In Brooklyn, Opera Makes Its Appeal to an Edgier Audience

LoftOpera proves beer and Puccini are the recipe for a raucous night out.
March 17, 2016, 6:20pm
Eleni Calenos. Photograph by Robert Altman

When crowds flock to a Bushwick warehouse, odds are it's for techno, not Handel. But LoftOpera, a visionary young opera company, is packing audiences into an abandoned bus depot off the Jefferson Stop to swill Brooklyn Lager throughout a world-class production of Puccini’s Tosca. Now in its fourth season, LoftOpera made a name for itself by scrapping the pomp and circumstance traditionally associated with the artform in favor of cheap tickets, solid musicianship, and plentiful booze in the wilds of industrial Brooklyn. It's a formula that has earned the company a devoted following of die-hard aficionados and opera newbies alike.

Advertisement

“We choose venues that aren’t too hard to find, but there’s always an element of, ‘Am I going to get mugged?’” Brianna Maury, LoftOpera’s general manager, tells The Creators Project. “You start the whole night on an adventure. And then you come in, and it’s dark, and there’s loud music playing, so immediately the experience is totally unexpected.”

The company of Tosca. Photograph by Robert Altman

Behavior that is verboten at the Metropolitan Opera is par for the course at LoftOpera. Beer bottles spill mid-aria, and it is okay for audience members to shun sub-par seats to sit on the concrete warehouse floor. But in stripping away the artifice, LoftOpera lets performances shine. Tosca features a 32-piece orchestra and a cast of classically-trained rising stars in the opera community. Though the environment is edgy, the music is pristine. LoftOpera is less concerned with opera’s cool factor and more invested in making quality classical music for the masses.

“Something we said from the beginning is we’re not trying to be avant-garde opera, we’re populist opera. And populist opera means that we tell the story in a way that is honest and easy to understand,” Maury says. “We didn’t really realize how accessible opera was until we started making it. The stories are so accessible, so when you strip away all the bullshit traditions, then it actually becomes really fun.”

Eleni Calenos and Gustavo Feulien. Photograph by Robert Altman

Maury, along with her co-founders Daniel Ellis-Ferris and Dean Buck, runs LoftOpera less like an arts collective and more like a startup. The company leverages Weebly for web hosting, Square for transactions, JustWorks for HR, and rents space at WeWork. But where LoftOpera skimps on expensive venues and elaborate sets, it invests in artists, paying everyone a competitive rate and providing paid opportunities for performers when lucrative gigs are rare.

In addition to financial support, LoftOpera nurtures talented artists on their way up but outside the opera establishment. It casts young performers in meaty roles they may not get to tackle otherwise and puts the audience in close physical proximity with singers and orchestra members. The resulting power and noise is incredible and something LoftOpera believes everyone deserves to witness.

Joseph Beutel. Photograph by Robert Altman

“Opera tells timeless stories. It tells stories about the human condition, stories about struggle. Art is supposed to reveal something new about the human condition, and opera does that in spades,” Maury says. “I think the appetite for art today is as strong as it has ever been, so if we can share really beautiful music with people, it’s our duty, and we love doing it.”

LoftOpera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca runs March 17, 18, and 19, and tickets are $30.

Related:

"Hyper-Opera" Programs the Drama of Performance Online

Karen O in Stop the Virgens

The Polygamy Opera Hits Vancouver