Aria Having Fun Yet, Austin?

One Ounce Opera takes it to where you live your life

Photo courtesy of Roy Moore, Control Images
Photo courtesy of Roy Moore, Control Images

Opera in your coffeehouse, opera at your club.

Opera all up in your grill inside this urban hub.

This is not your grandfather's etc., etc. It's no dress-up-all-fancy-and-partake-of-some-rarified-shit-like-the-bluehaired-ballers-in-the-movies-do. Fuck the 1%. Fuck 'em, pass me that local microbrew, and dig this wild solo from Lucia di Lammermoor.

That's kind of the idea behind Julie Fiore's One Ounce Opera. We were intrigued when we heard about the launch party at Red 7 this coming Thursday night. Intrigued, because we've always liked the sound of the wild solos from the best operas and only ever wished they could be removed from the stagey posturing and hyper-theatrical ostentation of the actual productions. Intrigued, because Emily Breedlove – opera singer, improv artist, bicycle marathoner – was part of this thing.

So we made arrangements for an interview.

And now here's that interview, transcribed, in which Fiore and Breedlove fill us in on the whys and wherefors of this sonically extravagant, boundary-breaking endeavor.

Brenner: Opera in bars and stuff. Are you guys out of your minds?

Fiore: Yeah, I think so. [laughs] No, really, I figured that if we wanted opera to be part of the live-music scene, then we needed to put it where live music is.

Brenner: And what's the reception been like from the bar owners?

Fiore: Of the ones that I've talked to, Tyson at Red 7 has been more enthusiastic than I could've asked for. I think they're looking for something different, anyway, besides the regular four-piece band that comes in and sounds like people that they booked last week. And opera really speaks something different, it's not just about people standing there and singing things in other languages. The pieces were written to embody a massive emotional moment in some character's life, and so being able to share that with an audience this close, I think that's really powerful.

Brenner: How did Emily get involved?

Breedlove: So I'm Facebook friends with Stephen Rodrigo Reynolds, who was wishing good luck to his friends who were auditioning for One Ounce Opera, and I was like "Oh! What is this?" Because I was trained as an opera singer, and was in the business in New York. And for numerous reasons I decided that doing it as a career was pretty much akin to banging my head against a wall until bloody. It was frustrating and didn't feel right to me. And I thought, "I'll come back to it on my own terms." And I've been doing some things with PKW Productions, Music and a Movie, and wanting to get a little more involved. So I went to the One Ounce auditions on April Fool's Day, and that's how I got involved.

Brenner: So it's a good match for you?

Breedlove: It's exactly what I want to do: Something that's fun. And I've always believed that, in order to keep an audience, to grow an audience for an artform that may or may not be perceived as dying – or as an Older Person's Art Form – or as an elitist art form – that we as artists have a responsibility to take it out there and cultivate the audience. We can't sit here and assume that, because we're awesome, people are gonna want to come and shell out $50 to $75 to $150 to come see us perform. It's important, too, for the audience to see that we're just people – people like you and me. So it was all of that, and there was also the mention of some improv going on, so it sounded perfect.

Brenner: Julie, you started this whole thing, right?

Fiore: I did. The word "crazy" does come to mind, and friends of mine were like, "Why are you doing this?" And it's because I want a reason to stay in Austin. I didn't want, what Emily talked about, I didn't want a career of having to bounce around for the rest of my life, just going where the gigs were – that didn't appeal to me. And I always knew that there needed to be something else about the singing. It couldn't be just about the voice, it needed to be about the drama and the kinship and cooperation. A collaborative effort. The most fun I ever had singing was when I was within smaller groups, like little ensembles, and it would be fantastic – we worked together so well. So I wanted to create that. I knew there were other singers like me here, that had chosen to live here. Instead of, like, gallivanting off to New York and living in a cardboard box for ten years of their life, and then turning thirty-three and going, "What the hell am I doing?" And I found several singers who do feel that way.

Brenner: What is it about Austin that makes you want to stay here?

Fiore: Everything. I fought it for four years, and as soon as I decided that I was gonna make a reason to stay here, it's like the entire world opened up. And I'm sure it's my own perception, but I kind of think that you karmically bring things to you when you're open to them. And everything just started to fall into place. And the more people I met, like Emily, the more I knew that this was really gonna happen and be something special.

