When you hear the word “opera,” what images come to mind?
Long-braided female Teutonic warriors wearing horned helmets and breastplates?
Older men and women in tuxes and evening gowns?
Songs in foreign languages you can’t understand?
Meet Bon Operatit!, a local trio of classically trained singers on a quest to change the popular perception of opera.
Its mission statement reads: “To help turn the common man into an opera/musical theater fan and to dispel any preconceptions that these genres of music were stuffy, snobby, boring or outdated.”
So, instead of the stereotypical, mythical Wagnerian warriors, you have the members of Bon Operatit! who, like the rest of us, are just ordinary mortals. Ordinary mortals with extraordinary vocal abilities.
“We’re trying to present opera in a way that is more accessible to more people,” group member Lauren Mouney Gisclair explained. “I think that people who aren’t exposed to opera can be converted to learn more about it if you present it to them in the right kind of setting.”
And what is the “right kind of setting”?
Once a month, on a Wednesday night at the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in the heart of the French Quarter, plus other relaxed, informal venues in and around New Orleans, Bon Operatit! presents a balanced mix of arias from popular operas, familiar Broadway show tunes and an occasional “crossover” tune that fits into several genres.
“We’re singing in a comfortable place where you can order cocktails or food and hear the great highlights of opera and musical theater. We try to make it really touching and moving,” Gisclair said. “It’s close-up and interactive, as opposed to being on a stage, which is something I love but it’s not as personal.”
Their approach is working, judging by the turnout at their performances. According to Gisclair, their monthly shows at the Four Points are “packed in.” Their recent Christmas performance there was standing-room-only, with both locals and tourists attending.
In addition to Gisclair — a soprano — the other two members of Bon Operatit! are Mary Penick Aiken, a mezzo-soprano (alto) and Jesse Nolan, a tenor.
Occasionally they take on a guest bass or baritone for performances or recording sessions, but the core group remains a trio.
Formed in 2009, the group’s name is a play on words that pays homage to their French heritage and that of the city. Loosely translated as “eat hearty” from the French “bon appétit,” the description is appropriate, considering the fact that Bon Operatit! stages many of their performances where food is served: at country clubs, private parties, weddings and other special functions.
Since coming together, Bon Operatit! has performed at some of the city’s major museums and historic venues, and at prestigious festivals. They also have two CDs to their credit, the most recent of which, “Sensatiable,” was released this month, and a release party is planned Jan. 18 at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans.
The new CD contains arias from operas by Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Bizet and Gershwin, plus show tunes composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Individual compositions popularized by Andrea Bocelli and Leonard Cohen also add to the mix. Pianist and arranger Dr. Frankie Kelly accompanies the group on 11 of the record’s 14 tracks.
Gisclair noted that all three of the group members are teachers when they’re not singing together. She and Aiken give private voice lessons. Nolan is a special education teacher who also sings with the New Orleans Opera Chorus. All three of them sing with the New Orleans Opera Association’s popular “Opera on Tap” ensemble.
The future holds promise, Gisclair said.
“We hope to spread our wings around the Southern region and we’re always open to any opportunities that come our way,” she said. “If there are bigger things out there for us, we’re ready to jump on board with them.”