Culture  It ain’t over, and the fat lady won’t sing

Stu&Jess brings alternative opera to Montreal

This opera will have no Vikings, fat ladies, or back-stabbing. Instead, the audience will lounge on couches, nestled in a repurposed church, to watch what is possibly the most Edgar Allan Poe-esque of all operas. This weekend, Stu&Jess Productions, a freshly minted opera company founded by recent graduates Jessica Derventzis (from Queen’s University) and Stuart Martin (from the University of British Columbia), will be presenting The Medium, Gian Carlo Menotti’s short two-act opera. And with the big opera companies starting to seem stale, and money trickling all-too-slowly into the arts, it’s about time for an alternative, grassroots opera movement to come to Montreal.

The premise of The Medium is simple, and satisfyingly odd. A scam artist stages fake seances to cheat gullible visitors out of their money. One day, during a seance, she feels something, or someone, touch her throat. In true Lady Macbeth fashion, she promptly starts panicking, and the musical descent into madness begins as she scrambles to put together the pieces of this eerie puzzle.

If this sounds pretty modern for an opera, that’s because it is. “The Medium was written in the late 1940s,” explained Derventzis. “[Menotti] went to a seance in Austria, and he was so affected by it that he decided to write an opera about it […] In the mid 1900s, there was sort of a resurgence of people trying to make opera be different and [move it away] from the Viking hats and the fat ladies singing.”

According to the duo, The Medium is the perfect introduction for opera newcomers. The opera clocks in at a short and swift 55 minutes – a refreshingly brisk take on a type of performance that can often extend to three hours. “Even as an opera lover, I have taken small snoozes during operas,” admitted Derventzis.

One of the best parts of Stu&Jess’ production is its setting. Martin called the venue “spectacular. [People] will be literally surrounded by music.” Harvey Lev, an artist who turned an old Verdun church into his residence and private gallery, has allowed the duo to inhabit the space for the run of the show. “It’s the perfect place for a spooky opera to happen,” said Martin. “When we first walked in there was a taxidermied raven. The opera is set in the medium’s living room, [and] instead of having to fill a room with stuff we found a room filled with stuff. There is legit art on the wall – [Lev] is a huge patron of the arts.”

Martin explained that their production company actually folds in nicely with the opera scenes in other North American cities. “There’s lots of small opera startups. In New York, there’s Loft Opera, [which presents] reduced (shortened) operas in lofts. In Toronto, there’s Against the Grain [Theatre],” he said. “The startup companies put grand opera on a much smaller scale, [which makes it] more accessible.”

Derventzis and Martin decided to create Stu&Jess last August, while “sitting in a piazza eating gelato”. They had both participated in Opera NUOVA, a summer program that aims to create bridges between members of the academic and professional communities. “We decided the only way we’re going to get opportunities [was] if we [started] something,” said Martin. Derventzis acquiesced, noting the lack of funding for the arts across the country.

“Nowadays,” Derventzis explained, “it’s important for all arts to come together, because there’s no money in any of the mediums. [Showcasing] this artist’s home and the art that he has in this venue [is] just another way to bring this all together.”

As of now, the Opéra de Montréal still overwhelmingly dominates Montreal’s opera scene. But Derventzis and Martin are hoping to mix things up. “It’ll be small this time,” said Derventzis, “but hopefully we get a bit of a following from this.” The Medium might just be the first of more to come, for both Stu&Jess and Montreal’s alternative opera scene.


The Medium will run from Thursday, November 7 to Saturday, November 9 at 8 p.m. each day, at 3099 Wellington. Tickets are $15 for students.