Published on December 13th, 2012 | by Setsu Uzume0
Feature: Opera on Tap
Opera on Tap, a nonprofit dedicated to making opera as accessible and ubiquitous as pop music, was established in San Francisco in the Spring of 2011 with its first performance on a balmy night in August. The organization was originally born in New York, where co-manager Indre Viskontas was first cast in the nascent project. Viskontas sensed it would be well-received in San Francisco where the Classical Revolution was already in full swing. She contacted a fellow singer, Katherine Gerber, to start planning to bring the project to the Bay Area. The rest is history.
“It’s our mission to provide live music to the San Francisco community,” Viskontas said.
Opera on Tap utilizes the talent of the San Francisco community as well, frequently collaborating with local instrumentalists for their shows, including guest flautists, pianists, clarinetists, cellists and ensembles like the Oakland-based Town Quartet. All of Opera on Tap’s singers are musical professionals or aspiring professionals, who would probably do nothing but sing if the economy allowed it.
Unlike normal opera casts, Opera on Tap isn’t constrained by the demands of casting, so the group has been able to create a roster that is more representative of Bay Area singers, meaning that for every tenor there are 10+ sopranos. As a result, Opera on Tap tends to have more women than men in their shows.
“Because there are fewer male singers than female singers, many opera companies treat men and women differently with respect to pay and other benefits,” Viskontas said. “For example, a man might be paid more for a role than a woman, or be allowed to skip more rehearsals or get cast with less experience. We have chosen not to distinguish between men and women in that way and as a result, our programs feature more women than men.”
In general, opera’s elitist reputation has certainly harmed it over the years. Opera emerged from court performances and still carries an aristocratic air, making it seem obsolete or inaccessible to everyday people. Opera on Tap is all about making it easy to access and enjoy. Each performance is a cross-section of dozens of shows in a variety of languages and styles, giving listeners the chance to pick and choose forms they like (and ignore those they don’t) without having to pay the high price of season tickets.
“When I hear someone say ‘I don’t like opera,’ it’s often because they haven’t explored the various subgenres,” Viskontas said. “It’s like saying ‘I don’t like movies’ after seeing one bad horror movie.”
Opera on Tap works to be an inclusive affair, bringing live music from the gilded concert hall to the tavern around the corner. Each event is a sampler platter of sorts that whets your appetite for more: a treat for both connoisseurs and initiates new to opera. Opera on Tap is designed to give people an accessible, inexpensive and welcoming environment in which they can discover opera’s many facets.
“Of course, I enjoy audience members who know the repertoire very well,” Viskontas said, “but I’m particularly excited to introduce opera to people who never thought they would be moved by it.”
I, myself, was recently blown away by “With Strings Attached”, Opera On Tap’s November performance with the Town Quartet at Café Royale in San Francisco. The café provided an unusually intimate setting for opera: a spotlight, a few chairs for the orchestra and a digital projector for translations made up the stage. But even lacking the acoustics of a concert hall, Opera on Tap’s music was nothing short of gorgeous. The performance also provided a brief introduction to each piece, including history and plot as well as technical tidbits. (“What does it mean to be a countertenor? Imagine Prince singing ‘KISS’,” said singer Michael Mohammed before breaking into Handel’s “Theodora”.)
The next show is on December 15, titled “Social Graces: Opera On Tap Demonstrates How [not to] Behave at the Office Holiday Party”. The following shows will be held on January 19, February 16 and March 16 (and rumor has it that a full production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro are in the works for this coming Spring).