Would you go to the opera if you knew it was being performed at a bar?
That was the central questioning floating around in the mind of Anne Hiatt in 2005 as she hung out at Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, a locale in Brooklyn one night. She was watching a voice student perform and from talking with the bartender, she got her own night to perform.
And that is how Opera on Tap (OOT) was born.
“The surprising aspect of that was that it was immediately successful,” exclaimed Hiatt during a conversation with OperaWire. “Friends of friends came and we had a nice crowd in the back, but people were really responding to the whole scene of experiencing opera in a casual environment, having an up-close intimate experience, and also one where you weren’t pressured to behave a certain way.”
The audience members weren’t the only ones who took to this idea. “In addition to that, the singers loved it too because it’s an unusual opportunity to have a low-pressure operatic performance,” explained Hiatt.
After that night the group managed a monthly gig and two years later, OOT had some press coverage with even more showcases across the city, ultimately leading the founders to make Opera on Tap an official non-profit company. Today Hiatt is its Founder and Executive director.
And while the company was thrilled with its success in New York, Hiatt and company had bigger aspirations.
“We put it out there that we were interested in expanding and New Orleans Opera actually reached out and said, ‘We want to start a chapter here,’ and that was in 2007, it’s still going, which is great. And since then we have expanded to 19 cities.”
By word of mouth within the singer community, not only has the company grown throughout the United States, but it has also expanded internationally within the past two years. “I think people sort of felt empowered by the idea of putting your own shows together and taking that creative control.”
Opera At the Bar
While performing at a bar comes with its major benefits, Hiatt knows full well that it brings about numerous obstacles.
“There’s not a lot of control in terms of putting on shows, so you have to learn to be pretty ‘go with the flow,’ be as prepared as you can be but also flexible,” she noted.
Unlike in a theater, the issue of not being able to control outside noises, like louder people in the audience or more music being played in other parts of the venue happens from time to time.
But on the bright side of things, “one of the great things about working with the venues we do work with is that we really focus on venues that also promote music outside of classical music, so there’s really the opportunity of cross-pollinating audiences there.”
Most of the venues also promote the performances locally, allowing more audiences to experience opera in a non-traditional location.
“You get to showcase a different part of opera when you’re in that intimate space with your audience. I think that’s really special about the show, people really seem to love the performers in much more of a real kind of way, which is good for the singers too.”
The company has moved toward expanding its venues, including its standard resident bar shows, under its New Brew program where OOT performs once a month in a bar.
OOT is also taking part in “Make Music New York” this summer, where the organization will perform in a garden along Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. “We’ve created some nice partnerships with some of the local business improvement districts here so we often get hired to do street performances along merchant strips.”
Opera On the Playground
But the company is not only looking to just perform in fun venues. OOT is also on a mission to expand opera’s reach as a whole, creating and developing new opportunities in unexpected places.
“We’re on tap in many different ways.”
Starting two years ago, Opera On Tap’s: Playground Opera Program, the company’s in-school education program, opened up the chance to work on and perform in a full opera production to third-grade students at P.S. 129.
“The truth is, we’re focusing on schools that have very little resources for cultural activity,” Hiatt noted. “We transform third-grade classes into production teams so that they learn different aspects of opera from production to the culmination of the performance.”
The children perform alongside professionals with OOT’s own orchestra on their schoolyard, where their family and friends can join them to see the finished product. “We are doing this on their school-yard so they kind of get the sense that anything is possible.
“What’s happening is we’re becoming a fabric of the school community because the teachers love it, the principle loves it, everybody’s working together and there’s this real profound sense of community through that program and that’s what’s so special about it.”
Next year the company hopes to expand the program to one more school, with the idea that the program will be in six schools within five years.
Opera in VR
Additionally, the company has started experimenting with how people can experience opera. OOT’s latest initiative is to embrace technology with “The Parksville Murders,” an opera in virtual reality. Right now the company is working on a distribution agreement and soon this slasher horror opera will debut most likely as one of a kind.
The idea began one night as Hiatt and her longtime friend and co-worker Kamala Sankaram sat down with another friend of theirs Cari Ann Shim Sham (who ended up directing the film), to discuss the potential of doing a slasher horror opera. That’s when they came up with the idea to do it in VR.
Not knowing much about VR at the time, Hiatt teamed up with Sankaram, Shim Sham and some NYU students that helped them do some test shooting and storytelling using the still nascent technology. All the while writer Jerre Dye started to write a script for the opera. OOT worked with the production company, Light Sail Virtual Reality, for the project.
With VR companies craving new content, this seemed like the perfect time for OOT to get in there and start this project. “Opera is actually perfect for VR because it’s already telling stories in the abstract, not just linear,” said Hiatt.
With a grant from Opera America, the team was able to bring this idea to life. It was first shown in January at Opera America and soon it will debut in full at the NYC Indie Film Festival on May 6, 2017.
“It’s sort of a hybrid of film and opera. Certainly, how it’s distributed, it’s more of a film, which has been sort of a learning curve.”
After just completing all of the company’s trademarking in Western Europe, OOT is looking to expand even more.
“As a company, we’ve kind of gotten the expansion thing down, in terms of how to launch a chapter successfully if you have the right people on the ground and you’re willing to put in the work.”
Back in the states, the most recent chapter to officially open was in Nashville. The company also has a developing program opening in Pittsburgh soon. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City’s chapter just had its first show opening this week.
“Our goal with our other programming is to replicate it eventually across the country, beginning with Playground. We have a couple of chapters interested but we are just at that stage in development,” Hiatt concluded. “It’s an interesting time to be in opera. I think when you think creatively and outside the box, it’s a good place to be right now.”