Joel Ivany knows opera. He is founder and artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre in Toronto; Artistic Director of Edmonton Opera; a familiar face to opera fans in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Norway, Australia, and elsewhere; writer of at least seven librettos for various opera companies; and Artistic Director of Opera at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. In 2021, he co-led the artistic team that produced the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards (GGPAAs) at the NAC, a dazzling event that honored a superstar list of Canadian artists like Ryan Reynolds, Catherine O’Hara, Alexina Louie, and Tantoo Cardinal.
But when it comes to opera in the 21st century, Ivany is also an explorer and alchemist, and often a rule-breaker. He’s known to be bold with his collaborations, locations, and interpretations of the classics, playing with context and teasing his way into the mind of opera’s greatest composers to ask: What would they do with this opera today—if they had the tools now that they didn’t have then?
Q: You once said, “the hardest part [of opera] for anyone is that initial experience of what an opera can be.” How do you introduce opera to new audiences and convey the power and intensity of these venerable old operas to them?
Joel Ivany: For me, opera is the greatest union of music and theatre. As soon as the scores are taken away and singers embody the characters they are portraying, it’s magical.
Often, we just need to get people through the door. There are so many barriers that people THINK are there, but they’re really not. Just come, sit down and see a story play out in front of you. You don’t need to do any homework, you don’t need to dress up (but can be a lot of fun when you do) you just need to be open and curious.
Can you describe your own personal journey with opera? How did you find your way to it? Was there a particular moment?
I had a friend and mentor who was working as an assistant director at the Canadian Opera Company on a production of Carmen. He invited me to be a supernumerary (like an “extra” in movies) in the production. I said yes and was immediately immersed onstage. There was something like eight shows and every time the duet between Don Jose and Carmen happened, in Act 4, I would watch from the wings. It was visceral, athletic, dangerous and all-consuming. I know that I wanted to work with this art form and knew that I could participate and contribute to it. I just didn’t know how.
Now I find myself running an opera company in Western Canada, married to an opera singer and with two kids (our eldest has been in four operas already). Life is different but opera is still part of who I am and always will be.
What is the current landscape of opera in Canada and how do you see the future of opera in Canada unfolding?
Opera is in a REALLY interesting spot in Canada.
I have more friends and colleagues who have moved on to more stable work situations. The pandemic really shook the arts—but the arts did not break.
New operas are being created and supported and they’re telling new stories.
The popular standard shows are being programmed (Carmen, Tosca, La Bohème) with hopes that they will bring audiences back.
Opera is being produced outside of typical theatres as we try to engage our audiences in new ways.
We’re also seeing individuals leading the way. Individual artists are speaking up and being put in positions where opera companies are listening and finding ways to support them.
I think we’ll see the greatest change in the art form over the coming 10-15 years.
In your journey to introduce opera to new audiences, what does that shift look like to you? Is there room for cross-pollination with other art forms?
I believe that we need to meet new audiences where they are.
People are craving to connect and be together. For 3 years we were trained to live indoors and not meet with friends, let alone family. Opera is about sharing experiences with one another. So, if it’s at the bar, then let’s bring opera to the bar with some Opera Pub. If it’s shorter operas, let’s make them shorter.
Opera isn’t about earning a badge that you made it to the end… Rather it’s a living, breathing art form that can speak to us the way a Netflix show does, or a short video on YouTube, or a symphony concert or play.
As we keep producing, we must look to other art forms. During the pandemic, we created film and opera, film and dance, film and everything! We need to keep experimenting and collaborating. Dance and opera, film and writing, visual arts and music… We are craving new experiences and that is where we can excel.
What do you listen to or watch for inspiration?
I watch my kids. I see what excites them and when they get bored. I try to be aware of what is “popular” and try to define what it is that makes it so exciting for everyone. Why do people CRAVE buying tickets to a Beyoncé concert? Why is F1 racing becoming more and more popular?
Life inspires me to continue to learn, adapt and grow. We know how to do what was done in the past, but we’re still discovering what the future will look like.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started your journey into the world of opera?
There is not a lot that I would have done differently. I am so grateful for the life that I have now and everything has led me to this point.
I wish I was a more empathetic human. I wish I were more aware of our Indigenous issues in Canada and could have implemented my learning earlier. I wish I could have been even more comfortable and confident being myself instead of trying to be something for an industry that I felt I needed to “act” a certain way in order to fit in.
I love this wild world of opera and can’t wait to see how it evolves over time.
Joel Ivany is the director of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an opera-in-concert production at Southam Hall featuring Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra on June 15 & 17, 2023.