It's getting hot in a practice room at Peabody Institute—and loud. There are 12 people packed against the walls, with a pianist sweating over the keys as six opera singers belt away, their melodic lines weaving in and out of each other. Blair Skinner, a Ph.D. student in orchestral conducting, stands next to the piano and conducts the singers, mouthing along certain lines and motioning for them to crescendo or decrescendo.
When the musical excerpt they're rehearsing ends, the singers fan at their faces and shuffle around to open the door to get some air. Belinda Lau wonders aloud if she can find a fan for the room, and one of the singers curses the security guard that forced them to retreat to such a small space—they had been in a lounge earlier, but the guard shooed them out. But that's just one of the challenges of putting together an opera on a nonexistent budget, as Operation: Opera is doing with its production, "Mozart Flipped," which it will perform on Friday at MICA's Brown Center as part of Artscape.
Lau, a director and singer in the group (full disclosure: I once saw a Ke$ha concert with her), is the first to admit that Operation: Opera, which sports the tagline "bringing traditional opera to nontraditional spaces," is "a very selfish enterprise."
"The whole reason why I started this group was really to create performing opportunities for me and my friends," she says. "There are so many talented musicians that have graduated from Peabody, and then you're kind of thrown into this real world . . . You just go to auditions and you hope you get auditions and you hope you get something and you don't, then you're just working shit jobs."
But beyond just creating performance opportunities, Lau said she hoped performing opera outside of the concert hall would draw in the rest of the Baltimore arts community. "I had so many people in the DIY scene and I thought, they all know that I sing opera, they've never heard me sing opera," she says. "I wanted to bridge that gap of the whole music Baltimore music scene and the classical conservatory—both see each other as this whole foreign group, and if you talk to us, we're just normal people. We're not like these weird, stuck-up divas."
In order to bridge the gap between the classical world and the rest of Baltimore, Operation: Opera has chosen a theme that everyone in the audience can relate to: love and lust, with plenty of sex. "Opera is not stuffy," Lau says. "There's a lot of sex in opera. And it's funny because when people hear Mozart they think, 'oh, that's so quaint.' He was a nasty man."
For "Mozart Flipped," the group selected scenes from four of Mozart's operas—"Così fan tutte," "Don Giovanni," "The Magic Flute," and "Marriage of Figaro"—that best exemplify that nastiness. Lau's co-director, Julia Turnbull, says that they're "kind of taking [the scenes] out of context of the opera so that we can bend, slightly, the plots to make the arias or the numbers go together," so no opera knowledge is required to follow along.
So far, the group of friends has been getting positive feedback. Skinner says that in Operation: Opera's first performance in March—they performed "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Windup Space—"the whole bar was packed all night." Delaney Rosen, a mezzo-soprano performing in "Mozart Flipped," adds, "People were coming into our dressing room like, 'I've never seen an opera before and this was great!'"
But regardless of the feedback that Operation: Opera gets at Artscape, as Lau told the crowd of singers in that hot performance room at the end of their rehearsal, "The most important thing is for us to have fun, you know? We're all friends here. We're all gonna rock it."
Operation Opera performs "Mozart Flipped" on Friday, July 18 at MICA's Brown Center as part of Artscape.