Opera for the Common Man

By Beacon Staff

In Missoula, a group of music enthusiasts have fomented an unexpected, but successful, marriage: Pabst Blue Ribbon and opera. Now, the odd couple is making its way north.

“When we were thinking about starting this company we started talking to people to find out their impressions of opera,” Gina Lapka, executive director of the Montana Lyric Opera Co., said. “We heard the typical stereotypes: stuffy, long and expensive, boring, and everything’s in a foreign language.”

If opera was to gain a foothold in western Montana, MLO’s organizers decided, first and foremost, they needed to break down any sense of pretense surrounding the new company. Opera on Draft was born.

Unapologetically stolen from a popular series in New York, the event’s concept is to take some of the most beautiful opera music ever written and put it in an irreverent, relaxed, come-as-you-are environment. Add PBR beer as a sponsor, and the event’s about as unassuming as opera could be.

“A big part of what this company is about is proving to people that this is accessible, beautiful music that fits into any environment,” Lapka said. “The earliest public opera houses were casinos and beer halls, so we’re just taking this music back to its roots.”

The first two Opera on Draft events, which took place in the spring and autumn of 2008, were sold-out, standing-room-only affairs. That success inspired the professional opera company to expand the program north.

On Tuesday, April 28, Opera on Draft will visit the Craggy Range Bar and Grill in downtown Whitefish at 7 p.m. The program will repeat at the Badlander in Missoula the next day at 6 p.m. Admission is $5; both events are 18 and over.

The shows will feature singers from around the Flathead area as well as Missoula, performing music from some of the most famous operas in history.

“It’s exciting to bring this here, where there’s not necessarily a lot of chances to perform or expose people to this type of music,” Kris Eveland, a teacher at North Valley Music School in Whitefish and one of the show’s performers, said, adding that several of her students where thrilled by Glacier Symphony’s performance of Carmen last year.

“They were so excited about the opera in general – learning the stories, the costumes and big sounds,” Eveland said.

And those who attend the show – even the ones who profess to know little to nothing about opera – may be surprised how many songs they recognize. “They’ll say, ‘I’ve heard this before,’” Tonja King, another local music teacher performing at the event, said. “Commercials, shows, movies: It’s everywhere in culture.”

Despite being an upstart amidst an economic environment that’s been rough on several nonprofit groups, MLO has continued to grow.

In December, the group put on its first-ever show, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” With a paid cast of singers and musicians and an elaborate set, the production ran for six shows over the weekend preceding Christmas.

MLO performers also put on educational youth productions in area schools, including a version of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” adapted to mimic the movie “Twilight,” that will tour several Flathead schools in early May.

This summer, the company will present its first annual Summer Opera Festival, featuring Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto” (July 30 and Aug. 1 at the University Theatre in Missoula) and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (Aug. 14 & 16, at the Hamilton Performing Arts Center).

And Opera on Draft will remain as the group’s popular mainstay, putting young and old, opera enthusiasts and detractors on neighboring bar stools.

“The great part of this performance series is that half of the audience is people who knew every aria well enough to hum along,” Lapka said, “while the other half either thought they hated, or had never heard, classical singing before.”

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