Western still has a familiar feel for Allison Grant, BMus’79.
“I think these are the same seats,” she said, rubbing the 1970ish-style blue cloth seats back stage at the Davenport Theatre. “No, really, I think these are the same ones. Well, the (mini) fridge is new. We didn’t have that.”
One of North America’s most acclaimed and sought-after theatre directors and choreographers, Grant returns to Western to direct and choreograph Carmen, the latest offering from Western’s Opera Program, running Nov. 16-19 at the Paul Davenport Theatre.
“We’ve been trying to find a time to come together. This one just worked out so well,” Grant said. “I’m thrilled because I love Carmen. A lot of opera people don’t, but I just love it.”
Having performed on iconic stages such as the Stratford Festival and the Old Vic in London, England, Grant has since focused her attention behind the scenes, directing works including Die Zauberflöte, Le nozze di Figaro, Die Fledermaus, Falstaff and Roméo et Juliette.
In past seasons, she has directed The Auction, Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, L’Italiana in algeri and A Meeting of Minds. As a choreographer, her work has been seen in Pirates of Penzance, The Merry Widow, Die Fledermaus, Un ballo in maschera and Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, Dido and Aeneas and Don Giovanni.
Setting up shop at Western for the last five weeks, including living in residence, Grant applauded the students who have been focused on what can be a difficult opera to tackle.
“It’s a great one for the students, maybe a little beyond some of them to sing. You want to be 45 before giving some of these roles a shot. But they are so enthusiastic and they get the music, which is really difficult,” she said. “They have such energy and commitment.
“You can give them all the tools. That’s what we, as professional directors, are trying to do with the students. We try to give them a set of tools they can use in every production going forward. Character development, dancing, everything – it’s a craft. There is a specific kind of way to work – that’s what we’re trying to give them. They will take it all in and use it in the next show they do in order to build on it. It’s exciting for me to see people building their careers and, at this age, seeing how their minds work and how quickly they grasp quite difficult concepts.”
Now behind the scenes, Grant needs to separate slightly from the performance, giving the performers a chance to work things out themselves, particularly with an opera.
“My role is not as much a part of that (performers) community. It’s a leadership role,” she explained. “All of these students are going to school and then are working here – putting in 13-hour days. It is very high stress. You have to readjust your thinking. You have to lead carefully, so what you’re hoping to get in a scene has a reason for being, and you have to explain that carefully. I’ve learned to be a little more patient.”
Not only is it a homecoming for Grant, but perhaps a bit serendipitous as she was part of the first opera workshop class at Western in the late 1970s, under the direction of Martin Chambers. It was in that class where Grant was taught more than just what it took to be a performer.
“I feel enormously lucky to be where I am these days. A lot of that comes from the teachers I met here, people like Al Reimer,” she said. “He taught more than just Voice; he taught us to be emotionally rounded people; he taught us, by experience, to be compassionate and loving. I noticed that with a lot of the teachers here – I see it in these students today. They are supported by their teachers so completely. They are so caring.”
As the curtain closes on her time at Western this weekend – and with a holiday in Venice on the horizon – Grant looks back with delight on her time at Talbot College.
“It has been enormously exciting for me – to see the progression of the students, a huge progression which is immediate,” she said. “Some of the students have never been on stage and they are simply doing an amazing and magical thing. The energy is a lot higher here and it’s a discovery every moment. How lucky are we that every experience in our lives feeds us in some way?”
Opera at Western presents Carmen, Nov. 16-18 (8 p.m.) and Nov. 19 (2 p.m.). Tickets are $30/$20 (general/students and seniors) and can be purchased online at grandtheatre.com/events or by calling 519-672-8800. Cash only at the door.