Monthly Archives: September 2016

Joel Ivany

Joel in the North

By | Joel Ivany | No Comments

I have always wondered about the North.  

We, of course, learned about the Northwest Territories in school and since, I’ve always wondered what was up there.  

In University, I was fortunate enough to cycle (yes, bicycle) across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax. We missed some parts that I’ve vowed to visit in the future and now, thankfully, one of those is crossed off the list.

This past Friday to Tuesday, I travelled to Yellowknife, NWT, and met many wonderful people who each asked me: “Why are you here?”

I came up North for a few reasons.  I wanted to see what the North was like.  I wanted to see what the art scene was like.  I wanted to meet Indigenous peoples and find out what they thought about Canada. I wanted to be more Canadian.

The past year, I’ve slowly become more and more intensely aware of the people that were here on this land, have always been on this land before others showed up and kind of messed it up. I heard and read about “cultural genocide” and couldn’t believe that residential schools were a real thing in Canada.  You see, they weren’t a part of my Canadian History lessons. Could Canada have been so intentionally evil and cruel?  I was shocked to read that the church was a part of this story. They wanted to“save the Indians,” convert the “savages.” One of the lessons I learned growing up was to spread the Gospel to all ends of the earth. I’m sure there was good intention, but at what cost?

So, I flew to Yellowknife with an open heart and mind.  

Facebook came through and I was immediately connected with several incredible people who made me feel at home. On the flight from Edmonton, I struck up conversation with the people beside me.  They, of course, knew Carmen Braden (a composer who was picking me up at the airport), they asked if I knew Leela Gilday (whom I was meeting up with later in the week) which caused the row in front of us to mention that they were neighbours with Carmen and one woman had heard about me through her daughter, my new Facebook friend Kyla. Small world.

Joel Ivany

Joel about to board a 1954 Cessna 170 B

Carmen Braden is a Yellowknifer, composer and gifted young musician who has had her music played by ensembles across Canada and is about to release her first album.  Over lunch she talked about the NWT, arts councils, composing for ensembles like the Gryphon Trio and why she loved living in Yellowknife. Above all, Carmen is a fantastic human.

I stayed with a wonderful family, a couple from Nova Scotia and Australia, who had met backpacking and of course ended up living in Yellowknife. We visited the local brew pub, where I met many new people.  Jean, fixes planes part-time and thought that Hal would be a good guy to reach out to. So of course I did, calling him the next morning.  Hal (never did learn his last name) had a small 2-seater plane and the following morning he was more than willing to take me up for a ride.  

Hal has been in Yellowknife for 40 years (not from Yellowknife, a common theme) and had tried to live elsewhere, but the North always called him back.  We went flying in a 1954 Cessna 170 B. Never done that before. The flight was smoother than I anticipated, and we flew for almost 2 hours all around Yellowknife.  NWT has a lot of lakes, a lot of rock, a lot of trees, hardly any billboards, and really not that many people.  Yellowknife, the largest city in NWT has a population of 20,000 (the average attendees at one hockey game in Toronto).  Hal rocked.  I shook his hand at the end, knowing most likely that I’d never meet him again and just said, “Thank you.”

Joel Ivany

Joel and Hal

With time still left in the day, I drove to Behchoko, which is about an hours drive from Yellowknife.  It is one of the largest Dene (aboriginal group) communities in Canada (population of around 2000).  It is a self-governed, dry community.  Driving through, I felt like I was prying into their lives but was so glad to have seen it.  There’s a school, children, lots of trucks and no restaurants or Starbucks.  This is one of the larger communities of at least 30 that are in the NWT.  

Sunday morning I met with Debbie DeLancey who is the Deputy Minister of Health and Social Services with the Government of the Northwest Territories.  Debbie was awesome (another common Yellowknife theme), and most likely because she had seen the Carmen I directed at the COC this past spring.  She made me feel like a superstar.  An avid opera fan, she has been up North for 40 years and of course, knew everyone I had met thus far and everyone I was going to meet.  We talked about why she was advocating for the North, what the challenges were for the government and indigenous communities and how we can get Against the Grain Theatre to come to Yellowknife.  I’m all for that.  Before long she had connected me two more people and promises that we’d meet again sometime in the future.

The afternoon was spent at The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, a lot more Canadian History that I didn’t know or remember and a heartbreaking exhibition by Robert Burke about his experience at a Residential School.  

Joel Ivany

Painting by Robert Burke from his exhibit My Residential School Experience

I was picked up by Kyla Kakfwi-Scott (my new FB friend) and her husband Amos Scott (a born and raised Tlicho northerner).  They took me for a driving tour of Yellowknife and answered every question I had about their community, life in Yellowknife and being indigenous in Canada.  A couple that was my age, I found their belief system and heritage beautiful.  Amos has worked for CBC in the past and is a filmmaker.  Here is the first episode in a series he made which illustrates life in Behchoko and the Dene people.  I was very thankful for my time with Kyla and Amos.

Dene A Journey Season 1, Episode 1- A Modern Tlicho Life from Dene A Journey on Vimeo.

The trip kept going with the Annual General Meeting for Music NWT, an advocacy group for Northern musicians.  A 13 years old entity, it was fascinating to hear their history, where they are now and who they aspire to be.  Their structure, Strat planning and governance was very similar to Against the Grain and it brought an awareness of our AtG team in Toronto and how much we’ve accomplished in so little time.  I was so happy to attend this small meeting of 15 people and so proud of our team back in Toronto.  

Post meeting was a pre-booked Northern Lights tour.  From 9pm–3am, I was out in a group of 40 led by our tour guide, Deneze (who was awesome).  Deneze, also Dene, spoke passionately about his people, had a wicked sense of humour and is someone I knew I’d be friends with if we lived in the same city.  Out of the 40-ish people on the tour, I was the only Canadian.  I asked Joe, another guide how many Canadians came on the Northern Lights tours, which have become extremely popular in the last few years.  He said about 1%, as the largest market is Japanese.  

Joel Ivany

Carmen Braden at the AGM for Music NWT

Following morning, Pat Braden was next on my artist tour.  Pat is a bass guitarist and one of the few musicians in the world to play the Chapman Stick (look it up).  He spent his youth honing his craft at local bars in Yellowknife, which had live music 6 nights a week.  What I took from my time with Pat, was an artist’s heart is an artist’s heart.  He can’t envision himself doing anything else and is committed to craft and skill. He’s been in Yellowknife for 40 years (theme here) and has lived in the same Shack (his words) for 30 years where he raised his two daughters with his wife.

Leela Gilday is Dene and born and raised in Yellowknife.  She is a talented singer/songwriter who has won a Juno award for Aboriginal Album of the Year.  She’s one of the leading aboriginal singers in Canada and was classically trained having spent one year in Toronto singing in the Toronto Children’s Chorus and has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Alberta.  I spoke to Leela about opera, being indigenous and why she moved back home to Yellowknife (another common theme).  Family, advocating for youth in rural communities and strong ties to the North were big reasons.  We talked about Canada’s 150th celebration and some of the concerts she will and won’t necessarily be playing.  Celebrating Canada can come with mixed emotions.  It was a great chat and I take from it a better understanding of life as a current artist living in Yellowknife.  The rest of my day was spent driving to another community, Detah and reading more about the Truth and Reconciliation report that was filed just last year.

That evening…dinner at a hotel…served by Skye who recognized me from having ushered at the Four Season Centre and asked about Carmen.  CRAAAAAZY small world.

Joel Ivany

Northern Arts and Culture Centre

The last piece of my journey was spent with Marie Coderre at the Northern Arts and Cultural Centre.  Marie, originally from Quebec, has been at NACC since 2012.  A strong, passionate and kind woman in her early 30’s, we bonded immediately through our connection with Roman Borys and the Gryphon Trio.  The Gryphons have come up to Yellowknife three times touring to various rural communities.  For them to continue to travel up here and work with these communities speaks volumes about the nature of their hearts.  

Marie gave me a tour of NACC, a 300 seat theatre which has programming 10 months of the year.  They bring artists from around Canada and also present local shows.  Marie and I connected over grants, budgets, programming and the draw of the North.  I left with a strong understanding of the art scene which she is trying to present and change.  Yellowknife is the largest city of the NWT, but the NACC represents a Centre for all of the NWT and she has a strong desire to tour to the many communities in the NWT.  I can see her moving up the artistic admin ladder in this country very quickly.  

Before I knew it, my time in Yellowknife was over.  I return to Toronto feeling like this short intense trip will affect my work over the coming few years.  It has impacted my identity in a new way.  I feel like we are always wanting to know who we are, as individuals and as a collective.

