THE PITCH: Aria Umezawa saw her first opera, Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, when she was an eight-year-old living in the 6. The experience stayed with her long after the final curtain fell, but she had no schoolyard friends to share it with. Even then she knew she wanted to retell classic opera stories in a way that would resonate with people under the age of a million years old. Make opera cool? NBD.
THE PROCESS: Umezawa, 28, launched her Toronto-based production company Opera 5 (tagline: “Opera that makes sense”) in 2011 with her friend Rachel Krehm. Together they decided to set theirs apart by translating traditional operas into interactive performance art pieces—literally bringing the audience into the show and infusing some fun into a usually stuffy art form by tapping into all five senses (think beer pairings with your Bartók). To make opera even more user-friendly, Umezawa raised money on Kickstarter so she could produce short video explainers—dubbed Opera Cheats—and share them with a wider audience on YouTube. Collectively, her Coles Notes versions of the classics have been watched more than 100,000 times.
THE FINAL PRODUCT: Umezawa’s tongue-in-cheek Cheats are now used by the likes of the Canadian Opera Company and San Francisco Opera to connect with millennial operagoers. At each of Opera 5’s shows, she encourages spectators to throw all etiquette out the window: they can keep their phones on to interact with chorus members and share moments on Snapchat, and they enjoy free IPAs and popcorn without waiting for an intermission. For the company’s most recent sold-out performances of Die Fledermaus, aerialists floated above the audience and actors dressed in a style Umezawa describes as “Harajuku meets raver.” To complete the experience, Opera 5 swapped out Johann Strauss’s music for offbeat cabaret tunes and the work of a more modern composer: Justin Bieber. “We stick with the story as much as we can,” says Umezawa. “It’s just the packaging that’s different.”
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