Spring Arts: Opera, Bar by Bar

"I hope everyone's having a double tonight," emcee Ksenia Popova says to the 50 or so people loosely packed into the U District's Blue Moon Tavern last month, "because it's duet night." Against low chatter and the clink of beer glasses, Jadd Davis and Ken Sabalza take the foot-high stage at one end of the cluttered room, joining husky, goateed Josh Brown, sitting behind a Kurzweil portable keyboard. But what comes next is not indie rock, a string band, or anything else that regularly appears on the bar's live-music schedule.

"Au fond du temple saint"—or as Popova calls it, "the bromance duet"—is the greatest hit from Georges Bizet's 1863 opera The Pearl Fishers, the tale of two (yes) pearl fishers—one tenor, one baritone—who in honeyed, twining, climbing melodies recall, then renounce, their past conflict over a woman. (Bros before sopranos.)

If anyone was startled to hear Bizet at the proudly louche Blue Moon, Seattle's historical dive of dives—well, that's why Opera on Tap is here. These young singers are just a few among a wave of local musicians attempting to broaden the public's idea of what opera can be, counteract the intimidation factor of what's for centuries been a mass-audience art, and make opportunities for themselves in a field in which there is no clear career path.

Launched in 2005 in New York City, Opera on Tap now has chapters in 12 cities. The three "managing divas" of Seattle's branch, arranging venue bookings and programming, are Popova, Megan Chenovick, and Erica Row. Chenovick had performed with NYC's Tap, and Popova approached her about starting one here; their first gig was last September at Phinney Ridge's In the Red Wine Bar. There's no set roster for Opera on Tap Seattle; the three send their singer acquaintances details of each month's gig and the planned theme. (Coming up Feb. 26, back at In the Red, is "That Crazy Little Thing Called Love!", tracing the emotional roller coaster of a relationship from infatuation to rage and beyond.) Anyone who's free and has appropriate repertory under their belt—meaning ready for public airing without rehearsal—can propose themselves. For example, at the Blue Moon, two singers pair off for a duet from Show Boat that they've never sung together before; reliable professionals that they are, you'd never know it. Tap singers have often crossed paths and boast similar resumes, working to stitch together a post-college living through teaching, roles with smaller area companies (Tacoma, Vashon, Bellevue, Kitsap, and Skagit Operas), or in outreach performances with the Seattle Opera Guild.

The Blue Moon audience seems split between converts and newbies. As baritone Ryan Bede puts it, Opera on Tap draws "audience members who are regular attendees at Seattle Opera [and] some who are probably regular attendees at the Blue Moon." He's up next, as Mozart's Don Giovanni. Out of context and untranslated, each number needs a little introduction, and Row explains what's going on in this duet: Zerlina, whom the Don is trying to seduce, is already engaged to the hapless Masetto, who's "not very smart," she admits. ("But he's cute," counters an audience member.)

What makes opera such a hard sell? "They feel like it's too fancy, basically," Chenovick thinks. But guided past the perceived barriers of language, class, money, and the other baggage attached to opera, people find out it's not so unfamiliar: "These story lines in many ways would be easily transferable to a contemporary soap opera," she says. Or to personal experience—as Bede observes, "the life of the students in La bohème is a lot like a young group of college students after school, none of them having jobs yet." (See? Opera is for 99-percenters too.)

Plus, Opera on Tap's no-frills performances provide a chance to get to the core of what's vital about the art—to set aside "costumes, makeup, and complicated staging," says Bede, and "make it as fun as possible." And, Row points out, this approach benefits not only new listeners but emerging performers: "It can be a way to get out of 'audition mode' for an evening . . . to try new pieces in a safe space, and to dramatically go where you might not go in an opera house."

Later, beer in hand, Popova takes the stage herself for a catfight duet from Weill's Threepenny Opera. Following are bonbons from Candide and Lakmé, plus the gorgeous final duet from Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea. The evening's centerpiece is a set from La bohème, including "O soave fanciulla," the big Act 1 falling-in-love scene between Rodolfo and Mimì. Scattered throughout the bar, all the tenors and sopranos present chime in for the closing phrases, which everyone knows. At the end, ever competitive even in such an informal setting, one soprano playfully trumps her colleagues' high C's with an even higher E. The voices are young and perhaps a bit rough, but ardent; what comes through, unmistakably, is a fervent love for the music and an evangelical desire to bring it to life, to sell it to the uninitiated. As Row puts it, "I do it to get opera in front of more people . . . Sometimes one experience like this is all it takes to create a lifelong opera lover."

gborchert@seattleweekly.com

 

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More Alt-Opera

Opera on Tap is just one of several local classical groups cultivating a following among those daunted by the three-figure tickets at McCaw Hall. Redmond's Inverse Opera performs revues of arias and ensembles in a theatrical cabaret setting. Puget Sound Concert Opera performs complete operas—music only, without the trappings. Pacific MusicWorks explores the pre-Handel repertory in innovative stagings with some of the country's top early-music specialists. Even chamber-music organizations like the Seattle Chamber Players and Music of Remembrance have staged fascinating contemporary music-theater pieces.

Not only performers are driven to create opportunities for themselves. Local composers interested in opera need to be their own impresarios, not only writing but mounting their works. They're also folding in all kinds of new and unusual elements—dance, visual art, non-Western instruments—stretching the term to its limit. Notables include Tom Baker and Christian Asplund, who founded SExO (Seattle Experimental Opera) in the mid-'90s; Joshua Kohl and Haruko Nishimura, masters of the strange and evocative with their Degenerate Art Ensemble; and composer/performers like Byron Au Yong, Eric Banks, Garrett Fisher, Wayne Horvitz, and Hope Wechkin.

One last example: Jordan Corbin Wentworth's Watershed Opera, which in a memorable December concert at Town Hall combined favorite arias from Tosca and Carmen with excerpts from Wentworth's own operas, the fairy tale The Day Boy and the Night Girl and her work in progress Doe Bay: Missing, set on the ferry to Anacortes. (Among the characters are a lesbian couple and smugglers who run a coffee stand as a front.) Wentworth's versatile voice incorporates two distinct colors: full-on diva projection and a lighter musical-comedy ingenue style (sometimes shifting from one shade to the other within a single phrase). Her intimate, DIY performance (she also played piano) was almost like a Tractor Tavern singer/songwriter gig—and that's the vibe she's after: "You know when you go see your friend's band and you're surprised by the opening act, and you get really thrilled, and you can't believe you're seeing them in a small space? I just wanted people to have that feeling with opera."

 
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