I now feel like my identity as a Canadian is missing something.  As a group of people, we aren’t what I thought we were.  We were emerging as a very proud Nation.  Proud of our strengths (arts, sport, welcoming spirit).  We’ve invited refugees from Syria, embraced the many cultures to create an incredible multi-cultural scene, we’ve opened our homes and said “Welcome.”  We’re doing a much better job now, having learned from our mistakes, but we can’t excuse, ignore or forget the past.  We have a lot to unpack which I am just experiencing.  We were the ones that arrived on this land.  We were the visitors.  We were the ones that came with a new plan.  I find it very difficult to celebrate that, to celebrate our 150 years of being a country (the True North strong and free).

I strongly encourage anyone who is interested in the North (or Canada) to go.  Go with an open mind and an open heart.  I’m interested to see where this journey leads me and us as a country.  

AtG Opera Pub at the Legion. Photo: Brent Callis

AtG Opera Pub nights at Amsterdam Bicycle Club

By | Opera Pub | No Comments

Happening the first Thursday of every month

Next events: October 13 & November 3 at 9pm
The Amsterdam Bicycle Club
54 The Esplanade, Toronto, ON, M5E 1A6

Want to perform at the next Opera Pub? Email

AtG Opera Pub nights are relaxed, casual nights out that offer up your favourite beer on tap with a side of operatic arias and ensembles, performed by both established and emerging opera talent.

Joel and Topher chatted with Jenna Douglas at Schmopera about the idea behind Opera Pub:

“There are times when we might begin,” says AtG Music Director Christopher Mokrzewski, “and a few bar regulars, who may not have known this was going to happen, find themselves totally absorbed by the spectacle. Or they hate it and leave. Either outcome is okay, as far as I’m concerned.”

It’s a simple idea, and one that could be a fantastic introduction for an opera newcomer. In the familiar environment of a pub, with no oppressive silence or close-quarters seating, people can enjoy opera in short bursts. Listeners have a drink in hand, they can get up and leave whenever they want, and they’re essentially left wanting more. Opera truly is best consumed live, and it’s hard to get more real-life than in a cozy pub.

Ivany has seen the results for himself in Oslo, and more recently in Banff. “One of my most memorable Opera Pubs was hearing Caitlin Wood singing an aria from Giulio Cesare,” he says. “It was exciting, it was electric and the audience was cheering and clapping DURING the aria. It seemed that she was fueled by the energy and put it into each ornament. Was very cool.”

Read more here

Photo: Brent Calis

Joel Ivany

News: “Has Against The Grain Theatre’s Time Finally Come?”

By | AtG in the News, Canadian Opera Company, La Boheme, Opera Pub, Press | No Comments

Musical Toronto is getting pumped for our 2016/2017 season, calling it a (possibly) pivotal year for AtG.

Finally, there just might be some big resources to back their big ideas.

Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre (AtG) offered a box full of opera goodies this week with the announcement of their upcoming 2016–17 season. AtG fans will see a return of a bar-bound La bohème, a monthly opera pub night, and a new gilded residency with the Canadian Opera Company.

Read the full article.





Against the Grain Theatre goes back to its roots for seventh season in 2016/2017

By | Ayre, Media Release | No Comments

A classic remount and a residency with the Canadian Opera Company bring AtG back to where it all began

TORONTO — Against the Grain Theatre (AtG) celebrates its seventh season this year by returning to its roots, offering a fully staged remount of its popular La bohème in a bar, a daring chamber concert of song, a new series of operatic pub nights, and a residency at the Canadian Opera Company,where AtG’s founding members got their start in the business.

After presenting Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov’s Ayre this past summer at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and taking it on the road to the Ottawa International Chamber Festival, AtG brings this haunting song cycle of Arabic, Ladino, Sardinian and Spanish texts home to Toronto audiences in November. It won some kudos along the way, withMusical Toronto commenting that “along with the quality and verve that we have come to expect from AtG, this music is fertile ground for a clever, young company on the rise.” Soprano and AtG Founding Member Miriam Khalilsings this technically challenging and deeply moving song cycle with accompaniment by an 11-member chamber orchestra. The performance is staged by AtG founder and artistic director Joel Ivany, and an evocative setting praised by audiences and critics alike is lit by AtG resident lighting designer Jason Hand.

Ayre takes place at Toronto’s breathtaking Ismaili Centre, 49 Wynford Drive, on Nov. 10, 11 and 12, 2016. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. with performances of additional works by Golijov offered by students of the Royal Conservatory of Music commencing the program at 8 p.m. For tickets, please visit Ayre is presented in partnership with the Aga Khan Council for Canada and the Glenn Gould School of the Royal Conservatory of Music.

