Opera-Palooza Makes Arias Seriously Fun

Emcee and mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer stood on the stage at the Green Saturday night, surveying the 3,000 people in front of her, there for New Haven’s inaugural “Opera-Palooza.” She was introducing Katie Weiser, the seventh act of the evening.

But “there’s a problem,” she said.

On cue, Weiser was carried out on onstage by a man in a tuxedo. At first it looked like she was legitimately hurt, like something might have happened backstage.

Then her carrier planted her on her feet, and what the problem was became clearer. As Mentzer explained, Weiser was a mechanical toy, and “sometimes her batteries run down.”

Weiser then launched into a rendition of Jacques Offenbach’s “Les oiseaux dans la charmille,” from Les Contes d"Hoffmann, in which she matched the piece’s vocal acrobatics with an uncanny physical inhabiting of a windup doll, complete with breakdown, restart — and sparks. The crowd began applauding before the song was even over.

It was opera. And it was seriously fun.

“Opera-Palooza” — presented by the City of New Haven and produced by the city’s department of arts, culture, and tourism along with Salt Marsh Opera, Connecticut Alliance for Music, and WOW! Creative Design Group — had the simple but brilliant idea of matching a concert of opera arias with a cornucopia of food. About 3,000 people first ate their hearts out all over the Green, then settled in for a night at the opera.

Brian Slattery PhotoBefore the music, for $10 in advance and $15 the day of, patrons could partake of what had been billed as a “tasting tent,” but in reality was a delicious free-for-all, as several of Greater New Haven’s Italian eateries and bakeries served up enough samples to make a full meal.

Steph Slattery PhotoYour reporter started with (and quickly finished) a slice of fresh tomato pizza from Romeo and Ceasers.

Brian Slattery PhotoLamberti’s slung its sweet Italian sausage with peppers and onions. Calabro’s stand handed out antipasti and ricotta and fruit. Palmieri Foods gave out pasta and sauce. DiSorbo’s Bakery handed out cannoli. Cellar Fine Wines and Peel Liqueur let peopel sample their potently refreshing limoncellos, orangecellos, and other ‘cellos; Thomas Hooker Brewery had beer. Whole G had bread and espresso. Ah-beetz Pizza passed out slices of you-know-what. The absence of the Big Three for an event advertising pizza was noted, but really, did we need any more to eat?

Technically, the ticket to the event doubled as a punch card, so that each vendor could make sure each patron was served only once. But very few of the vendors seemed worried about that. As Renee Fincke from L’Orcio said, while she doled out gnocchi a la vodka, “we’re not checking those off. Come back for seconds.”

Outside the tasting tent were more vendors lining Temple Street with pizza, fried dough, cannoli, and sausage, for those who just wanted a snack, or dessert, or an easy slice. (DiSorbo’s perhaps deserves special mention here for pastry representation both inside and outside the tent.)

At the stage, a spontaneous performance of “That’s Amore” seemed to set the tone for the evening. After a welcoming note from Mayor Toni Harp, David Taylor of Premier Subaru Kia, one of the sponsors from the event, turned his speech into a Dean Martin routine. (Opener: “Let’s hear it for the best pizza in the world.” Interlude: “I’m sweating up here like Tom Jones at Mohegan Sun, so bear with me.” Closer: “I’m here all week. Try the veal.”) Those expecting the rest of the night to suddenly be serious were mistaken, in the best way.

An acclaimed mezzo soprano in her own right, yet with an irrepressible sense of humor (“I always said I wanted to go to Yale. I guess this is the closest I’ll ever get”), Mentzer warmly introduced the 11 singers for the evening — most of then in conservatory and one still in high school — as “future stars.” Before each of them performed their arias, she gave a quick, highly informative, and highly entertaining summary of the story of the opera and, in simple terms, what each singer was, you know, singing about. Maybe this sounds elementary to read about, but at the concert, it was the equivalent of opening the door wide for the audience and inviting them in. It helped set the stage for the singers to do their best. And they did.

Emma Schoetz, a soprano student at Newtown High School and ECA, turned the Green into the central square of an Italian town with her rendition of Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro.” Baritone Steve Valenzuelo’s take on Mozart’s “Non piu andrai” from Le nozze di Figaro had audience members weaving cries of “Yeah, Stevie!” amid the chorus of “Bravo!” Soprano Benedetta Cordaro delivered Gaetano Donizetti’s “Quel guardo il cavaliere” from Don Pasquale with an infectious sense of humor on par with her impeccable technique. Erick Sanchez, Jarari Sridhar, Jennifer Caraluzzi, Charles Widmer, Karalina Wojteczko, and particularly Dean Murphy, who closed the show, delivered their numbers with an emotional honesty and directness that showed why opera has persisted for so long as an art form. Their voices filled the entire space of the Green. They filled the audience’s ears. The cumulative effect was nearly overwhelming. With each aria, the audience seemed to applaud louder, and sooner — as mentioned above, before the music even stopped — and lingered longer and longer.

Maybe a Very Serious opera fan would look a little askance at the program, which was essentially a roster of some of opera’s greatest hits. But that selection also meant that every piece was, unapologetically, a really great piece of music.

What made the night come together in the end was the joy that saturated nearly every minute of it. Every singer beamed at the end of every song, genuinely and generously. The audience, in turn, poured its gratitude onto the stage after every performance.

Whether it was the uncannily perfect weather, or the free admission, or the promise of food, Opera-Palooza cracked some sort of code in the classical world by drawing people of all ages to the Green on Saturday night. The strength of the performances, and the beauty of the music, kept them there to the end, when Mentzer herself performed Georges Bizet’s “Habanera” from Carmen. Yes, it was that song, a song everyone knows, even when they don’t know where it’s from. But Mentzer and her gorgeous voice gave it new sultry and languid life, reminding you why the song is immortal in the first place.

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