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Republished from LiveJournal. Originally posted 23 March 2011.

A neat story about something that happened to me.
By Marisa Lenhardt, aged 30-cough.

Many moons ago, before some of you were born and before many of you started drinking, I was in high school with a sweet, slightly nuts, talented guy.
After a year or so, he stopped going to my high school, and that was that.

Fast forward a decade or so, add the creation of facebook, stir.

Out of the blue in October I get an email from this guy with whom I went to High School, needing extras for a Francis Ford Coppola film on which he was working. I happily complied, thinking that, at worst, it would be an excellent opportunity for some camping asshattery with some good friends. I put out feelers and got some replies from various folks in my friend and extended circle. A truly lovely mix of people who responded even without knowing who was involved with the production.

We had our initial interview/photos and, a few days later, were called for a screen test.

I followed the woman who did our screen test deep, deep into the recesses behind the public areas of the Rubicon Estate in Napa. I saw my friend from high school, John-Paul and, in a fit of surreality, noted that we looked like the same, but adult, versions of ourselves. It was fantastic to see him, and I was at ease. We slowly gathered and, after a while, were taken in separate vehicles up even further into the wilds to a house. We headed up the stairs and there, seated at a large dinner table, was Mr. Coppola. As we came up, he said “Have a seat. I want to introduce you to my friend Val”. We tried not to stare at the IceMan and took our seats around the dinner table. The 5 of us who’d come up in the initial car filled in the space around the table, acting as casual as possible.  I had had a pretty good idea that Francis (I can call him that, I think) would be there, but hadn’t been prepared for, you know… Doc Hollywood. Francis immediately put us at ease with a volley of intense, intelligent questions, a skill clearly developed with years of human observation. All of the women did readings with Val, during which he made us laugh with fantastic ad libs, and most of us were quite relaxed by the end of our readings. Francis regaled us with tales of filming ‘Apocalypse Now’ (“did you see that?” he asked.).

As we prepared to leave, the assistant director leaned and whispered something into Francis’ ear. Francis then looked at me and said “You’re an opera singer.  What will you sing for me?  Manon Lescaut? La Rondine? No… Gianni Schicchi.” I agreed that Gianni Schicchi certainly provided the best a cappella, and before I knew it, I was standing fewer than 5 feet from the man, as he filmed me singing ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ on his iPhone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Val film it with his iPhone, as well. When I finished, Val said “Well, that was unexpected,” and Francis said “Very nice.” We all left soon after, and I was giddy for hours.

I did not get a speaking role, but I was asked to participate as an extra. I was, of course, disappointed, but was still excited at the prospect of the aforementioned potential camping asshattery.

Fastforward to November.
A group of us were asked, during the coldest few days of the month, to meet for a few days. We arrived at the gorgeous location and began (with help! How strange) to set up camp. We were told that, that evening, Francis would be camping with us.

I am firmly in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” faction of human thinking, and so I went about the day, and by evening time we were sitting around the fire, eating food that had been prepared for us (how strange!), sharing a drink or two. The hours ticked by, a few people went to sleep, and after a while, a gentleman came down to the campfire, casually, with a couple of younger men, who carried a chair for him. People slowly quieted as they realized who’d arrived, and there was a brief, awkward moment of “ok, now what?”  I did the thing that comes naturally and offered a drink. Francis says “You’re the opera singer. I can tell by the profile.” “Yes,” I replied, “But that doesn’t answer the question. Would you like a drink?” He asked what I had, which was Scotch. He wasn’t interested in that, but agreed to a home-made liqueur provided by a friend. The next few hours were spent sipping drinks, including an absinthe made for Mr. Coppola, trading stories and, for brief and ecstatic moment, Francis getting me to sing “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” and getting him to sing Rudolfo’s “Si”. My dear friend David bore witness to that, and I caught his grin from across the fire.

Soon enough, it was late and cold and we had a long day the next day. We said our goodnights, and a few of us stayed up a bit longer before turning in.

