I sat down with Stuart Martin and Jessica Derventzis from Stu&Jess productions (Musical Director and Stage Director respectively) as well as Production Manager Russell Wustenberg and Lead Baritone Dimitri Katotakis to discuss how their recent performance of Georges Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle in a defunct paper factory warehouse in Griffintown is transforming the Montreal opera scene.
Stu and Jess met at a summer opera program where they discovered a shared dream to start their own opera company to make this art form more accessible. “There are so few opportunities to get into the big opera companies,” Jess explains, “So we decided to start our own smaller one.” Chamber opera companies—companies that consist of a handful of signers who perform one-act operettas with a chamber ensemble rather than a full-blown symphonic orchestra — are popping up across the country as young people give opera an overhaul.
“Sitting through a five-hour Wagner is a lot to ask of a first-time opera goer,” Jess sympathizes. In contrast, Stu&Jess’s first two productions, Menotti’s The Medium and Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle are one-act operettas that run just over one hour. “We are really trying to get away from the suit and ball gown mentality that people have when they think of opera” Stu says. Jess confirms, “Most people think about Opera as a silver-hair art. Stu&Jess is about showing people how accessible, engaging and beautiful opera can be.”
Stu&Jess Productions revamps our expectations of time but more jarringly of space by exploring a concept called “found space opera”. Their first performance, Menotti’s The Medium met with acclaim in the living room of artist Harvey Lev’s church-turned-residence in the Plateau. This time, Le Docteur Miracle takes place in Lev’s defunct paper factory warehouse in Griffintown. With “found space,” Stu&Jess Productions take the audience out of the theater and into the performance. According to Production Manager, Russell Wustenberg this idea “essentially creates theatre in immersion emphasizing the realism of the experience.”
Stu affirms Russell’s observation with the following anecdote: “I only recently learned how much I appreciate Picasso because I went to an exhibit where I saw the transition of Picasso’s works—his process. Being able to see the actual components of a work makes it much more accessible. You understand the difficulty and the reality of it. That’s what we’re doing with Stu&Jess Productions. When you’re sitting in the opera theatre you feel disconnected. In these smaller spaces you feel a part of it. We’re not in this because it’s high art and we’re all wearing our powdered wigs and everything.” Jess cuts in, “It’s about being entertained. If you fall asleep, we’re not doing our job.”
Le Docteur Miracle is a farcical tale of impossible love between Laurette (Chelsea Mahan), the daughter of the Podestat (Dimitri Katotakis), and the Capitan Silvio (Kevin Myer). Try as he may, the Podestat can’t seem to keep the two apart. Everything — including his sassy trophy wife Veronique (Pascale Spinney) is out of his control. The crowning achievement of this light-hearted comedy is the ten-minute Omelette Quartet where the four characters extol the virtues of the omelette that Pasquin, the new domestic servant, has prepared for breakfast. This delightful number will leave you hankering for an omelette as you leave the warehouse crooning “voici l’omelette” for the next few days.
Jess transposed the story from the 19th century to the television era of the 1950s and 60s. She says, “When I first heard the opera it really felt like a sitcom to me and that’s what I’m trying to recreate. The Carol Burnett, Lucille Balle, Bewitched style of comedy.”
Jess describes the piece as “one hour of pure play and enjoyment” which is exactly what the orchestra, the singers, and the direction achieve. The singers and musicians are graduates and undergrads from the Schulich Music School. Stu&Jess’s Le Docteur Miracle delivers physical comedy complimented by a delightful score and professional quality performers who capture each comedic moment.
What’s the future for Stu&Jess? Rehearsals for their next performance have already begun as the company tries to establish a name for itself in the Montreal music community. “What makes Stu&Jess possible is that we surround ourselves with really great people,” Jess says. Dimitri concurs, “The off-stage environment is the same as the on-stage one: supportive, kind, and generous.”
Check out Stu&Jess’ upcoming productions: HERE.