I flag down the waitress.
“One for dinner?”
“No, and this may sound crazy, but I’m actually rehearsing an opera here. Is this the right place?”
“Sure, right through those curtains.”
I step across the distressed wood floors through the leather curtains and find a backroom bar turned into a makeshift performance space. The set consists of one long farm table with few props and some lights hung from the exposed beams. A four-piece orchestra sits in the corner: flute, viola, cello, and accordion, which is standard for nothing.
So began my involvement with Pocket Opera of New York this week, whose adaptation of Milhaud‘s Le Pauvre Matelot is so good it should enter the chamber opera canon. PONY director Andreas Hager created a singing English translation of the opera, and conductor Nicholas DeMaison enriched it with other songs from Britten, Ives, and folk songs. Oh, and arranged the whole shebang for that weird quartet. We were performing in Fraunces Tavern, the historic inn where George Washington gave a send-off to his troops after the revolution (and sometime before the construction of his bridge) that is now a warren of bars, tasting rooms, and beautiful people.
Who wouldn’t have liked it? The additional songs gave the characters some more…. character and were a cool contrast to the Milhaud. The composer was certainly prolific, but this is only one of his five operas. I was in the four-person chorus, which sang part of a lively catch from Peter Grimes, in 3-legged 7/4 time. I’ll never get it out of my head. Here’s a sense of it, though our version skipped the wailing toward the end:
Truly great singing to hear from the leads: Donald Groves, Adrian Rosas, Claire Kuttler, and Jonathan Woody, who were decked out in spooky stylings by Joel Yapching.
PONY packed the place with a receptive crowd, and the mood was festive from start to finish. Still, looking around at the moms, dads, and some fellow musicians in the crowd, I wondered if this guerilla technique of opera performances really does reach new audiences, as many presenters hope it does. I suspect it’s just bringing old audiences to new places. And maybe the performer’s pals will come out for an hour show in a bar, but will they then sit tight at the Met? Or a lengthier mainstage production anywhere?
Outreach performances like this might not even have mainstage recruitment as their goal, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My hope is there will be so many of these projects – in even more unexpected places – that no one will have to go to the opera again. The opera will already be wherever you are.