First full day of filming –
I awoke to a craving for fresh fruit and headed up to the communal snack/kitchen area. I brought my company iPad in an attempt to check my email. I was met by Francis, who engaged me in a discussion about the meeting he had with “Steve”, and about Adobe and Apple’s ongoing battle. After showing me a nifty wireless keyboard and syncing it with the iPad, it was time to get ready dressed and meet the costumer.

John Paul finally made it down to say hello to us in camp and, as I painted his nails, he told me that Francis planned to add a scene for me to sing. I couldn’t even register this as possibly being true, so I went about my day as normally as possible, camping in the middle of the week with a film crew. There were giggles, takes, retakes, and everything you ever hear from anyone who’s done extra work – it’s a lot of stand around and wait. But the novelty of it didn’t wear off through the weekend, and there we were, walking the same path over and over again.

At dinner, I set my plate down across from an unattended plate which happened to be Mr. Coppola’s. Sweet Lulu sat next to me, and the two of them talked about burlesque (“My kids got me Dita Von Teese for my birthday.” “That’s a great book!” “I think he means… they actually got him … Dita Von Teese.”) Filming went into the evening, and temperatures dropped below freezing. We huddled around cold propane fires, and Francis asked what I’d sing for him if I were to sing a scene. It began to seem more real. That evening, filming wrapped up and we gathered around the real fire for a bit before heading to sleep.

The next day dawned a bit warmer, and all of us got up in the exact same costumes as the previous day.

It wasn’t too long into filming that Francis said “We’re filming your scene today…what will you sing? Public domain, of course…” It was at this point that I thought it might actually happen. My nervous energy built throughout the day, until I was actually wrapped into a body mic…and then it was real. The costumer was sweet, and supportive, and listened to my nervous ramblings. And then, immediately after a scene during which I had to physically exert myself and without even a chance to get water, I was on. As I prepared, I realized I had no water handy. I turned to David and said “I would kill for a bottle of water right now”. It took a moment to realize that the three people that began running were running to get ME water. I’d forgotten about the mic. Possibly the most surreal moment of the entire shoot. The sun was setting, and Francis sat about 30 feet away…directing. ME. I can’t say what I sang, or what the setting was, or what I wore…but I can tell you that, during the course of the first song, the line of people behind the camera watching went from about 8 to pretty much everyone on-set. And that, when I finished my first song, Francis had to wait until the applause stopped to remind people that we were “still rolling”. He gave very little direction and I felt very comfortable, not nervous at all, as I was simply giving a performance to a few people as the sun went down, echoing  across the lake.

At the end of the third song, Francis said “you can applaud now”, and people did. Then he said “print it”, and that was it…we broke for dinner and I had a small moment of glowing glory as people who are much more accustomed to the short takes of the film industry paid me beautiful compliments… and I glowed, and glowed, through the rest of the filming that went to 2am. I got the chance to ask Val for a copy of the video he had of me and he said that, if I gave him my card and Francis approved it, no problem. Turns out that, because I was in costume, Francis didn’t approve it, but I did get a very nice email from Val’s assistant explaining that. It shows a surprising amount of follow-through.

Giddy from the whole day, I drank with a few of the crew until the sun came up. At one point someone turned to me and said “Hey, you’re the only talent still out drinking!” And I giggled. talent! heh.

The next day dawned harsh and cruel, as DK, Jocelyn and I slowly and steadily packed up, far fewer people to help with this process than with the setup. The ride home was slowly waking from a dream, and Luke sweetly unpacked the truck for me as my left knee had completely given out.

Today, I go with a few of these folks to watch the first screening of the film. My scene is still in it. I hope it stays.


I’ve been tagged in another flash mob opera scene.

My singer friends are all posting about the closure of Opera San Diego, a refrain of the closure of New York City Opera.

People seem surprised.

“It’s an amazing art form!”
“People don’t understand how incredible it is! If they understood how incredible it is, we couldn’t keep them away.”

Whose job is it to show the potential audience how incredible it is? The producers, the directors, the company owners. Yes, the artists.

For years now, people have been able to be completely immersed in their experiences. Create an avatar and be the center of a story. They can pretend to know how to play instruments and compete with themselves or their friends. They can create a simple melody and software will build an orchestra around it. They can sing badly into a microphone and their pitches will be, on the fly, corrected.

