Highbrow in the pub

. May 16, 2012.

On the first Tuesday of every month you can hear opera at the Sidetrack Bar/Frenchie’s in Ypsilanti. Yup, that’s what I said—opera—in a bar. Highbrow meets Lowenbrau. Frenchie’s is not a place in which you’d usually expect to hear opera. No gilded vaulted ceilings, no plush seats, no black tied, evening dressed ushers and patrons. Instead, tables and chairs, bar stools, a pressed tin ceiling, terrific burgers and beer, and waiters and waitresses sporting black T shirts emblazoned with the Ben Franklin quote, “Beer is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Opera On Tap began bringing opera out into more accessible venues in New York City in 2005 and has since spread to a dozen cities; the usual suspects, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, but, since 2009, also to Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti. Multi instrumentalist and singer, Ko Kaiden, who has played oboe and a number of other instruments professionally in his native Japan, throughout the US, and internationally, began singing with OOT in NYC in 2006 and started the local chapter after he moved here three years ago.

On OOT nights Frenchie’s TV screens are black and the place is packed. If you don’t make reservations you’ll be lucky to snag a seat at the bar. Kaiden and several other singers perform selections from familiar and less well-known operas by Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart, and Gounod, Tchaikovsky and Bernstein. All delivered with impeccable technique—no dumbing down—and with the power and beauty of tone that is opera’s hallmark. Patrons hush to pin drop levels as soon as pianist Jean Schneider plays the opening notes on an electric keyboard. Kaiden and the other singers don’t use—or need—any amplification. Many in the audience are knowledgeable, greeting favorite arias with appreciative murmurs, and everyone joins in the loud applause after each selection. Occasionally they even join in. Recently, when Kaiden sang the famous Nessun dorma aria from Puccini’s Turandot, he conducted the crowd and many hummed along on the lush orchestral fills between the vocal lines.

After intermission it’s lighter fare; Gilbert and Sullivan, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Kaiden dresses informally—though the women singers don’t hold back on the finery—and there are often moments of comedy in the introductions, or when Kaiden dons the iconic horned headpiece from Die Walküre, (or the Hagar the Horrible Viking helmet, if you will). Even the trains that rumble and whistle on the nearby tracks that inspired the Sidetrack’s name, seem to pass by mostly between, rather than during the pieces.

OOT’s next show is on Tuesday, February 7th at 8:30 PM. With the proximity of Valentine’s Day, expect love flavored arias and songs in a program entitled, “Love is all…I need.” 

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