This year marks Mozart’s 250th birthday. In honour of the famous composer, Opera de Montreal is not only staging one of his symphonies (La Clemenza di Tito, at the Place des Arts starting Mar. 11), they are also taking Mozart out of the concert hall, and into. the metro!
For one week, a group of opera singers from L’Atelier Lyrique, Opera de Montreal’s training school for young professional singers, will perform some of Mozart’s best arias for one hour in the metro. The singers will be at a different station each day, but they will always perform at the peak traveling hour of 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. so as to reach the biggest audience.
Pierre Vachon of Opera de Montreal said the main goal of “Mozart Rides the Metro” is to bring opera back to the people.
“We want to make opera more and more accessible,” he said. “All the time, all the way.”
Over the past few years, Opera de Montreal has made an effort to democratize opera and show people it is an art form that can be enjoyed by everyone, irrespective of age or social standing.
Vachon said opera has taken on a reputation over the years that he and his company would like to dispel.
“In the twentieth century it has been sort of an elite kind of thing; it has been separated from people,” he said. “Now we’re getting it back to the people.”
The idea of bringing opera into the public transit system came from the company’s general director, David Moss. Vachon said Moss, who is a Concordia graduate, is very “branchee” into what is going on in the cultural world.
“He travels a lot, and he had this idea not long ago: he said, ‘why don’t we just go into the subway and tell everybody what we do, and how we do it, and have them just listen to opera!'” Vachon said.
The original idea was to be modeled on the Parisian way. The singers were going to actually be in the metro cars. They were going to act like ordinary passengers, and then suddenly burst into song. Vachon said it was decided that Montreal metro cars were too small and too crowded for this kind of spectacle. So the group will be placed, therefore, in a very open area of the metro station, where many daytime commuters will be able to witness their performance.
The Atelier Lyrique singers will perform solos, duos, trios and quartets. The selection of pieces will vary from day to day, and the singers will be accompanied by a keyboardist. Vachon said he thinks their musical event is just a small variation on the performances that already take place in the metro.
“There’s music in the stations, so we thought ‘why not?'” Vachon said. “People are used to hearing music, now they will hear Mozart. They’re going to know that this year is a special year that we celebrate [him] in a very grand manner.”
According to Vachon, the Societe de Transport de Montreal (STM) authorities were thrilled with the idea of bringing opera into the metro system.
“They went beserk, in the positive sense,” he said. “Because they are, themselves, trying to encourage cultural projects. They want to tell the world that the metro is actually a good place for cultural events.”
Vachon said the STM’s reaction to their proposal for “Mozart Rides the Metro” couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.
“They said, ‘this is stupendous! This is exciting! Yes, go for it!'” Vachon said.
Careful thought was put into which stations the singers would perform in. The acoustics of the station had to be considered, as well as the air temperature. The singers have to be very careful with their voices, Vachon said, and cannot be exposed to drafts of cold air.
The performers will be clad in jeans because the people at L’Atelier Lyrique want to make a clear statement that opera does not have to be fancy. Vachon said it is important to break down the illusion that opera can only be enjoyed by the elite. He said the trend is slowly changing and that audiences at Place des Arts are starting to come from various backgrounds, dressed in various styles.
“It’s not the image that we used to have,” he said. “[Now] if you come to the opera, you have pearls and purses, but you also have jeans. So this is great!”
Dressing down opera’s image is all part of L’Atelier Lyrique’s mission to encourage young people to get involved in the operatic world.
Students at the Atlelier Lyrique are generally between 20 and 30 years old. They come from all over Canada and must undergo a rigorous audition process before being admitted. Vachon said the training institution offers a maximum of 12 spaces each year and that students can stay anywhere between one and three years at the Atelier. When a student leaves, their place is offered to the next batch of hopeful applicants. This year only two spaces were available.
The program is intensive, and Vachon said the singers often play in shows with Opera de Montreal either during or after their studies. One recent graduate of L’Atelier Lyrique landed the lead role in Opera de Montreal’s production of L’Etoile this year. “That’s how good they are!” Vachon said.
According to Vachon, there seems to be a growing interest in opera among young people. The efforts Opera de Montreal has made to reach out to younger generations seem to be paying off. When Vachon asked some young audience members at last year’s performance of “Carmen Under the Stars” why they enjoyed the show, they said they found the physical element of the art amazing.
“It’s sort of an extreme sport,” Vachon said. “It’s so total and complete. There are no microphones, the voice is not amplified. It’s natural voice [that is] so big that it actually projects to 3,000 people. This spectacular aspect captivates them.”
Vachon said there were between 200 and 300 young subscribers at the Opera de Montreal just a few years ago. He said this year they are up to 17, 000.
The significant change in young people’s interest in opera makes Vachon very pleased because it means a promising future for the musical art. “It’s booming!” he said. “It’s the ‘in’ thing. With all the projects that we have, we see that we actually are bringing more and more people, and spreading the good news about [opera].”
“People are curious,” Vachon said. “They come, and they see and they say ‘ah, I thought it was only for my mother, but, finally, I kind of enjoy it!'”
Here are the stations where Mozart can be heard this month:
– Place des Arts
Monday March 6
Tuesday March 7
Wednesday March 8
Thursday March 9
-Place des Arts
Friday March 10
4:30 to 5:30 p.m.