Prior to last Saturday at 8 p.m., I was an opera virgin.
Though I’m probably one of the biggest musical theater nerds you’ll ever meet, my knowledge and experience with opera, the most high-cultured and celebrated of all the musical art forms, was limited to clips of The Three Tenors on YouTube and that part in Pretty Woman where Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to see “La Traviata” (and she can’t get those weird binoculars to work, remember?).
I’ll admit I’ve always been apprehensive of opera. The music, while undeniably masterful, is not easy to relate to. It’s usually sung in another language, and you certainly can’t recreate it in the shower. Opera has always seemed, well, too old-fashioned and high class for a young person like me to get excited about.
However, I am utterly devoted to musical theater and on those grounds my disdain for opera is admittedly hypocritical, so I grabbed my sister and went to see “Rising Stars of Opera” at the Mondavi Center.
The concert featured two members of the San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship Program, which provides training and prominent roles for a select group of highly gifted young opera singers. Soprano Karen Slack and tenor David Lomeli were accompanied before the intermission by pianist Mark Morash, and in the second half of the concert by the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra.
Slack sang first, and a more radiant female performer I have yet to see. Singing two short pieces by Strauss, her face was full of emotion. Even without a microphone, her pitch-perfect voice carried throughout the cavernous hall and I’m sure her bright smile could be seen all the way in the top row.
Lomeli came on stage next. In a sweet Mexican accent, he began to speak to the audience, explaining that he wanted to describe what his songs were about before he sang, because, he said, “I know Spanish is not very popular in California.” The audience laughed appreciatively. “The first song sounds fancy, but it’s really about a girl from the bar,” he said.
The song may have been about a harlot, but Lomeli’s voice was beautiful and refined. His voice was more powerful than Slack’s and his applause was noticeably more enthusiastic.
Following the intermission, Slack and Lomeli returned to sing with the Symphony Orchestra. In hands-down the best part of the night, they performed a scene from La Boheme, aka the opera that Rent is based on, with Slack singing Mimi’s part and Lomeli as Rodolfo. For those who have seen Rent, it was the part in which Mimi goes to Roger’s flat with her candle burned out.
Lomeli sat down in a chair to begin the scene, holding – I’m not even kidding – an iPad as a prop. “For the theatrics,” he said, smiling playfully and waving his hand briskly as if to officially begin the scene. The audience burst out laughing as he casually thumbed the iPad like a book.
Not to be outdone, Slack entered carrying a cell phone instead of a candle, and later in the scene Lomeli offered her a plastic water bottle to drink. Who says opera is old-fashioned?
Thanks to the charisma of the two singers and the mastery of both the pianist and the Symphony Orchestra as accompanists, the evening was a resounding success. Opera wasn’t snooty or totally foreign as I’d feared; rather, it was simply beautiful music, and no matter how different it was than what I normally listen to, great music is great music. I walked out of the theater with a newfound appreciation for opera and even a vague idea that maybe I’d like to see La Boheme in its entirety one day.
It’d have to use an iPad as a prop, though – I’m still a 21st-century girl.