On a recent Wednesday night, while the rest of the family was upstairs reading bedtime stories, I snuck out of the house and met my friend who was waiting in her parked car on the corner. We drove to Ballard, where a meet-up of over a hundred motorcycle riders restored some of the neighborhood’s old, salty character. Drifting uncertainly through a sea of leather-clad riders and parked bikes, we found the warehouse with the letter H painted on the side.
“I think that’s it. Doesn’t the name of the bar start with H?”
“Yes, this is it. See, there’s a sign.”
Next to the door of the warehouse was a white homemade sandwich board. Stenciled in black block letters was the word, “Opera.”
Inside, the first person I saw was a man with a bemused expression on his face, a beer in one hand and a motorcycle helmet in the other. Behind him, a petite woman in denim sang, “Yes, I’m a little bit tii-ipsy!” She leaned on the glass front of the sandwich case and stage whispered, “Shh, don’t tell,” before taking a bow. We had found the right place; it was the May performance of Seattle Opera on Tap at Hilliard’s brewpub.
From the Opera on Tap website:
More often than not, opera is perceived in this country to be elitist, pretentious, stuffy and boring. Going to the opera means dressing up, shelling out a lot of money, putting on an air of sophistication and most importantly, not making any noise whatsoever, unless it’s the appropriate time to applaud the diva.
Dedicated to the dual mission of debunking this often-accurate perception of opera and providing emerging opera performers with more frequent opportunities to perform in front of an audience, Opera on Tap performs in pubs and dive bars all over the city. They have no stage, no sets, and no costumes. Instead of full operas, they only perform the arias.
On this night, the theme was intoxication. Even that was loose; one of the arias performed was the Poison Aria from Romeo and Juliet; in another, the singer was merely sleepwalking. The performers walked around the venue among the audience members and bar patrons, which made it easier to hear them over the roar of motorcycles outside and the chatter of conversation in the bar.
Some people were there for the opera. A man nearby took off his motorcycle jacket to reveal white tie underneath. Others downed burgers with little interest in the performance, even as a duet ended in an embrace between the tables. Most people enjoyed their drinks and conversations, handing their empties to the bartender wearing a Minor Threat t-shirt, and occasionally noticing the music, just as they normally would when a band sets up shop between the brewer’s tanks and the forklift midweek.
The final number was one of those rousing Act Three choruses so many operas use to get everyone out on stage in time for the final bows. I usually find them boring. But they work much better when you’ve got a beer in hand. Everyone in the bar stopped to applaud, just in time for the passing of the box to help pay for the pianist.
Opera on Tap is no substitute for the full theatrical experience of an opera house performance. Seattle Opera is one of the best in the country, and they’ve gone to great lengths to make it more affordable. But let’s face it, traditional opera is a high stakes proposition. For most people, season tickets are a major commitment. Opera companies can seldom afford the risk of putting on an unfamiliar production, so a lot of great operas are rarely performed.
Opera on Tap gives casual fans, impoverished devotees, and the uninitiated a pay-what-you-can opera fix. It gives singers a chance to perform advanced roles and less common pieces in a low pressure environment. And it’s a lot of fun for everyone involved. The opera world has lots of room for an organization like this and Wednesday night needs Opera on Tap.