiment with us, and to answer this question: does seeing something differently allow you to listen to it differently?
You last produced Messiah in 2013 at the Opera House – which, we should add, is not at all an opera house. How is the upcoming Harbourfront Centre Theatre performance different from 2013’s production?
This time round, we’re going to expand and create more of a through composed narrative. Think of it as Messiah 2.0. Jennifer and I are aiming for more of a through-line with seamless transitions between the numbers that we individually prepared. Personally, I’m seeing this as an opportunity to further explore these characters. I know that the movement and choreography will be different, so for that reason alone, this will be a brand new show.
We’ve also hired AtG’s resident lighting designer, Jason Hand, to bring his magic touch to the show. He wasn’t around the last time we did it and I know that he will only accentuate and highlight the best that this show offers.
The other major change is in the venue. We’re a site-specific company and take great pride and choice in choosing the right venue. Harbourfront Theatre offers everything we need – and more (for example, you can also drink in the theatre). This venue allows more people to see this crazy show while maintaining the intimacy for which we are known.