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High brow meets pop culture in modernized performance of Mozart classic

Sabrina Nemis | Fulcrum Staff

Photo by Nathaniel Ball

GIRLFRIEND-SWAPPING. GENTLEMEN’S wagers. Polka-dotted halter dresses. If you thought opera couldn’t be sexy, think again.

The University of Ottawa Opera Company and its chamber orchestra performed Mozart’s Così fan tutte at Alumni Auditorium on Jan. 12, 13, 18, and 19.

The long lineup for the performance on Friday night hosted a diverse group of people, with young children, students, and elderly people all taking the stage. Director Sandra Graham, an opera singer with international experience, wanted the performance to be accessible to both those who love opera and those who’ve never been.

Graham said she hopes the audience walked away thinking, “I had fun. I laughed. It was more fun than I thought it would be.”

Set in 1953, Così fan tutte opens with three young men bowling. One of them, Don Alfonso, says that all women are unfaithful. Ferrando and Guglielmo disagree and say their girlfriends, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, are the exceptions to this rule.

The three men decide to make a wager: Ferrando and Guglielmo will pretend to go off to the Korean War, but will actually stay and try to seduce each other’s girlfriends in disguise.

The opera employed simple staging techniques, with most of the action happening in a malt shop outfitted with tables, chairs, and milkshakes. The costumes were bright and Grease-inspired, with poodle skirts, rolled-up jeans, and Buddy Holly glasses.

The singing was strong, especially Alexandria Givens as Fiordiligi and Lydia Piehl as Dorabella. There were only a few moments when some of the cast’s voices faltered.

“A singer doesn’t develop their mature voice until they’re in their 20s, or some in their late teens,” Graham said.

“Most of our singers, their voices are still developing, whereas everybody who’s in the orchestra has been playing their mature instrument for years. I’m really proud of our singers because I really feel that they have matched the orchestra.”

The physical performances were spot-on and kept the audience engaged through Italian arias and English recitatives. Carolyn Beaudoin was particularly expressive and comical in the role of Despina, the lazy, scheming waitress.

Graham was inspired by her love of classic films and takes a critical stance on modern directing styles.

“In the old movies, directors made scenes,” Graham said. “One face, the other face—that’s not directing.”

She even included a slow-motion scene. In the emotional moment when Ferrando and Guglielmo tell their girlfriends they are going to Korea, strobe lights appear and slow down the exaggerated crying and embracing with a comical result.

Although Graham sometimes finds the trend of setting opera in modern times common and “a bit tiresome,” the familiar context allows for a modern audience to connect with the piece.

Even though Così fan tutte is finished, there are still opportunities to see the U of O’s School of Music productions this school year. To view future events and purchase tickets, go to


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