01/28/2014 11:10 EST | Updated 03/30/2014 05:59 EDT

On a Wig and an Aria: Atom Egoyan's Ship Sails In

First Comedy for Toronto's Film and Opera Director

Sailing ship in blue wig

It is night-time in downtown Toronto. The opera, Cosi Fan Tutte, has just ended and the subway platform is crowded. Amongst the post show murmur two names are overheard -- Atom Egoyan and Superman. The Canadian director of movies and tonight's opera is juxtaposed with the Man of Steel.

"Egoyan takes a Superman view on facial recognition," one 20-something woman lectures her group of friends. "When Superman puts on glasses everyone thinks he is Clark Kent -- they just aren't able to see the Man of Steel behind those horn rims."

Atom Egoyan in the theatre

In Egoyan's COC production of Cosi Fan Tutte (which runs until February 21), the movie producer turned opera director admits that the big challenge for this Mozart opera buffa is to make the audience forget some of the silliness of the libretto and enjoy his light, lively and mildly kinky take on an opera that was considered too immoral to be performed in North America until 1922.

It is early in the 19th century and we are with the well to dos of Naples. The opera's plot revolves around two teenage sisters -- Dorabella and Fiordiligi -- who are engaged to two Naples dandies, Ferrando and Guglielmo. Are Dorabella and Fiordiligi truly in love, or given the opportunity, will they stray into the arms and beds of other men? Ferrando and Guglielmo accept a wager from the professor of their school to find out. The two tell their fiancées they have been drafted into the navy and pretend to leave for the wars. They come back moments later, thinly disguised as Albanians, and prove the fecklessness of their betrothed love by seducing each other's girl.

"The opera asks us to believe that Dorabella and Fiordiligi won't recognize these men -- their fiancés -- if the men wear simple disguises (curly moustaches)," said Egoyan, just before the Four Seasons Centre curtain is raised on this three-hour opera.

"Mozart also called Cosi Fan Tutte, The School For Lovers. So I had this idea: why don't we set this opera inside a school and why don't we make this a class experiment, that way we don't have to worry about the credibility issue so much, we just go with the story and lose ourselves in this most delightful opera."

Lorenzo Da Ponte, who also penned Figaro and Don Giovanni with Mozart, wrote the libretto. It is thought that Mozart's rival, Antonio Salieri, tried to compose the music to Da Ponte's story but gave up after only a few months. Mozart took up the score and went on to direct the orchestra twice in the 1790s before the opera was basically shelved for almost a century. It was rarely performed during the 19th and early 20th century because it was considered too risqué.

In the early versions of the opera, this story of love, adultery and relationships, was set in a Naples garden. When Cosi was rediscovered and put into modern day opera companies repertoires, directors have had fun placing the opera in a variety of locations including restaurants, sitting rooms, and even in a hippie colony.

"I think we are the first company to take this view of a school interpretation," explained the director. The male lovers accept a bet from the school's headmaster to test their sweetheart's loyalty to them -- the bet is played out as a classroom experiment.

The students watch as Ferrando and Guglielmo tell the distraught sisters that they have been drafted and must sail off immediately to war. They return moments latter disguised as two rich Albanian visitors who have been poisoned. The girls save the men with a variety of tools including a magnetic rod seemingly inserted rectally, with the help of a doctor, into their disguised boyfriends. The girls, probably aware of the wager, trade-off on their boyfriends and do soon succumb to their wooing -- just was predicted by Alfonso, the school headmaster.

Magnet inserted to rid "Albanian" suitor of posions

"The issue of misogyny comes up (with the traditional setting of the opera) because there is a very famous aria in the piece where one of the young lovers Gugliemo, sings about the unfaithfulness of women," said Egoyan. "He would traditionally sing it to the audience, which would be absolutely offensive to many women in the theatre. What we have done here, because we are set in a school, is we have Gugliemo sing to his fellow classmate and they actually get to react to what he is saying -- it takes the edge off (the belittling of women)."

Egoyan's schoolroom is filled with stuffed animals, science experiment equipment and gigantic butterflies and equally large insect pins. The symbolism of the butterflies is not lost on the audience. Back to the subway platform critics, a young woman explains it all to her boyfriend. "The sisters are specimens, they are being hunted and collected by the headmaster. That's why all the giant butterflies and two metre tall pins are on stage."

"The two women in this production are aware of the wager and in fact may be involved in a counter wager which gives them leeway in terms of their own behaviour" said Egoyan. "They are smart. Remember when this was written they were supposed to be 15-years old. We address that youth, it really does feel as if they are all teenagers."

"Part of the idea of the opera being set in a school is that there is a ton of props that they can use in their (love) experiments. So in the scene when are going away to battle (five actresses walk in single file across the stave wearing large model ships in their blue wigs), this is shown as a kind of experiment using the school props."

Throughout the performance students wear skimpy white British public school uniforms, overtop of sporty black panties, which are often flashed to patrons in the front row. Ferrando and Guglielmo are not averse to looking up dresses and snatching quick feels of each other's girlfriend whenever possible.

Opera has a naughty side

Cosi Fan Tutte is sung in two acts -- the first act set in the school, the second beneath a huge framed painting. A large Freda Kahlo self-portrait Las dos Fridas dominates the second half of the opera.

"The painting is very important because it is Freda Khalo's reflection on the amazing shift that happened in her own life," said Atom Egoyan. "It was painted at a time when she was going through a divorce with Diego Rivera. She really felt that Rivera was in love with another woman, another version of her... This is what this opera is ultimately about, how people can change and what that means in terms of how people are in love with one version of oneself and maybe how that shifts (over time)."

Khalo self-portrait dominates the stage in the second act

The cast, aside from an aging Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso, are the young bright lights in Canada's opera scene. Layla Claire and Wallis Giunta brought the full dress rehearsal audience to its feet when they first sang together. Robert Gleadow's Guglielmo defines the word cad while his partner Paul Appleby is the perfect-cuckolded tenor.

Directing young singers in a comedy is an extreme change for the Canadian director. On a week when both his Canadian Opera Company production opened and his latest film,Devil's Knot (the true story of the Memphis Three killings) opened in Canada, Egoyan admits that the Opera is a real departure.

"This is all different for me because it is the first time I have done comedy. My work is pretty dark; this has been a real delight."

Videographer George Socka and myself interviewed Atom Egoyan in the wig room of the Four Seasons Theatre in downtown Toronto. Watch Atom Egoyan talk about his newest COC production at here.