Snobby and sober no more! Made up of singers who perform arias and duets in bars, Opera on Tap currently presents its innovative songfests in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Ann Arbor. Now the concept comes to Boston, with performances tomorrow and Monday night (September 26 and 27) at Oberon in Cambridge. Anne Ricci, one of the group’s founding members, and longtime Tapper Scott Reiburn talked to me about the past, present, and future of Opera on Tap, which bills itself as “America’s best and most renowned divebar opera company.”
By Chantal Mendes
AF: Tell me a little bit about Opera on Tap
Anne Ricci: I’m one of the founders. We started it in 2005 in Brooklyn, NY, and we’ve been going strong ever since. We’re a non-profit, and our mission has been going to find new audiences. The overall style of our shows is unique in the opera world; we go for something very interactive, very entertaining. So the shows tend to be raucous and fun and tongue in cheek and also very moving. The idea is to take the pretension and elitism that’s associated with opera out of the show, and apparently people like it!
AF: Why do you think that is?
Ricci: It encourages people to come to the art form in a different way. I love going to the opera, but it is an investment of time, you have to be quiet, you have to do all these things. But realistically I think it’s really about the music and about the theater. We’ve discovered people who say they would never set foot in an opera house but like our shows. It’s a way to introduce people to the art form in a way that allows them to learn and relish the sheer craft of the performers. They get to watch the singers up close.
AF: Would you say you guys are all about getting up close and personal?
Ricci: Yes definitely. I think that’s one of the things that people really respond to in our shows. We’re very much ourselves when we talk about the pieces we’re performing.
AF: What does taking the show on to Boston mean to you?
Ricci: I think Boston would be a great town for it. There’s a ton of singers there. We want to work with emerging performers who are just graduating from college and need opportunities. Our hope is that Opera on Tap would be a very local, grassroots kind of thing. Our first chapter was in New Orleans, and it’s still going very strong. It’s sponsored by the opera company there, which had this reputation of being very elitist. When it started Opera on Tap there, the company used it as an opportunity to bring opera out into the community.
One of the most important things to a lot of the citizens of New Orleans is to see some local talent at the shows. People root for the hometown performers.
At the same time, performers love the fact we’re trying to develop this broad, national network of artists. We’re doing a lot of new music; it’s a great way to introduce modern approaches. Because the company is part of the local community, the show feels less distanced from the audience. [In Boston] we had over 40 people audition for us. Obviously the interest was there on the performer level.
Speaking of performers, Scott Reiburn, slated as the first act on Sunday, generously agreed to talk about his experience as an old-timer of the show.
AF: Can you just tell me a little bit about your experience with Opera on Tap?
Scott Reiburn: I’m one of the old dogs of Opera on Tap. Anne Ricci started it five or six years ago and invited me to be a part of the whole thing. The idea incorporates everything I love about opera: the sexiness, the fun, and the evil. What’s so much fun about Opera on Tap is that we usually perform in these little bars, and you go and have a drink and these singers get really close to the audience. You really feel like it’s a visceral experience. We kind of mix it up and give the audience the best of a little bit of everything—there’s Mozart, there’s Puccini, it goes on and on and on. People who sing for Opera on Tap are not just standing there, but they’re having fun and involving the audience. An experience like that really makes a difference.
AF: How do you feel about the interaction with the audience?
Reiburn: It’s always been fun. Some audiences know what they’re getting themselves into because we have a really cool following, so they kind of settle themselves in and know what to expect. Other audiences, which are just as much fun, have no idea what to expect because opera has this preconceived kind of high and mighty tag to it. The notion that it’s untouchable, that it’s snooty, that it’s inaccessible, so some of these people kind of roll their eyes when their friends take them.
And then we’ve talked to people who have never experienced opera before or have experienced the music but only in opera houses. For them, we really turn opera on its head because they see all these young people singing about love and death and sex and really, really making it all an entertaining experience.
AF: What do you want people to get out of your performance?
Reiburn: When I have the honor of being in a full-length opera or when I’m performing on the concert stage, it’s a different experience. There’s a sense of exactness, of having to follow musical direction and being separated from the audience. In Opera on Tap, the experience is more personal. You’re able to make eye contact with your audience, and you’re able to see how it responds. There’s really a partnership between the audience and the performers. There’s a great camaraderie because the performers share the joy, sometimes the sadness, sometimes the silliness of the music with the listeners. It’s almost like a conversation with the audience through the music.