Erin Bardua and Maureen Batt founded an opera company that’s not highbrow or high-cost, but simply fun
Singers Erin Bardua and Maureen Batt (both MMus 2009) became fast friends at U of T and there developed a to-and-fro patter that continues to this day. The two sopranos toss sentences back and forth – like, say, an operatic duet.
“There were only a handful of us in the graduate program,” recalls Bardua.
“And so we got to know each other, wandering between all the same classes,” Batt continues.
“Like kindergartners,” Bardua says.Back to Batt: “We developed a hive mind.”
In the nearly five years since graduating, the two have started their own opera company, producing (and generally appearing in) six concert-style operas at mid-sized Toronto halls. After a due amount of back-and-forth, they chose the name Essential Opera.
“We didn’t think it would be very convincing to say, Erin and Maureen think you should come…” Batt says.
“We needed a name for the poster.”
“And once you name a company,” Bardua continues, “it’s like a puppy, it’s yours.”
Batt and Bardua think you can sometimes appreciate opera better with less frippery. They don’t always wear period-appropriate costumes and have been known to perform with a lone piano. The focus is on the singing and the acting.
“A lot of people tell us,” says Batt, “‘This is my first opera. I had such a fun time, and I’ll definitely be coming back.'”
It doesn’t hurt that their ticket prices are a fraction of those charged by more established companies.
“There’s this perception that opera’s just an art form for the elite,” Bardua says. “We wanted to get away from that.”
They tend to select pieces centered on relationships that singers with strong acting skills can dramatize – works such as Handel’s Alcina, which features two sorceress sisters defeated by a pair of intrepid human lovers. (“We’d do Aida,” Bardua quips, “but getting elephants might be tricky.”)
This April, Bardua and Batt have commissioned three small operas from graduates of U of T’s music program. Regina by Elisha Denburg (MMus 2009, DMA 2013) focuses on Berlin’s first female rabbi and the history student who uncovers her records; Heather: Cindy + Mindy = BFFs 4EVR!!! by Christopher Thornborrow (MMus 2008) speaks of teenaged girls who bully and are bullied; and Etiquette by Monica Pearce (MMus 2008) makes music from aspects of manners columnist Emily Post’s biography.
The interview with the pair has been a romp, but Bardua turns earnest at the end. “So many women struggle to find work in the arts, and there are so few places and roles for them. Operas are mainly about a dude – even if there’s a woman’s name in the title.”
As ever, Batt finishes the thought: “So it’s wonderful for us, to have composers writing such great work about the lives of girls and women.”
Watch Essential Opera in action: