It looked as if Philistines would derail the night of opera.
In the front row, no less, a trio of cackling women continued their private conversation when baritone Alexander Hajek took the stage in the Capitol Theatre’s Kelly auditorium as part of Ruckus! on the Road: An Opera Revue Tour. As accompanist Claire Elise Harris began the first musical selection, Alex cast a wary glance at the noisy trio. Incredibly, the cackling continued unabated.
Unable to bear the intrusion any longer, Alex leaned in the direction of the noisemakers, put his index finger to his lips and issued a resounding, unambiguous “Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
That is when soprano Danie Friesen entered the stage and beheld Alex’s attempts to retain order and spun his efforts on their head.
“What are you doing?” she said. “You know we have a strict no-shushing policy!”
It was then that the ruse was revealed. The front row cacklers were not interlopers, but Bri, Erin, and Alyssa from Windsor’s own Abridged Opera.
Danie explained to the audience that they were free to photograph the performance with their cell phones, move about the theatre during the performance, and otherwise, relax and enjoy a diverse selection of music by highly skilled musicians. The introduction was extremely effective, part Monty Python, part Penn and Teller in how it respectfully deconstructed their artform for the audience. It wasn’t self-deprecation but came from a deep love and knowledge of opera. The performers were entirely aware of some people’s preconceived notions of opera. Rather than apologize or allow such notions to be awkward barriers, the performers used this as a helpful and interesting jumping off point.
From there, the audience journeyed safely and enjoyably into a realm of music that some have trouble plugging into. With Danie, Alex, and Claire as guides, the soundscape was inviting, entrancing, enlightening. It was greatly helped by the explanations that preceded each classical piece, establishing its context in the larger opera from which it was plucked, and the part of the story it fulfilled.
One thing that struck this writer was the singers’ proximity to the microphones. Seeing them stand no closer than six feet to the microphones gave an indication of the vocal power at their disposal. They soon demonstrated exactly this.
One of the barriers to opera music was removed on the first selection “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera La traviata. That barrier was language. Danie and Alex sang this first piece in English. Accompanist Claire Elise Harris provided robust backing on her keyboard throughout the entire show.
The second barrier the Opera Revue removed was time—choosing well-known musical selections, some of which were no longer in duration than pop songs heard on the radio.
Another way in which the musicians brought the audience into their embrace was through their sense of humour. The vocalists conveyed this in their explanations of the classical pieces, but also in the original compositions they performed.
Danie introduced the first original composition by explaining that earning a living in the arts is no easy thing. It often looks exciting. When the bookings are flowing, when the phone is ringing, it all appears glamourous and happening. At some point, however, tours end, performances reach completion and the slings and arrows of everyday life are still there: bills, responsibilities. Danie conveyed this uneasy balance in a song that had as its center the line: “Thank God I know how to pour a beer!”
This was more of that endearing demystification from the show’s introduction. Although the audience witnessed massive talent on the stage, that song was a reminder that the caretakers of that talent also live in the world. It added an interesting human dimension to the performance.
Another notable performance in the evening was Alex’s interpretation of Franz Schubert’s Doppelganger. Although he sang in German, Alex’s explanation beforehand opened the story up for the audience. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he demonstrated ingenious stage craft when he shone a red flashlight under his face when singing the part of the main character’s doppelganger.
Guest performers came to the stage: Bri, Erin, and Alyssa of Windsor’s own Abridged Opera mounted the platform. They gave a demonstration of advanced cackling and performed “Macbeth Trio.” Their performance was a resounding combination of great talent and great fun. It was obvious the three enjoy performing together.
For the number before intermission, Alex entered the stage wearing an Opera Revue T-shirt and carrying a platter filled with drinks. The selection he introduced was a piece from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. He then embarked on this most famous piece—heard in cartoons, commercials—like an equestrian rider in a mad steeplechase. His vocal acrobatics were comparable, in dexterity and virtuosity, to a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen. At various pauses in the onslaught, he threw back shot after shot—of, what turned out to be, water. It was a rousing finish to the first half of the show. The performance was an athletic event.
In the second half of the show, Danie and Alex sang another original composition, “Housing Crisis,” which demonstrated their full palette of skills as entertainers. The vocal performance was spot on, the lyrics to the piece were prescient, painful, and hilarious—high art meets late-stage capitalism.
Favourites such as “La Vie En Rose” and “Some Enchanted Evening” from the musical South Pacific, followed.
Danie returned to the stage—wearing a brown cowboy hat—for a solo performance of another original composition, “Country/Opera,” which told the story of a girl growing up in the southern United States who preferred opera to country music. Seamlessly alternating between a twangy southern accent and soaring operatic vocals, Danie told a compelling comical story. At one point, the character in the song has a baby, which Danie dramatized by removing her hat and cradling it in one arm. During a pause in the piece, a baby in the audience chimed in—pianist Claire Elise Harris’ baby to be precise—with a non-verbal addition to the show that perfectly meshed with the moment. The baby received rapturous applause.
Alex had the unenviable job of following Danie—and Claire’s baby—to sing “La Vie En Rose.”
Later, in the performance, Alex brought the house down with a rousing, unforgettable version of “My Way.” The song is a perennial favourite, and there are few performers who can go wrong with it. In the skilled hands of a gifted vocalist, the song built to an almost unbearable crescendo where, by the end, Alex had nearly lifted the roof of the theatre with his voice.
For the evening’s final selection, Bri of Windsor’s own Abridge Opera joined Danie and Alex onstage to perform “Soave.” The concert had been quite a musical journey, and this final piece brought it to a satisfying conclusion. The intermingling of soaring vocals to some of the most beautiful music ever composed drove home the eternal point: the transformative effects of art. Danie, Bri, and Alex transported the audience to some ethereal timeless space where the sheer beauty of the human voice was its floor, walls, and ceiling.
Danie sang, earlier, about the difficulties of earning a living in the arts. That performance of “Soave” made it so apparent why those travails are worth the turmoil and effort. To connect with an audience, to share one’s artform with others, to share a passion so deeply felt that it brings around those who might have entered the venue with an under-developed appreciation for opera.
Earlier, Danie had half-jokingly, half-seriously sung: “Thank God I can pour a beer!”
As Danie, Bri, and Alex brought “Soave” and the Ruckus! on the Road performance to a close, the audience was left feeling: “Thank God these performers never lost faith in their art!”
Opera Revue was founded in 2017 by soprano Danie Friesen. Pianist Claire Elise Harris joined the company in 2018, and baritone Alexander Hajek rounded out the team in 2021. Through monthly opera performances in Toronto neighbourhood bars including the Dakota Tavern, Castro’s Lounge, Granite Brewery and The Emmet Ray, Opera Revue has built a generationally diverse community that mixes opera lovers, opera performers, and the opera curious, with new young audiences finding it fun rather than daunting.
Learn more about Opera Revue by visiting them online at www.operarevue.com.