Opera in the Rough
A video, which is posted on youtube.com, shows a couple of kids in a Memphis grocery store.
They approach a table where they have the option to taste a few different cookies. After a short discussion, they boys finally decide on which sample they want. Suddenly, an opera singer, who had been roaming the aisles, leaps into the video and sings an aria from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Other singers browse the shelves nearby, waiting for their turn to be called upon. The kids don’t exactly know what to think of it. But they immediately ask for another cookie – which is to say, another song.
This is just one of the pop-up events that have taken place around town this month as part of Opera Memphis’ 30 Days of Opera. The company has sung on playgrounds, public libraries, the Levitt Shell and at the Cooper Young Festival.
These impromptu concerts are not the perfectly polished music of a Metropolitan Opera broadcast. The singers wear street clothes. Their accompaniment is a red, electric keyboard that looks like a child’s toy. The singing is fun, light and spontaneous.
Ned Canty, General Director of Opera Memphis, says that 30 Days of Opera is essentially about “giving people a small, unexpected introduction to what it’s like to have an opera singer three feet away from you.”
Opera Memphis volunteers carry signs and ask passersby to take a survey about the experience. For people who have never been to an opera before, the company offers a 50 percent discount on a ticket to its upcoming production of “Rigoletto” on Oct. 3 and 5 at the Germantown Performing Arts Center.
Canty says he’s enjoyed seeing the different responses from people who are stumbling upon opera music, occasionally for the very first time.
“One of the things that has been most fun and most unexpected is what a broad range of ages we’ve had stopping and listening," Canty says. "Even just now there was a little girl who was just rapt and you could kind of tell that her mom wanted to keep walking but her dad was staying there, and the little girl was just listening in awe. When the kids are that young they don’t know that they’re not supposed to not like opera, so they just like it.”
Lauren Kelley was shopping at the Cooper Young Festival when she stopped to listen to the music. She says hearing opera helps her set aside the worries of the world.
“You instantly think of peace. It’s a peaceful thing when you think of opera music. It instantly calms you down. I think the average person it would calm them down. Especially when you’re having a bad day. You put on some opera, you can’t still be angry.”
Singer Caitlin McKechney said she was nervous at first being so up close and personal with listeners, until she saw what could be gained as a performer.
“It’s actually a wonderful opportunity as an actor because you get to really learn what it is like to interact with people,” she said. “The interactions that we get from people from surprise and total enjoyment and surprise enjoyment is really fantastic so it’s a really awesome experience.”
Linda Berryman doesn’t sing. But she does believe in the music. She’s been there, alongside the singers, holding up a sign for Opera Memphis. She said it was a friend who brought her to the music.
“I have a friend named Mike and he started talking about how opera saved his life. It made me curious, so I started listening to some of his favorite operas. Somebody gave me tickets to an opera and I decided it was amazing, but it’s always been Memphis opera for me. So here I am, holding up a sign, wearing a frog (hat) on my head.”
While drumming up ticket sales is certainly a big part of Opera Memphis’ 30 days of opera, the experiment in bringing the art form -- in small doses -- to all parts of the city has allowed many people to hear old music in a new light. Including broad daylight.
For more information on the remaining "30 Days of Opera" performances visit Operamemphis.org.