Sending in the clown

The Journal visits the set of Pagliacci, staged by the Queen’s Student Opera Company this week

The cast and crew of Pagliacci prepare for their debut of a tale featuring murder
The cast and crew of Pagliacci prepare for their debut of a tale featuring murder

As the opening night of their 10th anniversary show draws closer, the Queen’s Student Opera Company is relying on one sad clown to bring the celebration—and the student population—in.

Pagliacci, the iconic opera by Ruggero Leoncavallo, is unquestionably one of the most easily recognizable and infamous operas to ever take the stage. Opera aficionados know it as one of Pavarotti’s most well-received performances—its classic arias are timeless in the operatic world—while pop culture junkies will nod in approval when they remember the clown from that Seinfeld episode where Kramer gets tickets to the opera.

“People know the clown, they know the role, and so there’s a lot of pressure to meet those expectations,” said Adam Bishop, a music student and the opera comany’s co-president who’s assuming the production’s title role.

The infamous opera revolves around Canio, a clown in an acting troupe, and his fellow actor wife Nedda who commits adultery. The typical opera melodrama featuring murder and betrayal unfolds accompanied by a tense element of performance as Canio and Nedda, within the opera, perform together on stage. Canio’s passion overtakes him while performing and he murders Nedda in front of a shocked and entertained audience.

Although Bishop has performed for the opera every year since his arrival at Queen’s, the character of Canio has presented the tenor with a new set of challenges—most notably, satisfying the daunting pressure of expectation that accompanies such a piece.

“That’s one thing that’s different about opera compared to most other performance things. With opera, if you’re a real opera lover, you go and see an opera and you already know the story, you already know the characters and you know a lot of the music.”

“We had some furrowed brows when we said we were going to do Pagliacci,” echoed Colleen Feehan, Law ’09 and Pagliacci’s director.

“You see Macbeth done in all sorts of genres. You see La Bohème—I mean Rent is its modern interpretation—but Pagliacci is always done the same, so people really come in expecting a lot and we’ve tried to live up to that.

“It’s been an ambitious challenge. We have definitely not shot below ourselves.”

The opera company’s aspirations involve bringing both iconic and fresh elements to the opera. By choosing to dress the protagonist in a conventional clown suit, the production’s vision draws on traditional foundations of the show. However, this year’s production intends to create more space for the women’s characters by splitting the character of Tonio, an actor from the troupe who sings the introduction to the play, into two characters and making one of them female in order to accentuate and include Nedda’s personal suffering in the story.

Beyond presenting the challenge of expectation, Pagliacci’s renown was integral in QSOC’s decision to stage the piece.

“It’s really nice to be able to pick a show that’s kind of a big name in opera. The Barber of Seville last year was great because it’s a big opera and even most people who haven’t seen the opera have seen the Bugs Bunny sketch, The Rabbit of Seville, so there’s something to relate it to. Same with this year—a lot of student people have seen the Seinfeld episode and they know when Jerry goes to the opera,” Bishop said with a laugh.

“Many students who come to see this will be coming to see friends and it may be their very first opportunity to see opera and so we want it to be something that you’re not throwing them into left field with,” Feehan said.

That’s the fundamental obstacle facing student opera companies: staging productions that are accessible to a new, young and uninformed audience while maintaining integrity—balancing artistically demanding content with universally enjoyable performances.

“It is a difficult line to walk,” Feehan said.

“But it’s important, with opera, to have some sort of way to draw people in because opera is an art form which I truly believe—this might sound a little biased—but I truly believe most people would like it if they got the chance or were more exposed to it at a higher level. That’s why we try to put on the most professional show that we can,” Bishop said.

“For students it’s usually not something they’ve come across before. Really, you can look at it like it’s a blend of a stage play, plus a symphony concert, plus a chorus, plus solo singers, plus dance and ballet sometimes. It’s kind of the performing art that is everything.

Unlike the lead character of their tragic clown opera, the future looks bright for the company with a move back into the Grand Theatre next year—a location that will accommodate a larger and more accessible audience for the company.

To Bishop, the recent growth of the global opera audience is the most exciting news for the company and the entire opera community.

“Opera is the only performing art, out of symphony, ballet and Broadway shows, to have a growing audience in the past 10 years,” Bishop said.

“The entire world is getting a little more opera-oriented.”

Pagliacci plays Jan. 31 until Feb. 2 at Duncan McArthur Hall at 8 p.m. Tickets are $13 for students.

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