Opera on the town

University students bring opera to the bar.

Stephanie Dickrell

On the list of things you’re unlikely to hear in an average bar, opera probably ranks high. But a couple of graduate opera students are trying to change that, breaking down the barrier between high culture and popular culture, and getting attention for an art form often neglected by college audiences.

Opera On Tap

WHEN: 7 p.m., May 5
WHERE: The 400 Bar, 400 Cedar Ave. S., Minneapolis
TICKETS: Free

First-year graduate students Katherine Crawford and Brandon Miller are perplexed that the art form they know and love can be so intimidating for audiences.

“Opera’s not scary,” Crawford said. “It’s entertaining, it’s engaging,” she said, adding that it’s just another form of entertainment.

Operas cover all sorts of subjects: love, murder and “the whole depravity of human culture,” Miller said.

“They’re ripe with sexuality,” he said, “and the drama of our everyday lives.”

But people picture opera audiences with “hands folded, legs crossed, ready to take it,” Crawford said, as if it were something to get through instead of enjoy.

So if people won’t come to the opera, Crawford and Miller want to bring opera to the people, giving them a sampling without the high prices or supposedly pretentious atmosphere.

They’ve already tested their theory, performing opera scenes at Mapps Coffee and Tea in the Cedar-Riverside area to a large crowd and with good reactions.

Next comes the ultimate test – singing opera in a bar setting more well-known for hosting rock bands than arias.

Crawford and Miller will be part of a group of 12 to 15 students performing various opera scenes of solos and duets at the 400 Bar.

They’ll definitely get noticed. The sheer novelty of large operatic voices coming from students captures your attention.

In addition to gaining attention for opera, the students gain valuable performance time in front of an audience from these extra shows. Outside traditional opera productions, the chance to perform for an audience is rare for most students, and even a bar crowd is a novelty.

David Walsh, the director of Opera Theater in the School of Music, thinks this is all a great idea. Walsh has heard the laments that not enough butts are filling the seats from students semester after semester, but there’s only so much he can do on a budget. He had already been in talks with the owner of Mapps before Crawford and Miller approached him with the idea of performing there.

He doesn’t see it as a dumbed-down version of opera either, he said. The music stays the same; it’s only the venue that changes. The students are actually performing pieces they’ve learned for past and future productions and performances. And Walsh, as well as Crawford and Miller, think that people will like opera once they’re exposed to it.

In terms of value, the University’s productions are the most accessible. Students can attend productions for as little as $8, as opposed to the double- and triple-digit prices at the Minnesota Opera.

Guerilla opera is nothing new. Crawford said their inspiration came from a Montreal opera group that only performed in bars, and Improv Everywhere’s social experiments and spontaneous cafeteria musicals.

They’ll only perform once more this semester, but expect to do three or four performances to promote next semester’s opera production, like the teaser events that people sometimes do to promote musical theater productions. It will take until the end of the year to see if their experiment worked, but maybe this time next year, there’ll be more eager opera-goers.