Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Opera Love From Afar gets singers high

Annie-Kim Déry floats above Russell Braun in Love From Afar, The Canadian Opera Company's new production starting Feb. 2. 

Annie-Kim Déry floats above Russell Braun in Love From Afar, The Canadian Opera Company's new production starting Feb. 2.Suspended from the ceiling by thin wires attached to a harness around his torso, baritone Russell Braun's first thought wasn't “Yikes, get me out of here.”
No, the opera singer says he looked at the acrobats twirling around him and thought, “We look like beautifully arranged angels.”
Braun is the only non-acrobat to fly in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Love From Afar, opening Thursday at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Naturally he calls the experience “uplifting . . . I'm a kid at heart. Most kids fantasize about being an acrobat, of being weightless.”
Braun's role involves being belted into a swing that is lifted, and he also flies with a body harness attached to wires.
The first stunt he tried was with the swing and Braun admits he was hanging onto the ropes for dear life until he told himself, “Technically, if I can sit on a swing in the playground, I can do this.”
He points out he doesn't do any tricks, just “sings and move my arms a little. I don't do a 360.” In fact, his character is dead for two of the flights; not much movement required.
The “real” flying is done by six acrobats, four of them trained at Montreal's National Circus School, whose specialties include hoops, silks, sideways walk, stilt walk and tumbling.
The opera by composer Kaija Saariaho, which was first performed in 2000, is the story of a love affair between two people who never meet but communicate through messages carried back and forth by a pilgrim.
Each of the three main characters is shadowed by two acrobats who perform as the story unfolds. Braun's two shadows are dancers Ted Sikstrom and Antoine Marc, who have both appeared in previous productions of Love From Afar.
Sikstrom, 37, is a gymnast and classically trained ballet dancer who embarked on a new career half a dozen years ago when he was asked at an audition if he could do any “tricks.” He showed off his back flips and somersaults and has been an acrobat ever since.
Performing in an opera has proven to be a wonderful challenge, he says.
“I like the mix of acting and physicality we have to do in the show. Everyone can do technique. It is much more interesting when you have to merge it with the story and find a way to express what opera singers are singing: their emotions, dreams, intentions, feelings.”
Marc, 28, is a hip-hop dancer from Martinique who trained in France; he does some harness flight and something called the sideways walk. He learned most of his acrobatic skills while studying capoeira, the Brazilian martial art with a dancelike aspect, but he says “being an acrobat enriched my horizon. I always think of using my dancing skills in my acrobatics and vice versa.”
There's never any complacency when acrobats perform, he says, adding, “Double back flip is a funny one because it doesn't matter how many times you do it, you're always a little bit scared of not landing.”
Soprano Krisztina Szabo, who plays the pilgrim, is shadowed by Sandrine Merette and Marieve Hemond. Merette is an expert in bungee and, at only 27, she has been performing circus stunts for 18 years, but it still feels like “a change from everyday living. It's a little bit of a thrill, there's adrenalin.”
People don't believe Annie-Kim Déry, 28, when she says she is a circus performer.
“They say, ‘No, really. What do you do?' When I tell them it's true it gets . . . awkward.”
It's certainly a cool job, says Evelyne Allard, 27, who specializes in a hoop routine: “It's a feeling of freedom, liberty, defying gravity, all those exciting feelings.”
Allard and Déry are the shadows of the beautiful Clémence, played by Erin Wall. All of the women acrobats trained in Montreal.
Braun says he has been staggered by the aerial skills (and relative lack of constraints) of the acrobats.“I'm in awe. The effects are so beautiful,” he said of a stunt with silks that unfolds below as he's flying.
It's the job of Flying by Foy, a U.S. company in the flying business since Mary Martin played Peter Pan on Broadway in 1954, to lift this opera into the air.
Flying director Tim Mackay, who created the flying scenes in the Toronto production of Billy Elliot, has been in Toronto overseeing the winches, wires, tracks and pulleys used to guide the seven flyers during the opera. There are numerous crew members involved with the equipment, and hooking the acrobats into their rigging and working out the “traffic” was one of Mackay's tasks.
“The most important thing is the safety of people,” he says, adding one rule for the opera singers is “don't stand under an acrobat.”
Flying is becoming increasingly popular in entertainment, says Mackay, who has worked the trick in theatre, film and TV. (Mary Poppins, American Idiot and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark — famously not always perfectly in the latter case — are recent theatrical productions to use flying.)
So Mackay has seen newbies before, and he was there when Braun flew for the first time in rehearsal. He was impressed. “He did great. We started slow and let him feel confident. He was really professional. It's a pleasure to work with someone like him.”

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