The Medium breaks opera stereotypes

Western students perform supernatural opera at Talbot Theatre

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

A scene from The Medium

Courtesy of David Comfort

DANIEL NEGREANU HAS NOTHING ON THIS LADY'S POKER FACE. Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Medium is a creepy opera about a fake séance turned real. In this scene, Rachel Huys, Janet Loo, John Holland, and Jessica Sage (left to right) steal the stage.

Forget the men in tights and high-pitched fat ladies with Viking helmets. Western students and alumni present The Medium, a supernatural opera playing today at Talbot Theatre.

Written and composed by Gian-Carlo Menotti in 1946, the two-act tragic opera takes place in an apartment during a fake séance. When the three guests arrive, Madame Flora’s daughter, Monica (played by Sonja Gustafson), pretends to be the deceased children of the guest. Meanwhile, Toby (Alfred Stockwell), a mute teenager living with them, works the mechanical devices that control the motion of the lights and furniture from another room.

Madame Flora (Janet Loo) suddenly stops the séance and sends the customers away, claiming she felt a spectral hand clutch her throat during the séance. She tries to discover who touched her during the séance and, frightened by her experience, drinks herself to sleep. Deadly consequences ensue by opera’s end.

Producer Sonja Gustafson and the cast prepared The Medium for the London Fringe Festival, held this summer. The show won an Impresario Award, given to the most popular show at each venue, and an award for Most Daring Show. Gustafson also won Best Performer for her role as Monica.

“It went really well ... we had a really good response [and] amazing attendance,” Gustafson says. “We had people coming, in some cases, for their second and third time so when we had the opportunity to do it again at Western, we jumped at the chance.”

As producer, Gustafson did everything from procuring the funding to covering costs, building props and set pieces, casting, advertising and public relations.

She also arranged a workshop with well-known Toronto opera director, Tom Diamond, who worked through their rough run, scene by scene, and gave his critique and ideas.

“We workshopped through the entire thing with him, which was great. When I decided to do this project, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to perform it and bring someone in like that and to learn something along the way.”

The Medium breaks preconceived notions about opera. Sung in English, the show is an hour long with a simple plot. Opera virgins don’t have to focus on subtitles or wear earplugs to dampen piercing songs. Gustafson says it’s a very accessible opera, similar to stories you’d see on TV.

“[The Medium] is a bit on the creepy side. It’s certainly not a happy, fun opera, although there might be moments that are funny in a very dark kind of humour.”

Gustafson believes the music truly matches the action, so characters or plots aren’t sacrificed for the sake of music.

“I think everything has an equal role in this case. Some people feel that in a lot of operas, the character or the plot is really secondary to the music, and is just a vehicle for the music. That’s not the case here. The music really helps to further the text and the characters. It’s a really great 55 minutes of entertainment.”

The Medium is playing for free at Talbot Theatre at 12:30 p.m. today.

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