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Opera on Tap brews up a salute to women

The group's irreverent brand of opera heads back to the Room 5 Lounge this weekend with a focus on strong women.

June 01, 2011|By Rick Schultz, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Members of Opera on Tap sometimes wear viking helmets during their performances at bars.
Members of Opera on Tap sometimes wear viking helmets during their performances… (Kristina Jacinth, Opera…)

One of the signature props of Opera on Tap is a cheap, plastic Wagnerian horned helmet that singers wear while they perform. If cartoon images of Elmer Fudd wooing a Bugs Bunny dressed as Brünnhilde from Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" (or, as Bugs mispronounces it, "Rings of Nibble-lung") in "What's Opera, Doc?" come to mind, that is exactly the idea.

This comic deflation of opera as a sacred art perfectly captures the spirit of Opera on Tap, a gifted and irreverent group of classically trained vocalists whose purpose is to take the "grand" out of grand opera.

Opera on Tap, a national group that encourages opera singing in bars rather than concert halls, made its Los Angeles debut in March to a standing room only crowd at the Room 5 Lounge on La Brea Avenue. It returns there on Sunday, where Groundlings member Scott Beehner will be master of ceremonies.

The group's purpose is twofold: It offers opera music in an informal setting, and the group's singers, most often students and recent graduates, have a chance to display their vocal skills and a safe place to practice before auditions. There are eight regional chapters, including ones in New York, New Orleans and Chicago.

Soprano Anne Ricci, founder and co-managing diva of OOT, said she's happy Room 5 Lounge provides an upright piano and small raised stage for the show. But she also enjoys more humble, beer-stained venues.

"The whole irony of singing opera in a dive bar is still vastly entertaining to me," said Ricci, who started the company in 2005. "And it's still, by far, the strongest draw for new audiences. People feel comfortable there."

Everyone seemed comfortable at the conclusion of the first L.A. show, when the ensemble and audience joined in the drinking song ("Libiamo ne'lieti calici") from Verdi's "La Traviata." Where else can you hear that sung in a bar?

Ricci said it's important that each regional chapter showcases the talents of local performers and organizers. "We're not just reaching out to potential new opera audience members," Ricci said, "but also positioning ourselves as a community organization."

At "soprano night," a well-attended affair at a private home the day before OOT's debut here, a vocal coach for the L.A. Opera was in attendance, and so were singers from the L.A. Master Chorale. OOT may be a hoot, but it's attracting the kind of talent people want to hear.

Sophie Wingland, artistic director for the upcoming Room 5 show, said the program ranges from Mozart to Bernstein. Singers include Jon Lee Keenan, a USC doctoral student, Maria Lazarova, a USC alumna who heads the voice department at the Orange County Performing Arts High School, and Mindi Ehrlich, a student at Cal State, Long Beach.

Past themes for OOT shows have included "Dysfunctional Relationships in Opera," which, Ricci said, "covers pretty much all of the repertoire." For Sunday's show, Wingland and Damien Elwood, managing divo of OOT Los Angeles, have come up with an operatic response to the protests following an incident in January when a Toronto police officer told female university students if they didn't want to be raped, they shouldn't dress like "sluts." It's called "The Sluts of Opera! (and the men who love them)."

"When Damien and I heard about the 'slut walks' taking place across the country, we saw similarities between our opera heroines and ingénues and those women proudly strutting their stuff," Wingland said.

The program is scheduled to include "Batti batti, o bel Masetto" from Mozart's "Don Giovanni," in which Zerlina coyly begs her boyfriend to beat her to prove she is faithful, and "Ecco ridente in cielo," a tenor aria from Rossini's "Barber of Seville," in which Count Almaviva serenades his scheming and vivacious younger lady, Rosina.

"Opera is full of strong female characters that require an equally strong woman to portray them," Wingland said. "What is most moving about the characters you'll see Sunday night is not the character, but the singer who has herself become stronger and more self-possessed as a result of performing."

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