Washington National Opera surprises people on Mall with five-minute performances

Soprano Jennifer Waters performed the Libiamo drinking song from Verdi's
Soprano Jennifer Waters performed the Libiamo drinking song from Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Smithsonian Castle on Saturday. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

It was a little after 1 p.m., and many of those sitting outside at the Cafe du Parc restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue NW had no clue why a 6-foot-tall man was walking around dressed like a ghost or why another man, wearing a black jacket and blue jeans, suddenly began drinking from an empty skull.

That's when someone yelled, "Hey, Hamlet!" And the opera began.

Performers with the Washington National Opera's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program staged five-minute impromptu sketches Saturday afternoon of "Hamlet" and the recognizable Libiamo drinking song from Verdi's "La Traviata" at the outdoor restaurant at the Willard Hotel and the gardens of the Smithsonian Castle.

The surprise performances, which drew hundreds of curious tourists and passersby, are part of the opera company's efforts to make the art form more accessible to people who wouldn't know the difference between a bass (the lowest vocal range) and a soprano (the highest), said Michelle Pendoley, a spokeswoman for the opera company. The yet-undefined three-part series is funded by two donors who want opera to be appreciated by a mass audience.

"I recognized it, but I've never been to the opera, so this was great. I was just walking through the gardens and they were there," said Meg Denton, 51, of Providence, R.I., as she sat outside the Smithsonian Castle. "I thought it was performance art, but then they started to sing."

During the surprise performance at the Willard, crowds formed as the singers belted out portions of the French operatic version of "Hamlet." Seated at a table, 10-year-old Francis Bohlke of Cincinnati watched intently as two of the performers passed a skull back and forth; he pulled his dress tie over his eyes in modest disapproval. Moments later, when "La Traviata" began, Francis slowly started bobbing his head.

"I don't know why I liked it, but I did," he said.

Emily Albrink, 28, a soprano who finishes her second and final year in the Young Artist program this month, said she was skeptical about the success of such a stunt (she thought audiences "wouldn't get it"), but her opinion changed after a similar surprise performance at a Whole Foods store in the Baltimore area in late March.

Singers dressed in store-issued aprons suddenly began singing in the produce section, surprising customers, as recounted in a YouTube video.

"Most people think of opera as this stilted, inaccessible, high-art thing that can only be seen after you plunk a few hundred dollars down on a seat at an opera house," Albrink said. "But these type of performances really open it up. People can see that we are young and look like them. We're not all old, fat guys."

There are a few odd, "American Idol"-esque stories out of the group. Consider 36-year-old tenor José Ortega of Chihuahua, Mexico, who worked at the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart for seven years before finding his voice during a chorus elective at law school in Arkansas.

But there's also bound to be a few stereotypes that fit, especially in a program founded by Plácido Domingo, the Spanish tenor most known for his work with José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti in the acclaimed Three Tenors.

The two baritones in the Domingo-Cafritz program who performed Saturday, for example -- Aleksey Bogdanov and Oleksandr Pushniak -- were born in what is now Ukraine and clock in at more than 6 feet tall and 200 pounds.

By the way, the Washington National Opera's production of French composer Ambroise Thomas's "Hamlet" begins Wednesday. Tickets start at $50.

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