Arts·Queeries

Dion: A Rock Opera is a wild new musical centering a non-binary demi-god

Legendary stage director Peter Hinton-Davis calls the show part Rocky Horror, part The Bacchae: "it's a new-born re-invention of the rock opera for today."

Part Rocky Horror, part The Bacchae, Peter Hinton-Davis calls it a reinvention of the rock opera for today

 Jacob MacInnis as Dion.
Jacob MacInnis as Dion. (Dahlia Katz)

Queeries is a column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

"It's a little bit ancient Greece, and a little bit rock and roll."

That's how legendary Canadian theatre and opera director Peter Hinton-Davis sums up his highly anticipated new show Dion: A Rock Opera, which begins its world premiere run at Toronto's Coal Mine Theatre on February 8th. A fully sung opera based on Euripedes' The Bacchae, the show has been four years in the making, having been developed from scratch at Coal Mine.

"I really like entering into historical works and trying to imagine what their intentions were, but also to be very mindful of how they land in modern audiences," Hinton-Davis says. "It's not a museum piece by any stretch of the imagination — it's a trip. And it's really exciting to see a big, splashy musical in a very intimate space."

Dion was dreamed up by poet and novelist Steven Mayoff (who wrote the book) and The Coal Mine's co-founder Ted Dykstra (who wrote the music). 

"Ted has a long history with both classical theatre and with rock operas," Hinton-Davis says. "And he was in a production of The Bacchae by Euripides at Stratford many, many, many years ago. And so he had this notion that what lies inside those ancient Greek plays could really lead him to the kind of theatricality and transformative kind of quality that exists in a rock opera world."

 Director Peter Hinton-Davis in rehearsal for Dion.
Director Peter Hinton-Davis in rehearsal for Dion. (Barry McCluskey)

Dykstra and Mayoff began developing this idea, eventually calling up Hinton-Davis and asking if he'd like to get in on it.

"It developed quite organically from that," Hinton-Davis says. "And it's been an incredible thing to look at something that's really ancient — you know, thousands of years old — and take that idea and ask, how does it resonate in the contemporary time?"

That resonance becomes clear when you start to dissect the story it tells, in which Pentheus, the right-wing leader of a city-state "somewhere in time," arrives home from a trip to learn that all the disenfranchised people in his kingdom — including almost all of society's women — have taken to the hills. They have followed a non-binary and self-proclaimed Demi-God named Dion, and are now often seen running through the hills naked in states of ecstasy.

 The company in rehearsals for Dion with director Peter Hinton-Davis and music director Bob Foster.
The company in rehearsal with director Peter Hinton-Davis (3rd from right) and music director Bob Foster (2nd from right). (Dahlia Katz)

"[Dion] is half mortal, half god, is the non-binary god of all non-binary gods, and they are both male and female," Hinton-Davis explains. "They are both mortal and divine. They are the God of intoxication. They are God who one experiences in an ecstatic state outside the body. So they are the opposition to the rational, ordered, civilized kind of instinct. They are the spirit and the body."

Hinton-Davis says that ultimately, Dion takes his followers out of their heads and frees them, not unlike our own society's intoxications.

"But if taken out of control, it can become an addiction and it can rule you," he says. "So much of this message is about the balance of things. And so that question of what is the balance of freedom in society and social responsibility. It speaks so pertinently to our own time now."

 Jacob MacInnis and SATE in Dion.
Jacob MacInnis and SATE in Dion. (Dahlia Katz)

Hinton-Davis calls Dion: A Rock Opera "a wild and provocative musical about the limits of freedom and the potential for disorder and revenge that lies inside the cry for freedom."

"This is a world that begs for the glamour and grist of rock and roll: the sense of divine power and human aspiration, crowds of followers and fans, groupies and grifters, prophets and politicians," he says. "I am reminded of how powerful the role music plays in moments of social upheaval, revolution and change. There are shades of The Rocky Horror Picture Show of Phantom of the Paradise here, as much as The Bacchae or Hamlet. But rather than homage or nostalgia — it's a new-born re-invention of the rock opera for today."

That rock opera will be on stage at The Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto from February 8 to March 3, 2024. For tickets and more information, click here

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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