One New York company is liberating the stuffy, pretentious reputation of the opera, staging them at unlikely locations with expansive spaces and a constant flow of beer.
On a muggy spring evening in New York a crowd slowly gathers in Brooklyn to see LoftOpera’s production of Le Comte Ory, the 19th century comic opera by Gioachino Rossini. The play, first performed by the Paris Opera in 1828, is a raucous look at libidos run wild during the Crusades. It tells the story of a frisky count who convinces his pals to dress as nuns in order to steal into a castle and seduce the women inside. So what happens when New York’s newest indie opera house steers this gender-bending sex farce?
To start there is no opera house. The show is staged instead in a 7,000 square-foot former foundry that now houses a circus school. Located on the outer edges of Bushwick, a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighbourhood, the warehouse has soaring ceilings and concrete floors and for this occasion a few chandeliers hang suspended among circus ropes. About halfway into the rectangular space a small raised platform serves as a stage. While the crowd settles into wooden folding seats and Prince’s “Kiss” booms from the speakers, aerialists dressed in nun habits ascend dangling silk ropes and perform hair-raising twists and turns.
“Welcome,” LoftOpera co-founder Daniel Ellis-Ferris says when the stage lights are set. He wears a plaid shirt and lists the house rules along with a special note of caution. “It’s really warm in here tonight so we’re going to leave the roller gates open. That means if a garbage truck drives by you are going to hear it, so be prepared for that.”
We do not hear the garbage truck. We do hear the 29-piece orchestra conducted by Sean Kelly strike the notes of Rossini’s restrained overture and his otherwise colourful score. We hear the mounting chorus of crusaders and peasants and strain at times to hear Count Ory’s (Thorsteinn Arbjornsson) too-slender tenor. We revel in Isolier’s (Elizabeth Pojanowski) silky mezzo-soprano and Countess Adele’s (Sharin Apostolou) crystalline soprano that she occasionally punctuates with penetrating high notes. And then there are the beer bottles that topple over. We hear those too.
LoftOpera’s bar is open before the show and at intermission and serves wine and beer from local Brooklyn breweries. Alcohol sponsors help offset production costs and the drink-whileyou- watch experience aligns seamlessly with the company’s overall credo that traditional operas are too often stiff, unenjoyable and prohibitively expensive. “The way opera has normally been done is more and more unsustainable,” founders Brianna Maury and Daniel Ellis-Ferris write in an online statement. “We’re changing all that by reclaiming opera in our own culture, while still putting the art form and the artistic integrity at the center.”
The company aims to make opera fun and accessible by keeping ticket costs low (US$30) and by performing in a relaxed and unconventional atmosphere. Since launching in 2013, LoftOpera has staged performances of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia in a party space, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in a photo studio and Rossini’a Il Barbiere di Siviglia in a former warehouse. By re-imagining a highbrow art form in an unpretentious setting, the company joins a wave of other opera startups like Floating Opera, Heartbeat Opera, Opera Noire, On Site Opera, Amore Opera and Apotheosis Opera, all of which all aim to bring opera to a wider audience.
What you don’t get at LoftOpera are flawless acoustics. Although opera singers are trained to project their unamplified voices, boxy warehouses are not designed for vocal performance, and since there is no orchestra pit, the players are at the same level as the audience and at times overwhelm the singing voices onstage. Also missing are elaborate set designs and eye-popping costumes - Adele’s class status is suggested by sunglasses and a faux fur cape rather than ostentatious feathered corset and a tower of hair. But the intimate, pared down aesthetic has its perks too. I feel the vibrato in my body, and I’m close enough to see moths fluttering across the stage.
The simplified set design and underwhelming costumes also help LoftOpera balance the books in one of the most financially challenging classical art forms to stage. From Gotham Opera, which recently closed, to New York City Opera, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, to the Metropolitan Opera, which is cutting costs and struggling with low attendance, operas everywhere are floundering.
The New York City Opera, which returned in semi-resurrected form this winter thanks largely to donations from deep-pocketed patrons knows it must court a younger audience if it is to survive. “One of the things we try to do is make the opera going experience different,” Michael Capasso, NYCO’s general director said in a recent interview. “Our venue at the Rose Theater in Columbus Circle really helps us do that. There’s no other theater in the world where you can go and have the dining options, the cocktail options, the shopping options, a five-star hotel in the building.”
This might be great for older, established operagoers, but sleek theaters in high-end malls will surely not be the most effective way to attract a young, bohemian audience. LoftOpera’s un-air-conditioned warehouse deep in Brooklyn is packed to the brim with a crowd of mostly thirty-somethings and there is a buzzing excitement in the air, the sense of seeing opera from the inside. During intermission stagehands move slowly down the aisle carrying a four-poster bed, a prop central to the second act love triangle denouement. Without hesitation, several audience members set down their beers and lend a hand with the set change.
Perhaps Rossini’s Le Comte Ory with its salacious slapstick sense of humor and counts in drag is particularly well suited to LoftOpera’s fresh approach. The company may have a tougher time with Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but without a doubt LoftOpera offers an immediacy and enthusiasm that cannot be found from the established opera giants.
This story appeared in the July 2016 issue of The Peak