Surely many opera aficionados scoffed at hearing the idea of opera being sung in bars and, most likely, still do. It may be even hard for the opera purist ‘light’ to imagine a beautifully crafted Quando me’n vo competing with bar chatter and clinking beer bottles. However, it’s now been over 7 years that Brooklyn bars have had the likes of Mozart, Puccini and the rest of the gang cut through the suds… and it’s not just contained to Brooklyn.
Anne Hiatt, lyric soprano and founder of Opera on Tap, has refined the art and business of singing at the pub. Not only has she spearheaded a movement but her company’s contribution to the art form goes beyond an aria in between rounds.
Why did you start Opera on Tap?
It was born out of a conversation with Brooklyn’s finest bartender Don O’Finn. I was sitting at the bar at Freddys Bar and Backroom in Prospect Heights lamenting rather tipsily the fact that there were so little opportunities for opera singers to perform in a pressure-free environment. I was at a time in my life where it felt like all I was really doing in terms of performing was auditioning to no avail. I was struggling financially and laden with student loan debt. Don offered me a night to sing in the backroom of Freddys. I got together a bunch of singer friends and a pianist friend and Opera on Tap was born. The event was an immediate success. We filled the backroom and we were offered a monthly residency. We’ve performed at Freddys ever since.
How many Manhattan bars and clubs would you estimate OoT has performed opera in?
Manhattan, not so many as we are a Brooklyn-based company (but we are moving into new Manhattan venues this summer). For a long time we had a monthly residency at The Parkside Lounge on the Lower East Side. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, we sing occasionally at The Indian Road Cafe in Inwood! In addition we’ve had performances at The Highline Ballroom in the Meatpacking District and City Winery in Tribeca.
How many bars across the US? At least 20 different bars across the US.
Such venues can be quite crowded and noisy. Do you feel you reach the audience? Please explain.
Absolutely. You can’t ignore the elephant in the room no matter how loud the bar. Opera singers are louder. You’d be surprised how natural the instinct is to quiet down when there is a great singer in the room. We also focus on venues where there is a music element generally present. Usually that means there is a separate room from the bar where performances happen and the expectancy is, if you’re in that room, you’re there to hear the music. But even when this is not the case, we don’t tend to have issues connecting with our audiences. It’s ironic and intriguing to hear opera in a dive. In our performances, there is a lot of interactivity with our audiences as well. I like to think that performances like ours (immediate, intimate) put a human face on the art form for the audience. They can see us breathe, sweat, have nerves, triumph, etc. and its exciting.
Does OoT do more than give dosages of opera to bars and clubs?
Yes, in addition to our regular Theme of the Month shows we do at venues like Freddys, we run 4 different contemporary music programs: New Brew – our bi-monthly salon series of contemporary vocal music at Barbes in Park Slope; OPERAtion Brooklyn – our co-presentation with American Opera Projects where we produce snippets from operas by emerging composers in various locations across Brooklyn and Manhattan (next show March 23rd at South Oxford Space in Fort Greene, Brooklyn: www.operationbrooklyn.com); 21c Liederabend – expansive multi-media festival canvassing the songs of living composers ranging from bright rising stars to leaders of the national and international contemporary music scene (next show Nov 21 and 22: www.21cliederabend.com); The Roadworks Series– our newest program where we commission one opera year to be produced in NYC then toured to select Chapters of OOT. Our first full production of the Roadworks Series is a new opera by James Barry and Timothy Braun based loosely on the life of Carrie Nation goes up April 4, 5 and 6 of this year at HERE Arts Center, entitled SMASHED: The Carrie Nation Story (www.operaontap.org/newyork/). And on top of all we do in terms of contemporary programming, we also have a burgeoning new education program for kids (OOT Jr) and have had the privilege to partner with The Rush Philanthropic Foundation on several productions/ programs for kids in NYC public schools as well as in community centers across the city.
Opera on Tap is now serving more than 11 cities in 11 different states. How much more can the OoT keg hold?
Of course, our plan involves global dominance. The more the merrier!
What’s the biggest problem opera faces today? What is the most important thing we can do about it?
It seems to me, the problem has to do with building new audiences for opera. But maybe more specifically, it has to do with the art form’s relevance in modern society. I think everyone in the opera field has to do some soul searching and figure out just how we fit in and how we can serve today’s audiences. It seems to me, opera producers should constantly seek new ways to connect with people of all ages and economic circumstances and not shy away from exploring new business models for survival.
Opera On Tap’s First Full Production
Please join us in supporting and sharing Opera on Tap’s first full production: SMASHED: The Carrie Nation Story