Ashlie Corcoran is bringing power to the young people, operatically ~ Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Quick… what comes to mind when you think of children and opera?

If you see anything in your mind’s eye, it’s probably  the image of a misbehaving, unhappy child made to join her parents at the opera. Children just don’t seem to belong at the opera, do they?

Director Ashlie Corcoran; photo: David Cooper Photography

Director Ashlie Corcoran; photo: David Cooper Photography

Thankfully, the Canadian Opera Company (COC) doesn’t see things this way.

Nor do children, it turns out. Children see opera as being for everyone–especially them. When we got the opportunity to ask director Ashlie Corcoran about the upcoming interactive family operas The Bremen Town Musicians and Operation Superpower, young artists at the Sesaya Studio generated their questions . . . well, super-quick!

Corcoran is eminently qualified to sate their curiosity. In addition to being the artistic director of the Thousand Islands Playhouse, she’s also a freelance director who works across Canada. As an award-winning director of plays, musicals and opera, she enthusiastically embraces the challenge and reward of creating the best possible experience for her young audience–especially when introducing opera as a new medium: “It is so rewarding to see children get excited about a new art form. Children are so smart and quick, so a fun challenge is staying ahead of them with the storytelling.”

Corcoran is well up to the task. When she was just 18 years old, she had an instinct that she would enjoy directing. So, as an undergraduate at Queen’s University, she started to experiment with it . . .and loved it. After finishing her undergraduate degree in drama, she worked for two years at Tarragon Theatre as the administrative assistant and apprentice stage manager. “This was a great way to get some professional experience!” she recalls. “And then, I did my master’s degree in England, studying as a Chevening Scholar. It was a fantastic experience.”

This clear vision about her career is paired with an equally lucid artistic vision for the shows she directs. One might imagine that someone who can direct just about anything for the stage would need a dizzying array of skills, from acting to singing to dancing and on. Not so, Corcoran insists. Though she is a graduate of the prestigious COC Opera Ensemble and considers the COC one of her “artistic homes,” she insists that her success across genres stems from her appetite to tackle diverse projects, combined with her ability to formulate a cogent course for each one: “I do love to direct a wide variety of types of work! At the core of it, the job is the same – being able to develop a vision and get people excited about that vision. It is all about collaborating and communication!”

(l-r) Iain MacNeil as Donkey, Charlotte Burrage as a townsperson, Aviva Fortunata as a townsperson, Andrew Haji as a townsperson and Jan Vaculik as the Miller in the Glencore Ensemble Studio School Tour production of The Bremen Town Musicians, 2015, photo: Chris Hutcheson

(l-r) Iain MacNeil (Donkey), Charlotte Burrage (townsperson), Aviva Fortunata (townsperson), Andrew Haji (townsperson), Jan Vaculik (Miller) in The Bremen Town Musicians, 2015, photo: Chris Hutcheson

These dual talents bode well for the family operas receiving her creative touch. Judging by past audiences, people — especially the children — will get excited when they see The Bremen Town Musicians and Operation Superpower, and their enthusiasm will be on full display during the 15-minute Q-and-A session at the end of each show. The operas play at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre on Saturday November 14, then as part of the COC’s annual Glencore Ensemble Studio School Tour, the shows travel to schools across Ontario where an estimated 16,000 students will get a chance to experience them.

One niggling regret…Once they hit the road, Corcoran won’t get to see the children’s reactions for herself. However, based on how much fun the rehearsals have been, she can already anticipate what the fuss will be about. After seeing Operation Superpower, the children will be talking about their own superpowers, she expects. And The Bremen Town Musicians will have them ‘crowing’ over the hilarious antics of the animals. We’ll give the final word(s) to the children of Sesaya Studio. Below are their reactions to the intriguing idea of these operas . . . and Corcoran’s gracious answers.

Questions from Young Artists

Titus (age 8):

  1. How do you use your super powers when some people do not want you to?  Do you still use them? How can you use your powers to be a superhero if people don’t want you to help them?
 (l-r) Erica Iris, Aaron Sheppard and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure in the Glencore Ensemble Studio School Tour production of Operation Superpower, 2015, photo: Chris Hutcheson

(l-r) Erica Iris, Aaron Sheppard and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure in Operation Superpower, 2015, photo: Chris Hutcheson

(Context: Titus correlated “super powers” with qualities such as kindness, and their use in a situation like a playground skirmish. For instance, he wonders, if there is a fight or argument, someone might try to intervene. If that intervention is rejected, is it appropriate to intervene anyway?)

A big part of being a superhero is respecting those around you. If you have big eyes and big ears, you can figure out ways to use your superhero traits to help others in a supportive and respectful way.

  1. How long did it take to make these productions?

We rehearse for about three weeks – but the singers have been learning their music for months before that, and the sets, costumes and props are built weeks before.

  1. How did the animals learn how to sing?

I will flip this question – it was in fact singers who learnt how to be animals! We watched a lot of videos of animals, and played lots of games where we acted out animal movement. It was a lot of fun!

Sayak (age 11)

  1. If a child who knows absolutely nothing about opera asks you to tell them about Operation Superpower and The Bremen Town Musicians, what will you say to them?

I would tell them that there is great music, adventurous story lines, amazing performances, and funny and silly sets and costumes! I’d encourage a child to have fun watching the operas.

(l-r) Aaron Sheppard, Erica Iris and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure in the Glencore Ensemble Studio School Tour production of Operation Superpower, 2015, photo: Chris Hutcheson

(l-r) Aaron Sheppard, Erica Iris and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure in Operation Superpower, 2015, photo: Chris Hutcheson

Sayani (age 15)

  1. What is the difference between opera for children and musical theatre?

The difference between opera and musical theatre is that oftentimes opera is sung-through (which means no dialogue) and also operas do not tend to use microphones, whereas musical theatre performers often do. Also, there is a style of singing which is classically trained, which is found in opera productions, but usually not in musical theatre productions.

  1. What do you have to do to make sure that an opera is engaging for a young audience with a short attention span? 

We break the fourth wall a lot – which means that the singers speak directly to the children. Also, we’ve tried to make the staging tight and specific and wacky and slick!

 Iain MacNeil as Donkey in The Bremen Town Musicians, 2015, photo: Chris Hutcheson

Iain MacNeil as Donkey in The Bremen Town Musicians, 2015, photo: Chris Hutcheson

News You Can Use

What: The Bremen Town Musicians, based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm and written by Dean Burry; directed by Ashlie Corcoran

When: Saturday, November 14, 2015, 11:00 AM

What: Operation Superpower, a new COC production originally created by four graduates of The Juilliard School Armand Ranjbaran, Tobias Greenhalgh, John Brancy and Peter Dugan; directed by Ashlie Corcoran

When: Saturday, November 14, 2015, 1:30 PM

Who: Audiences K (age 4 years) and up

Where: Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre,  227 Front St. E., Toronto, ON

For information and tickets: coc.ca/OperaForFamilies or 416-363-8231

Cool to Know: Before each performance, audience members are invited to participate in hands-on activities related to the operas.

© 2015 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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