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Old school artform meets new school audience with Opera on Tap

San Francisco Opera on Tap co-founder Indre Viskontas organizes the opera performances at Café Royale.
Erica Mu
San Francisco Opera on Tap co-founder Indre Viskontas organizes the opera performances at Café Royale.

Long before Beyonce decided to redefine “diva” for pop culture, the term was associated with high culture. Nevertheless, divas of then and now have maintained a reputation, as late comedian Anna Russell explains, “…you would need to be a glorious-voiced, independently wealthy, sexy, politically motivated, backstabbing bitch.”

Russell was actually talking about opera singers, and what it takes to become one. And she has a point: The path to the opera stage can be filled with challenges. But it can also be fun.

For some San Franciscans, it can even include performing in some unexpected venues.

On a typical Wednesday afternoon at the Presidio YMCA, swimmers paddle their way back and forth across the pool – a fairly normal scene. But then… The lifeguard starts singing.

Jefferson Taylor of San Francisco is a teacher, lifeguard, and swim instructor at the Presidio Y. He’s also an operatic baritone.

“When it’s really quiet and you don’t hear a lot of splashing, I’ll go for a good hour just singing what I want, ‘cause you get bored!” Taylor explains.

Taylor is a self-described “baby” in the opera world, which he says, means “working the job that you need to support the job that doesn’t pay anything yet.”

Soprano Shawnette Sulker, also of San Francisco, is well into her career, but she’s also seen her fair share of odd jobs.

For Taylor, Sulker, and other opera hopefuls, the winter months mean more opportunities to sing at churches and holiday performances. It also means audition season: flights to New York and singing in front of judges.

“Usually it’s one to three people, and they usually are behind a table, and they have your materials, and they’re often writing things and you don’t know what they’re writing, or they’re looking off into space, or they’re looking down, or they’re looking straight at you,” Sulker explains.

It’s a competitive process, and when part of your livelihood depends on the outcome of auditions, it can become pretty anxiety-inducing.

“The last ten years have been really turbulent in our economy, and it seems to me, and to a lot of people, that the middle class is the one that’s really getting lost in the shuffle. So I think the same thing is happening in the classical music world,” says fellow San Francisco resident and opera singer Indre Viskontas.

In response, Viskontas is helping singers like Taylor and Sulker – and herself – find a way to the main stage.

“We’re starting to take back the power of reaching an audience ourselves because we just get tired of having the decision-making being really tied into these huge companies, and we want to just be able to do our art without having to get permission from someone on a granting panel,” she explains.

A little bit on how the opera industry works: Opera houses are ranked by Opera America based on their budgets. You’ve got your C-houses (West Edge Opera in Berkeley), your B-houses (San Jose Opera), and your A-Houses (San Francisco Opera). To get to the top, you need talent, and luck.

But what Viskontas and her collaborator Katy Gerber are doing is cutting out the house, and replacing it with a bar – the kind with barstools and booze. Viskontas’ project is called Opera on Tap.

Opera on Tap takes place once a month at Café Royale in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. At one performance brought Sulker performed from the opera “La Boheme.” “Performed” might be an understatement: Sulker was walking around the bar, sitting on men’s laps, flirting – all the things that you would never expect from an opera singer at the Met.

And for many audience members, that’s just what they’re looking for. Opera on Tap is fun, and the price – free – beats the $30 nosebleed tickets for the big name opera house down the street.

Even the performers enjoy letting down their hair. Sulker explains, “It’s more intimate in some ways. And you really do see the expressions on peoples’ faces. You get to see if they’re enjoying it, if they’re following with you. So I think the communication gulf is much, much smaller ‘cause it’s literally right there next to you.”

There isn’t really a stage at Café Royale. No sets, no orchestra. For Taylor, the singing lifeguard, the Opera on Tap audience is a little less demanding. “What I realized is that not a lot of people had expectations. Their only expectation was: we want to be entertained,” he says.

The point of Opera on Tap is not to put on a production; it’s to create opportunities, not just for curious audience members, but for the singers themselves.

“it’s kind of a mystery as to how people make it – become stars in the opera world …

Nowadays a lot of companies have young artists’ programs and so the path seems a little bit more obvious,” says Viskontas.

A young artists program is basically a paid internship to train and understudy with an opera house. But there are few spots in these programs, which means everyone else has to figure out another way into the industry. And what Opera on Tap is meant to do – or at least what Viskontas hopes it will do – is provide another set of dots that connect to the main stage.

No one’s been whisked away to La Scala yet – but Jefferson Taylor has gotten a few singing gigs after an audience member saw him perform at Café Royale. And that’s just what most singers want: to keep singing.

It’s a difficult career path to choose, but Opera on Tap co-founder Indre Viskontas wouldn’t have it any other way. “I actually tried really hard not to have a career in opera

because I knew that the road to being an opera singer was fraught with a lot of heartache. But it just never went away, and there was just still nothing that I’d rather do than that. And so, when you love something like that so much, you either have to deny it in some way or you just have to accept it and keep doing it,” she says.

Just like its stories, the opera world is filled with trial and tribulation, triumph and disappointment. Viskontas hopes that by changing the scenery, Opera on Tap can open many doors: to a community of fellow aspiring singers, to the hearts of a new audience, and, just maybe, to the stage at an A-house.

This story originally aired on December 7, 2011.

Erica Mu is a reporter and producer for the "Hear Here: A Pop-Up Radio Project" in conjunction with KALW and the Association of Independents in Radio. Mu has reported on the serious side of health and the quirky side of arts, and she's also helped KALW pioneer the digital frontier as the news team’s web strategist and editor. Mu has also organized and directed KALW’s live storytelling events.