Although West Coasters probably know Ashlie Corcoran best as a theatre artist, her work helming opera goes back to some of the earliest days in her career. The woman who now steers Western Canada’s largest theatre company, the Arts Club, was a new stage-directing grad and had an $18-an-hour day job as a temp when she went to audition for the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio program for young artists. (It may have involved a slight fib about having a doctor’s appointment.)
“Everyone in the waiting room all knew each other from the opera world and I was like, ‘Why am I here?’ ” the affable artist tells the Straight candidly over the phone, shortly after opening night for the Arts Club’s Noises Off, and right before the start of a rehearsal for her first main-stage directing job for Vancouver Opera, The Barber of Seville. “There was a big panel doing the interview in the room, and they were scary.”
As Corcoran, who’s since become friends with some of the people on that panel, recounts, she was still “young and smiley”. But she showed her strength when the committee of opera vets asked her what she would do if a singer had a different idea than she did about an opera—a situation she was well used to negotiating as a theatre director. “They said later, ‘Yes, we were looking to see if you could stand up for yourself,’ ” she remembers.
After acing that test, Corcoran was invited back with another candidate to vie for the position, in an audition involving an intensive staging of scenes from two operas. “It was all brand-new,” says Corcoran, who had not even seen an opera until she’d finished her first undergrad degree. “But five minutes into staging this tenor in Albert Herring I was totally hooked—I was going, ‘I want this job.’ It was just the connection to the emotions, and this superhuman ability to tell a story.”
That passion secured Corcoran’s spot training at the COC for its 2006-7 season in Toronto’s new purpose-built opera house, and led to her assignment as intern director on no less than Richard Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle”. That meant rotating seven days a week between four leading directors (including Atom Egoyan and François Girard) who were working on the quartet of daunting music dramas. She had a blast.
Corcoran went on to assistant-direct, and then, while developing her impressive theatre résumé at the likes of the Shaw Festival and the Citadel, continued to craft operas in Ontario and in Germany and England.
Flash forward to 2012, and Corcoran, who hails from White Rock, flew out here to assistant-direct—what else?—The Barber of Seville for Vancouver Opera.
And all that brings us full circle to today. With Corcoran almost three years into her role as artistic director of the Arts Club, she felt comfortable stepping back into opera—and Gioachinno Rossini’s famed Barber, with its familiar rolling “Figaro”, is a seasonal favourite.
“It’s such a great choice for this time of year,” she says. “In January and February it’s great to enjoy something that makes you laugh after the postholiday blues.”
Corcoran finds a lot of similarities between directing theatre and opera. “In theatre a huge part of my job is to work with actors to set the tempos and rhythms,” she points out, “but in opera the rhythms are set in part by the composer and in part by the maestro.” (In this case, the conductor is Canadian Nathan Brock, in his VO debut.)
Because of opera’s scale and complexity, Corcoran also has to come in with a strong physical plan. For this production of The Barber of Seville, featuring whimsical, spun-sugar sets and Gaudí-esque curving towers by veteran designer Ken MacDonald, she arrived at rehearsals with illustrations she likens to “football-play drawings”.
“The container of it is quite lyrical and it feels like a reflection of the froth and joy in the music,” she says of the sets, “but inside that is a real settee and a real harpsichord; it’s not hyperstylized in terms of their interpretation.”
As you might guess from Corcoran’s theatre leanings, she sees her role as primarily supporting the performers—and bringing the characters’ journeys to vivid life. The Barber of Seville tells the story of Figaro (played here by baritone Edward Nelson), the barber who helps out the Spanish Count Almaviva, whose love for Rosina is thwarted by the lecherous old Dr. Bartolo. Cue disguises, deception, and other playful opera-buffa antics.
“It’s all about jumping into life and living with a sense of adventure and curiosity and risk,” she says. And with that description, you can’t help but think of her first trip to try out for the Canadian Opera Company.
Vancouver Opera presents The Barber of Seville at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre next Thursday (February 13), and on February 15, 20, and 23.