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A Considerable Town

Opera on Tap at Room 5 Lounge: Want a PBR With Your Don Giovanni? Check Out Opera in a Bar

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Thu, Sep 22, 2011 at 1:30 PM
click to enlarge Damien Elwood, left, with Angie Engelbart, front, and Shabnam Kalbasi - STAR FOREMAN
  • Star Foreman
  • Damien Elwood, left, with Angie Engelbart, front, and Shabnam Kalbasi

"All you really need to know about Carmen is, one, she's a Gypsy. And two, she's a slut," the singer says before beginning.

It's standing room only at the bar, where a staging of the French opera is taking place. Yes, that's right. Opera. At a bar. Specifically, the Room 5 Lounge atop a restaurant on Beverly Boulevard.

The Bizet with booze comes to Los Angeles -- by way of Brooklyn -- courtesy of the grassroots program Opera on Tap, which aims to bring to the masses the world's snootiest art form.

"Opera is dying" is the fearful refrain playing these days in the minds of people in the opera business. They see their old, rich, white patrons getting older. They see the concert hall audiences dwindling. But you wouldn't know it from tonight's packed house.

Next up, two girls. "I'll still sext you," says one. They slide easily into Mozart's "Ah, Perdona al Primo Affetto," "a breakup duet" meant to be sung by a man and a woman.

"Gender's a construct, baby," teases the emcee. When one of the girls, USC vocal student Shabnam Kalbasi, returns for Rossini's "Una Voce Poco Fa," it's a sublime moment. Then some critical commentary from the emcee: "That was one of my favorite arias, and you tore it the fuck up."

Opera on Tap has come a long way from Brooklyn, where one recent night, 35-year-old soprano Anne Ricci and her colleagues were at Freddy's bar, lamenting that opera singers rarely have an opportunity to let their hair down. It would be great to be able to sing somewhere casual, they said. Somewhere relaxed. Somewhere informal. Somewhere like ... a bar.

They did the first Opera on Tap soon after, right there at Freddy's. It was a hit. It was fun. They paused between songs to explain the meaning of the lyrics. They cracked jokes. People who had never set foot in a concert hall to watch some fat lady sing were getting into Mozart, Puccini, Donizetti.

There were benefits for the singers, too. Ricci and her friends could get together, run through their repertoire and keep their voices supple between auditions. At bars, they'd shake off their self-consciousness. They could be spontaneous.

"Audiences like to see us make mistakes," Ricci says over the phone from New York. "Sometimes we sing the wrong verse, or someone cracks up laughing. The singers drink beer while they sing."

There are 11 Opera on Tap chapters now, including one in Los Angeles, managed by Damien Elwood. He met Ricci while she was here at last year's annual Opera America conference. Opera on Tap was the talk of the conference. Since then, Elwood, who has a day job managing the opera program at USC, has put together themed programs such as "The Sluts of Opera! (and the Men Who Love Them)." Underlying the comedy, though, is a vein of tragedy.

"If the industry keeps going the way it is, in 25 years three-quarters of the opera companies in business now will no longer exist," Elwood says, taking a seat by the window as the evening's show wraps. Some 70 percent of opera companies don't sell enough tickets to cover their operating expenses. As nonprofit organizations harnessed to boards of directors who are in charge of marketing, opera companies tend to target primarily elite, older, white consumers. Opera's audience is literally dying off.

Traditional opera is expensive to produce and consume. Orchestra tickets for the L.A. Opera's Cosi Fan Tutte, for instance, start at $110. "In the pursuit of the excellence of the art form, a natural exclusiveness results," Elwood says. "But we have wrapped that in a process that involves union theater houses and crews, and highly paid musicians, and rehearsal spaces, and elaborate costumes and sets. It's an art form that, for whatever reason, took on these trappings."

It wasn't always so. Opera once was populist entertainment. Its stories were the rowdy television of their day. "They're the same stories man has been telling for thousands of years. Opera was the social commentary of its time. It started out in places like this," Elwood says. "People used to laugh and heckle. Mozart's Magic Flute was written for commoners. Some time in the last century, we turned it into this high art form."

Today, fledgling opera singers face a tough road. They progress from undergraduate to graduate school, to postgrad summer fellowships. After which: the vast empty desert of real life. Only a handful of cities exist in which classical musicians can make a living doing what they've been trained to do.

They survive by "piecing it together," Elwood says. They teach. They sing at weddings and funerals. They pick up occasional chorus gigs. "Only 20 percent of the singers who go through university programs end up working as singers," he says. "Of those, 5 percent end up working as opera singers."

The only way opera will find a viable future is by making it accessible, "not by keeping it locked into a temple," Elwood continues. The current generation, however, growing up in the era of the three-minute YouTube clip, has no patience for traditional opera.

That's a shame. Because for all its baroque trappings, the temple has produced amazing performers. The level of expertise expected of even the bottom-level opera singer is extreme. You must be conversant in Italian, German and French, for starters, or you won't be hired.

In that context, singing Mozart in a bar doesn't make much sense to opera's old guard. "They try to turn young singers into priests of the temple," Elwood says. "Because of this expectation -- of precision, perfection -- this venue doesn't make sense to them."

The old school has a point. Opera on Tap doesn't present full operas. But then again, it isn't meant to. It's an amuse-bouche to whet the appetite.

Ironically, the YouTube generation just might save opera. That crowd won't wait for culture to trickle down from the temple. In its first six months, the L.A. chapter of Opera on Tap has accumulated a roster of 25 singers. They perform for free, once every other month. For now, it's a way to get in stage time.

Transposing classical music into a venue like this certainly makes it less intimidating for newbie patrons, and for newbie singers, too. Tonight was Shabnam Kalbasi's first time performing in public. "Her voice is something special," Elwood says.

If instead of an intimate lounge, this had been, say, the Dorothy Chandler, you likely would have missed the playful expressiveness of Kalbasi's face. "Most of the world has not sat within 20 feet of an opera singer going full-bore. It's a pretty visceral experience," he says.

Experiencing opera this way is part of a larger change that has been brewing. Not too long ago the Long Beach Opera, known for its innovative stagings, infamously performed Orpheus and Eurydice in a swimming pool with singers floating on rafts.

An upheaval in the opera world is coming, Elwood says. "Hopefully, it's more a butterfly emerging from a cocoon as opposed to a flower dying on the vine."

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