The Colorado chapter of Opera on Tap, the twenty-city international group promoting opera as a living art form, is headed to the Broomfield Auditorium for a live stream of its latest offering, See/Hear: Illuminated Stories in Song, on Sunday, December 13. Five singers will perform story-based songs accompanied by video art from around the country.
The local branch was launched by Eve Orenstein and Julie Campbell in 2011 with hopes of creating a relaxed environment for fellow opera enthusiasts to gather and sing.
“I went to grad school with the founders of Opera on Tap in New York and started singing with them soon after they first started,” Orenstein recalls. “It was my favorite performance experience, and I just loved the freedom to experiment and [the] comradery between singers. I had been talking to them about starting a chapter in Colorado for some time, and when I let them know I was ready to start, they connected me with Julie.”
“After singing for Opera on Tap Chicago and moving back home [to Colorado] for graduate school, I knew we needed something like Opera on Tap here,” Campbell says. “I knew we had the singers, but I wasn’t sure about the interest." So she connected with Orenstein, and "the rest, as they say, is history.”
Ten years later, the group has held numerous events including the Mini Festival of Mini Operas in Lafayette in February 2017 and productions of Suor Angelica and Der Freischutz. After COVID hit, Opera on Tap started the monthly series Love in the Time of COVID-19: An Apocalypse Cabaret on Facebook, aiming to inspire hope during these difficult times.
Orenstein wanted See/Hear to be a large-scale performance while still following COVID-19 regulations.
“We came up with the concept of pairing video artists with song cycles to create something that would be collaborative and also safe for singers and audience members,” Orenstein explains. "The videos will bring the music to life.”
The singers include Nnamdi Nwankwo, Luisa Marie Rodriguez, Jerome Sibulo, Asha Romeo, and Julie Campbell; Alaina de Bellevue plays piano. The video artists include Cai, Corwin Evans, Annanya George, and David Fodel. The group picked twelve song cycles, and the singers chose the top four they wanted to sing.
One of the four song cycles is Four Works for Guitar and Voice with music by Ernesto Cordero and lyrics by Juan Ramon Jimenez, Luis Llorens Torres, and Nimia Vicens. The work speaks to Cordero’s Puerto Rican identity. Rodriguez resonates with this cycle because her father’s family lives in Puerto Rico.
“This music is gorgeous,” Rodriguez says. “I’ve made it a personal mission in the last year to bring to light more unknown works by Puerto Rican composers. I am really hoping that listeners can connect with this music in the way that I have, because it definitely doesn’t get enough play.”
Rodriguez’s dad was a Marine, and she was born in Honolulu and grew up in Puerto Rico and later Tennessee, where her mother's family lives. Rodriguez came to Colorado to get her master’s in music at the University of Colorado Boulder. Outside of Opera on Tap, she’s an office administrator for Atonement Lutheran Church in Boulder.
“One event that stands out is a funeral I sang for in November 2019,” Rodriguez remembers. “I sang 'The Lord’s Prayer' by Albert Hay Malotte. This was a particularly difficult funeral for me to sing because this person passed unexpectedly in his mid-'50s and was a beloved member of the Boulder and Louisville communities as well as his church congregation.
“In a moment of intense grief, I was able to provide comfort and the release of tears for many who loved this person,” Rodriguez continues. “This is the mysterious magical thing that music can do for us sometimes — in giving us an outlet when words just aren’t enough.”
Nwankwo, a CU Boulder graduate student in voice performance and pedagogy, will sing Mortal Storm, a cycle composed by Robert Owens who based the five songs on Langston Hughes’s poetry.
“I love how dramatic [this cycle] is,” Nwankwo says. “The songs that speak the most to this are "House in Taos" and "Genius Child."
Originally from Houston, Texas, he pursued singing after his high school choir director encouraged him and ended up loving it so much that he pursued music and theater in college. He was a member of the Opera on Tap Houston chapter and wanted to stay with the organization when he came to Colorado.
“I just love the creative ways Opera on Tap brings classical music to people in places they wouldn’t otherwise hear it,” Nwankwo says. “I have always loved the way Opera on Tap can show people that music is versatile.”
Asha Romeo is a student double majoring in vocal performance and music education at CU Boulder’s College of Music. Romeo was recommended by a CU vocal instructor for a slot in Opera on Tap this summer. When she’s not singing or studying, she works at Good Times and leads her own band, Lady Romeo.
“I’ve been formally singing since I was thirteen, but I grew up with music all around me and always used my voice in an artistic way,” Romeo conveys. “Singing started out as a fun pastime for me, but as I became more serious about it and studied the world of singing and performance, I realized I had to be a part of that experience one can have between themselves, the music, and the audience.”
Nkeriru Okoye’s Brooklyn Cinderella, Romeo’s cycle, is a group of songs that stem from the I Hear America Singing program that asks composers to craft operatic songs based on the poetry and prose of Americans of all ages and walks of life. Songs in this cycle were based on poems written by schoolchildren in Brooklyn.
“I would like my audience to firstly be able to enjoy something that may sound somewhat unfamiliar to them in style and content,” Romeo says about this cycle, “as well as being able to accept and try to understand a perspective far different from their own — young children of color in Brooklyn.”
Annanya George, a longtime opera fan, is a video artist who works as a digital assistant for CU Boulder’s film department; he makes experimental documentaries. When he submitted his work, he was skeptical whether it would be considered.
“Usually at these things, the artists are highly experimental with their method of artmaking,” George explains, “and I feel that my process is too simple to actually be considered for a project like this. So, getting the email back saying that I have been selected was a shock and a much-needed win.”
George's work isn't exactly linear, and in the same way that opera conveys emotion, his work is designed to spark feelings rather than a sense of story or language.
“People shouldn’t pay attention to the summary or construction of my pieces, but rather just open their brain up to the flood that are my images,” George says. “This is because I like to express emotion within my art, and by letting it encapsulate you, you’re feeling the piece rather than merely observing it.”