Brenner: So what's your attack plan? Where do you start with a project like this?

Fiore: The launch is first. I'm trying to remain single-focus on that for the next couple of weeks. But the plan is not to just pack our calendar with gigs – especially at the beginning. We're working on quality. Especially as we're still honing our craft and working together and figuring out how we work together best – which I think we're getting really close to. And I think from there we follow it where it takes us. I'd like us to have at least one gig a week, in coffeehouses, or weddings and celebrations, Mr. Whoever's 60th birthday, and festivals and whatever. Again, at places where we're not expected.

Brenner: So is everybody involved in One Ounce a professional opera singer?

Fiore: They've all been trained to be professionals. Everyone that's part of the group has some semblance of formal education – most of them have master's degrees. Most of them have done apprentice-type programs or fellowships with big opera companies. Some have come back after many years of being away – and I'll include myself in that, too. Because we've matured as people, and our voices have matured naturally, so it's almost a better fit now than it was back then when we were forcing ourselves to do it because we didn't know any other way to do it.

Breedlove: You go through school, and there are expectations that are fostered by the people who've been there. And there's this vision of The One Path To A Career: You go through school, you go to the apprentice programs, you get a manager, and you get gigs. And maybe that used to be true, but the world has changed so much. There are fewer small opera companies, because there's less money that people are willing to give to opera companies. So the opportunities for singers just coming up in the ranks are shrinking. The opportunities for singers who are already up there at the top are also not as many as they used to be, and the competition is even more than it used to be. So you don't come out of school training with the mindset that there's another way to do it, that you should be innovative … And it is a lot more work to make your own path, in a way –

Fiore: But it's so much more satisfying.

Breedlove: It's so much more satisfying, it's like being a small business owner. So I think education might be doing us a disservice by having this kind of tunnel vision of what a career in the arts might be. And I think that every time someone breaks away and shows people that you can do something different, it's kind of viral – more people will think, "Hey, we can do this, too!" Which is pretty cool.

Fiore: It's like the plight of the classical musician, because there is this thought, and I'd like to remedy it as much as possible. I want to let people know that we're not snots, that we really don't have a holier-than-thou attitude. I mean, yes, we spend hours and hours in the practice room and the library and whatnot, but that's just because the artform itself asks for it. And just because of that, it doesn't mean that we've completely separated ourselves from anything that's current or going on in today's kind of music. And when classical musicians, who haven't been used in that way, when they are – people take notice. Arcade Fire took flight, and other bands like them – Polyphonic Spree, Mother Falcon – all these bands that are using trained classical musicians as a part of something that is very pop-culture. And we want to be a part of that, we don't want to be stuck in a hall with, you know, blue-hairs for the rest of our lives. We want to be there and share this art with our friends and our families in places where we like to go and drink and things like that.

Breedlove: And maybe people who've been going to the opera all these years might actually find it more fun for them to go hang out in a bar. I'd love to see, ah, so-called blue-hairs come and hang out at Red 7. Sit on a bar stool where it's comfortable and get into the opera, get into the classical music.

Brenner: What's the difference, aside from environmentally,
between One Ounce Opera and what, say, Austin Lyric Opera does?

Fiore: It's pretty dramatic – in a good way. We strip it down to where we can't hide behind costumes or sets or an orchestra. It's literally us and you, it's simple communication. If you as an audience member aren't getting it, then we aren't doing our job. It puts the pressure on the singer to truly be that communicator. They have to discover what am I truly trying to say in this aria?, not just "Well, my director told me to blah-blah-blah and I have to pick up this prop at this point." So, you know, it's about what's going on in that moment.

Brenner: Do y'all do full operas, or more just moments from operas?

Fiore: Right now we're doing, like, snippets? "One ounce" of opera – a couple of arias here and there, some chorus scenes so we can get the entire ensemble involved, and ensembles that are two people or three people. And eventually we'd like to get into commissioning – commissioning newer works from people. Like, ah, an opera about Leslie Cochran or something that's current, and just getting more local musicians and composers involved.

Brenner: What if somebody said, "How about a dubstep opera?"

Fiore: Sure, why not? If they write it and we can sing it, and it's healthy for us to sing it, then we'll definitely try it. I wouldn't say there's anything that I'm not open to. At least, nothing that I'm not open to at least discussing.

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