No Canadian opera company has launched its current season more surprisingly than Opera Mississauga, whose production of Ivan pl. Zajc's Nikola Subic Zrinjski at Hammerson Hall of Mississauga's Living Arts Centre reportedly marks the opera's first full-scale North American staging.
And why, you ask, should an opera company in Mississauga be staging a Croatian opera by a composer who died in 1914?
Like a small number of other North American companies, Opera Mississauga has embarked on the mission field, trying to broaden its audience through contact with what used to be called ethnic communities.
General director Dwight Bennett has gone so far as to make the following offer in an open letter: "We will facilitate and produce any opera or concert program for any group that comes forward with the interest, the theme, some funding and an audience."
The idea is not a new one. Over the past few seasons I've travelled to Buffalo to attend Moniuszko's The Haunted Castle in Polish, to Detroit to attend Armen Tigranian's Anoush in Armenian and to other cities to hear operas in Chinese and Spanish. But it is an idea that has yet to be embraced by more than a handful of the continent's larger companies.
It was the Toronto area's Croatian community, mobilized by Edward Mavrinac, that brought forward the Nikola Subic Zrinjski project, which had its opening performance Saturday, which I caught up with Tuesday and which will have its final performances tonight and this coming Saturday.
Although well-known as a national opera in Croatia, Zajc's putative masterpiece hasn't travelled much for reasons that are quite obvious.
Its appeal is primarily domestic, dealing as it does with the courageous defence by Zrinjski and his vastly outnumbered forces of the town of Sigeth against the Turkish armies of Suleyman II in the year 1566.
Indeed, the final scene bristles with patriotism in the Mississauga production as Zrinjski and chorus slowly march toward the front of the stage with swords drawn and the Croatian flag flying, everyone singing music of tremendous nationalist fervour, proclaiming the sweetness of dying for the fatherland.
It isn't, to these non-Croatian ears, especially distinguished music, but its impact is undeniably stirring.
Trained in Milan in the 1850s and a successful operetta composer in Vienna before becoming director and conductor of the first permanent Croatian opera house in Zagreb, Zajc wrote in an accessible, melodious manner, without - in this score at least - achieving much originality or individuality.
In staging the opera, Dora Ruzdjak Podolski did nothing to disguise its old-fashioned look. Soloists stood and delivered and the chorus lined up in almost school-like formation.
Ballet sequences were danced by young students in bare midriffs and diaphanous pantaloons and the scenery turned out to be minimal.
Musically, however, the performance presided over in the pit by Dwight Bennett treated the opera well, the imported Croatian soloists, including Armando Puklavec in the title role, Ivica Saric (indisposed on opening night) as Suleyman and Damir Fatovic as the grand vizier Sokolovic, sounding vigorously committed and the chorus splendidly disciplined.
Small as it was, the audience cheered.