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“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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