The scent of old books and warm wood fills the cozy confines of the university room we’re shooting in, as acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan beams like a proud professor at his star, high-lyric mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta. His hands trace in the air her milky profile (so much, he marvels, like that of his Chloe muse, Julianne Moore); their heads meet over the libretto for Così fan tutte splayed before them on a worn wooden desk.
Opera has become a sur- prising draw in an age of pop culture lite, and the Canadian Opera Company, where attendance is booming, is at the forefront of the renaissance, with its unique staging and unconventional hires, including a new commission for Rufus Wainwright, and Egoyan directing Mozart’s beloved comedy (Jan. 18 to Feb. 21).
In Così, fidelity is put to the test over the span of 24 hours, as Don Alfonso (Thomas Allen) bets two soldiers (Paul Appleby and Robert Gleadow) that their betrothed—sisters, Giunta and her fellow redhead Layla Claire—can’t be faithful; hijinks ensue as the soldiers try to prove him wrong.
Riffing on Così’s surtitle, “The School for Lovers,” Egoyan set it in an academy with uniform-clad students as the chorus. He found respite in the opera’s sensuality and lightness after back-to-back filming of two heavy movies (including Devil’s Knot, out January 24, about the 1993 Robin Hood Hills child murders and the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three, as well as The Captive, an upcoming child-abduction mystery starring Canadian handsomes Ryan Reynolds and Scott Speedman). Wrestling with certain plot improbabilities, Egoyan eventually realized his academic setting was the key; the wacky storyline makes more sense in this production, as it is, he says, “set up as a series of experiments.”
Down-to-earth Ottawa native (and occasional Broken Social Scene guest singer) Giunta, 28, is one of the new generation of more accessible opera stars. She’s played “everything from pubescent boys to dramatic, dying queens 700 years ago,”she says, and usually plays young men (!), so she was thrilled to perform the excitable teen Dorabella, but Mozart’s ethical pop quizzes intrigued her even more: “It’s an opportunity to explore this side of ourselves we usually don’t embrace in real life: how far we can go with love and fidelity, and how little we know our own hearts, no matter how upstanding and moral we are. You can’t know for sure until you’re in that situation.”
The opera was written more than 225 years ago, but such themes still resonate for her director, too. “It really is about people having fun and allowing themselves to do things, and maybe getting confused and hurt,” Egoyan says, “but still plunging into these crazy adventures and saying it’s OK to do that.”