A special preview of Ayre will be offered on Nov. 10, 2016 at 12 p.m. as part of the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, presented by the Canadian Opera Company (COC) at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Details about the series may be found

The season continues with a return to AtG’s roots: a fully staged production of Puccini’s La bohème, performed out of the Tranzac Club in Toronto’s Annex district. This remount hearkens back to AtG’s first season, when its Tranzac Club production of the beloved classic (with its new English libretto by Joel Ivany) put the company on the map. Joel Ivany directs, and Topher Mokrzewski music directs. Dates, casting and ticketing information will be released at a later date.

As part of its mandate to keep opera fresh, fun and accessible, AtG launches a new initiative this fall: Opera Pub. Launching on Oct. 13, 2016 at theAmsterdam Bicycle Club at 54 The Esplanade, Opera Pub nights are relaxed, casual nights out that offer up your favourite beer on tap with a side of operatic arias and ensembles, performed by both established and emerging opera talent. The festivities begin at 9 p.m. and will continue on the first Thursday of every month.

“This season highlights what AtG does best,” says AtG Founder and Artistic Director Joel Ivany. “We push the envelope, tackle relevant themes within our community and strive for artistic excellence. Being able to present the music of Golijov is an honour, as he’s one of world’s leading dramatic composers. You won’t hear Ayre performed this way ever again.  La bohèmehasn’t been performed by us since our inaugural season and this feels like the perfect time to bring it back.  We look ahead to the future by initiating new endeavours and continue building on our growing relationships.”

In some of the most exciting news of AtG’s season, the company will be participating in a new residency program offered by the COC. Designed as a pilot project, the COC will act as an incubator for AtG during a two-year residency at the COC’s administrative offices at 227 Front St. E. in Toronto.

The COC’s pilot company-in-residence program is designed to support an individual opera company during the critical transition from its initial formation to growing into a more established organization with a viable infrastructure. The residency program is specifically aimed at opera companies that have been in existence for five years or less and offers, in addition to dedicated administrative space and resources, mentorship involving different departments and opportunities for job shadowing, as well as invitations to observe and/or participate in company meetings and events.

“This residency program is a formalization of a long-time mentorship that has existed between the COC and Against the Grain Theatre. Partnering with AtG during the program’s pilot stage gives the COC an opportunity to lend support to an emerging company while also receiving valuable feedback on how this kind of residency works and if it’s a viable structure we can build upon,” saysCOC General Director Alexander Neef. “It’s an exciting time for opera right now with so many independent opera companies establishing themselves within the arts community. Our hope with this residency program is to put a system in place that helps nurture those companies as they grow and seek to establish a sustainable future.”

“Building a company is tough in any industry, but especially in opera,” says AtG General Manager Joanna Barrotta.  “The COC’s leadership in mentoring young companies like ours gives us a stable platform to continue our growth, and allows us to make a meaningful contribution to the opera ecosystem.”

In December of 2010, Toronto’s opera scene received a jolt of energy with the formation of Against the Grain Theatre (AtG). With a goal to reinvigorate the operatic art form by presenting an eclectic array of musical works in unconventional spaces and innovative ways, AtG staged its first performance to a sold-out audience of 50 people, and with that the company was off and running. Since that first season, AtG has packed every single one of its productions with standing room-only crowds, winning a consistent level of critical and public acclaim, and picking up two Dora Mavor Moore Awards along the way. The arts community has embraced the AtG, as has a much wider, more diverse audience of people who may have never considered attending an opera. Founded by an adventurous collective of friends and artists, the company’s mission is to preserve the company’s unique ability to be serious in intent and execution, yet fun and irreverent in spirit.

For more information, please visit AtG online at, on Twitter @AtGTheatre and on Facebook at
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Media contact:

Caitlin Coull
Founding Member & Communications Director
Against the Grain Theatre

A Little Too Cozy

Wanna audition for AtG? Now’s your chance!

By | Auditions | No Comments

In preparation for the 2016–2017 season, Joel Ivany, Artistic Director of Against the Grain Theatre, Topher Mokrzewski, Music Director of Against the Grain Theatre, and Founding Member Miriam Khalil, will be holding general auditions. AND! Because Thursday, September 29 filled up so quickly, we’ve added a day: Wednesday, September 28!

Wednesday, September 28, 10am-6pm *NEWLY ADDED*

Thursday September 29, 10am-6pm *NOW BOOKED UP*

Mazzoleni Hall, The Royal Conservatory of Music

273 Bloor Street West

Toronto Ontario M5S 1W2

Want to audition? Click here to book your time slot. 

The deadline for bookings is 5pm on Tuesday September 27, 2016. Priority will be given to Equity artists.

Good luck!