Lightning creased the night sky and rain fell in windswept torrents as star-crossed lovers gasped for breath, paid precious coins for fake love potions and awaited the fateful call of a rooftop executioner.
And that was just the first act.
It was pop-up opera night at Durham's Alley Twenty Six, where a crowd of casually dressed cocktail aficionados gathered last Wednesday for a free evening of song featuring North Carolina Opera company tenor Jason Karn and soprano Andrea Edith Moore—the June bride of bar owner Shannon Healy. They were accompanied on keyboards by Kate Lewis, with occasional percussive support from the sound of glass and ice snapping inside metal cocktail shakers.
This was the second such gathering at Alley Twenty Six, which features jazz on Monday and Friday nights in the storefront nook that usually contains a conversation-friendly pair of sofas. The room's elegant wood trim warms the naturally bright acoustics, making it a welcome setting for the big voices that filled it.
The two 40-minute sets were bookended by duets, starting with the rousing "Brindisi" from La Traviata, an exuberant drinking song that's a staple for tenors, and ending with the passionate and full-throated "O Soave Fanciulla" from Puccini's La Boheme.
"It is a bit like having your lover scream in your ear," Moore admitted later as the Chapel Hill native hugged fans and friends. "I love these opportunities to make opera more accessible. Opera has a bit of a stigma, but I have found that when people hear it up close, they enjoy it."
Up close is an understatement. These POPera events place fans closer than front row seats and allow the charismatic performers ample room to enjoy themselves. While singing "La Donna e Mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto, Karn flashed deep dimples as he cozied up to a tableful of women. He then pretended to time himself on a long-held note while casting a bored gaze at his watch.
While elaborate costumes are part and parcel of the opera house experience, Moore floated through the bar in a summery gown and Karn donned a dark jacket over blue jeans. They performed several arias that even avowed opera haters of a certain age could not have resisted, having grown up with versions comically repurposed by Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.
Karn was particularly commanding on the vocal range of "E Lucevan le Stelle" from Puccini's Tosca. Even singer Al Jolson could not resist its familiar refrain—and paid the price when Puccini successfully sued him for stealing the melody for the 1921 pop hit Avalon. It later became a jazz standard for the Benny Goodman Quartet.
Moore departed from the traditional repertoire with a few Broadway classics, including a lush and soulful "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy & Bess and an exuberant "I Could Have Danced All Night" from My Fair Lady. She also delivered the darkly lyrical "The Song of Black Max," a William Bolcom cabaret piece that made at least one listener imagine the North Carolina Opera staging Weill-Brecht's The Threepenny Opera.
"Oh, I love the mezzo's voice," sighed Barbara Norton of Durham. "It's like a Starbucks venti: big, sweet and creamy. She's terrific."
A young couple that arrived early to snag prime seats at the bar were equally enthralled. "I'm very happy to be here on my day off," said Rob Mariani of Durham, an Alley Twenty Six bartender who was enjoying the evening with his wife, Brooke. "We missed the first one but we were not going to miss this."
Eric Mitchko, general manager of the North Carolina Opera, is delighted about these comments.
"Our goal is for people to experience opera in a fun, casual setting, and to see how exciting it is," Mitchko said. "People tend to think it's stuffy and high falutin', but our job is to entertain."
Though he doesn't need a special invitation to hear his wife sing, Shannon Healy—who was the singer in a rock band before his creative interests shifted to craft cocktails—intends to host future POPera events at Alley Twenty Six.
"Look around; everybody loves this," he said, taking in the view of a jovial crowd that was in no hurry to leave after the show. "Who would have believed so many people would come out to hear opera on a stormy weeknight in July?"
Correction: Andrea Edith Moore is a soprano (not mezzo-soprano).
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tenors and tequila."