by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Conventional wisdom about the entertainment preferences of Americans is that opera doesn’t make the cut. In many places, Seattle included, this theory doesn’t really hold water. Not only does the Seattle Opera regularly sell out its entire season, there is also an interest in bringing that high singing art to more humble digs. Opera on Tap, a non-profit organization originating in New York, does just that. What’s more, the Seattle chapter of Opera on Tap tends to find its best audiences here in Capitol Hill.
“We love playing up here. We have a lot of fans [in Capitol Hill],” said Opera on Tap Seattle diva Ksenia Popova. “We love playing The Comet. The divey-er the dive, the better.” She and her local collaborators, Megan Chenovick and Erica Row, have hosted live opera performances at The Comet and other bars for two years. Today, they’re gearing up for a new season and are on the search for a fresh crop of singers.
Opera on Tap’s concept is simple: singers devoted to the operatic arts take spots at thoroughly unpretentious bars usually reserved for rowdy bands and open mic readers. They do so unadorned with the elaborate costumes and makeup of the traditional opera stage, injecting humor into the experience and generally breaking down the conception that opera is a stuffy, elitist affair. So, one show a month since 2011, Opera on Tap Seattle has been making that unusual dream of beer-soaked arias a reality.
Though Ksenia Popova uses the model and resources of the national Opera on Tap name, her interest in bringing libretti to street-level blossomed independently.
“I was up all night Googling ‘opera in bars’ when I came across the Opera on Tap website,” Popova said. She’s an accomplished opera singer and educator herself, performing throughout the Pacific Northwest, working with the Portland Opera, the Vashon Opera and in competition circuits in the region. When Popova found Opera on Tap, she was already close to the bar music scene.
“I was dating a sound guy, so I spent lots of time in bars. Some nights I would think, ‘How great would it be to just go up on stage and sing an aria?'”
Many of the program’s singers come from backgrounds similar to Ksenia Popova. The Seattle chapter maintains a database of established and emerging singers, refining the audition process for new performers as the years pass.
“It’s not exactly like opera karaoke,” Popova said. Rather, singing with Opera on Tap comes with a unique set of tones and distractions that differ greatly from the big stage at McCaw Hall. There’s very little space between the singers and the audience. They have to contend with the less-than-ideal acoustics of bars and the pressure of mostly unaccompanied performances, not to mention the social nuances of singing for patrons who are under the influence.
Because of these differences, this year’s auditions will take the format of a live performance rather than a closed showcase. The audition show, which will happen at The Blue Moon Tavern in the University District on July 30, will feature several Opera on Tap hopefuls performing five arias to the kind of crowd they can expect at every show.
Popova expressed a desire to put on more Opera on Tap shows in Capitol Hill this season. The group’s experiences at The Comet have been roundly positive and tend to capture the program’s most sought-after demographic: middle-income people between the ages of 21 and 40.
“We end up bringing in a wider range, but the 21 to 40 range is when people start to forget about opera,” Popova explained.
Opera America, an association of 122 opera companies nationwide, compiles regular reports with the National Endowment for the Arts about opera attendance in the United States. Their most recent survey says that the average opera-goer in America is 48 years old, and that the average opera-going population is aging. The outreach of Opera on Tap aims to do for younger adult crowds what similar school outreach programs do to introduce kids to the art.
“We get a mixture of people who are there to see the show and a good handful of people who have no idea what they’re walking in to,” Popova said. She described unexpected moments of humor that democratized the opera experience for their audiences, and the more traditional instances of high emotion that elevated their shows beyond a simple dressing-down.
The Opera on Tap Seattle website and Facebook page regularly update with info on upcoming shows and auditions. Look for Ksenia Popova, her fellow divas and their guest singers at venues throughout Capitol Hill and Seattle at-large.