New Pop-Up Series Treats Silicon Valley Workers To Opera At The Office

Aug 30, 2017
Originally published on August 31, 2017 11:23 am

The lobby of a Silicon Valley tech company is not where you would expect to hear a soprano belting out a Puccini aria, but that was exactly what happened at the first performance of Arias in the Office.

With "Ch'il Bel Sogno," soprano Katharine Gunnink kicked off the new pop-up series at Adobe's San Jose headquarters at the beginning of August. The initiative by Opera San José aims to introduce people to the very concept of opera as something that can be fun and enjoyable.

"That's the idea — to bring what we do, and the level at which we do it, to people who've heard it and are fans, or people who've never heard it," explains Aaron Nicholson, director of Marketing and Development for Opera San José.

The free performance had the intended effect on Jyh-Jiun Liou, a software quality engineer for Adobe who has lived in nearby Sunnyvale for 25 years but had no clue Opera San José even existed.

"Not a fan, but I really like it," she remarked. "So if I see they will have a performance — maybe I will purchase a ticket."

On the other end of the spectrum was Zori Sanchez, of Adobe's finance department. Sanchez is a single ticket holder who says she "periodically" goes to the opera with friends. "I tend to go with people who kind of love it," she says.

About 60 self-selecting attendees gathered in the Adobe lobby for the free performance — and more curious passers-by looked on. Such pop-up concerts in non-traditional venues, like parks and pubs, have helped a growing number of opera artists cultivate new fans.

Opera on Tap is a national non-profit focused on taking the art form beyond the opera house in the name of community outreach. "We can't just expect that if we put together a great season, people will come," says Indre Viskontas, a soprano with the San Francisco chapter. "We need to go to where they are and show them how awesome our art is. And then they'll come to some of the bigger productions."

For workers at some Silicon Valley companies, Arias in the Office might very well be pleasantly surprising lunchtime entertainment. But for opera singers and performers, the pop-up series is not just a means of expanding their audience, but also continuing the relevance and vibrancy of their art form.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Companies in Silicon Valley bring in all sorts of celebrities and theatrical acts to entertain their employees at lunchtime. That gave the people at Opera San Jose an idea. Rachael Myrow of member station KQED has the story.

RACHAEL MYROW, BYLINE: The lobby of a Silicon Valley tech company is not where you expect to hear this.

KATHARINE GUNNINK: (Singing in Italian).

MYROW: That's soprano Katharine Gunnink at Adobe headquarters in San Jose, belting out the aria "Ch'il Bel Sogno" by Puccini. This was the first performance of "Arias In The Office," a new pop-up series from Opera San Jose designed to sell tickets to full concerts, yes, but also to introduce people to the very concept of opera.

AARON NICHOLSON: Well, that's the idea - is to bring what we do and the level at which we do it to people who've heard it and are fans or people who've never heard it.

MYROW: Aaron Nicholson, director of marketing and development for Opera San Jose, explained the basics to the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICHOLSON: In opera, we shout brava or bravo. Can I hear everybody say brava?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Brava.

NICHOLSON: All right, well, we'll work on it.

MYROW: The free performance had the intended effect on Jyh-Jiun Liou, a software quality engineer for Adobe who's lived in nearby Sunnyvale for 25 years but had no clue Opera San Jose existed.

JYH-JIUN LIOU: Not a fan, but I really like it (laughter). So if I see they will have a performance, maybe I will purchase the ticket.

MYROW: I don't want to imply all techies are opera-phobic. For one thing, there were plenty of people in the audience - about 60 self-selecting attendees in the lobby and more curious passersby. And there were people like Zori Sanchez of Adobe's finance department.

ZORI SANCHEZ: Single ticket holder - I go with friends periodically.

MYROW: Do you go with friends who are already enthusiastic about opera, or do you drag newbies?

SANCHEZ: No, I tend to go with people who kind of love it (laughter).

MYROW: In recent years, a growing number of opera artists have been cultivating new fans not only in Silicon Valley - with pop-up concerts in parks, pubs and other nontraditional venues. Soprano Indre Viskontas is with the San Francisco Chapter of Opera On Tap, a national nonprofit focused on this very thing.

INDRE VISKONTAS: We can't just expect that if we put together a great season, people will come. We need to go to where they are and show them how awesome our art is. And then, you know, they'll come to some of the bigger productions.

MYROW: It's too soon to say whether Opera San Jose will seduce huge numbers of young people. But I'll tell you; I'm no opera fan, and I got goosebumps listening to baritone Trevor Neal sing "Eri Tu" by Verdi.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "UN BALLO IN MASCHERA")

TREVOR NEAL: (Singing in Italian).

MYROW: For NPR News, I'm Rachael Myrow in San Jose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.