You want them to sit in a darkened theater, silent, watching antics in a language they don’t understand? For three hours? Get over yourself. Puccini didn’t even want that. Puccini’s audience sat in the orchestra section of a lively theater, eating, drinking and smoking. They cheered for their favorite singers. They booed mediocre performances. They spoke the language. They understood what was happening, because it was modern. They got every subtle political reference. Librettists were broke artists who made fun of the bourgeoisie, and the common man ate it up. They turned Verdi’s name into the battle cry for the people. They didn’t sit and listen to operas in English, studying them in advance, trying to keep up with a translation. They didn’t want to do the work to enjoy a performance, and neither do kids today. And you don’t get to fault them for that.

If you’re complaining about people not being willing to do the work to enjoy opera,
You’re a stagecoach driver.
You’re a scullery maid.
You’re not wrong; it’s amazing, and it’s sad that it’s falling by the wayside. But it will go by the wayside, I promise you.

What opera has become, at a time before I began singing, before I was born, possibly before or around the time my parents were born, is an affront to everything I believe about opera. About music. About performance. Really, Wagner was a big part of the faux aggressive sophisticizing of opera.

Why do I love opera?

Because I get to participate in it. Because I understand it. Because I am engaged, involved. Because I have spent much of my life as a broke artist, and I’ve often said that, if the elite who can afford full-priced mega-opera knew about the antics of the people performing for them, they’d reel in revulsion. We are not high brow. We do not know which is the right fork to use. We speak more languages than you do, and we tell inappropriate jokes backstage to break the tension. We act well enough to blend into a $1000 plate setting, but we cannot wait to get home and crack a beer. When I need a break from memorizing music, I blast rap.

Upon finding out I’m an opera singer, people abashedly (or sometimes with near-angry bravado) tell me they’re not fans. As though I’ll be upset. I am the first to vehemently tell them that it’s the fault of the opera world that they feel this way. That it’s been presented wrong. I ask them if they like Cirque du Soleil. Of course they do. Cirque is amazing; a near-immersive experience of amazing expertise in multiple media; acrobatics, music, audio-visual. Cirque is the new opera. (Cirque hires opera singers, too; they’ve requested my materials three times and I’m hoping against hope that, some day, it will stick and I’ll get to run away with the circus). Cirque was created somewhat recently, to play to modern audiences. Clearly their MO of “hip-ifying”, decreasing performances, decreasing ticket prices, and performer flash mobs, has been successful.

Oh, wait. The opposite of that.

The opera (and symphony) flash mob is the worst bait and switch I have encountered. Well, I suppose anyone who uses a flash mob as an advertising tool runs the risk. It is just the one with which I am the most familiar. You’re telling potential new audiences “We’re fun! We’re exiting! We’re zany and cool. Join us! Come, follow the piper. We’re wonderful, beautiful, exciting. Totally spontaneous! Come sit with us in a dark theater. Correction. You’ll be completely removed from us. So, instead of being amidst us in a grocery store/a coffee shop/a town square, you’ll sit there in the dark while we party in the spotlight onstage.” That’s cruel. That’s telling the kids they’re going to Disneyland and bringing them to the dentist. That’s the opposite of what you should be doing. Consider, just for a moment, a change. Consider if the flash mob was the actual performance. The moneymaking performance. Not a publicity stunt. THE stunt.

You already know your potential audience loves it. You already know your performers are dying to do more stuff like this.

Opera storylines aren’t relatable? Tell that to the people who made Moulin Rouge (based on the book upon which my favorite opera is based), to the people who did RENT. Live theater and Shakespeare aren’t interesting? Tell that to the people who do Sleep No More.

Ellinor asked me a few years ago why I still go to Burning Man. I answered honestly that, if I didn’t sing there, I probably wouldn’t go. I showed her the video that Jazz shot of me singing in the Thunderdome. It’s one of the best representations – this is me, this is my element. This is me in the wild, doing what I do best. And people are rabid. How many opera singers know the joy of a crowd of hundreds of dust-covered ruffians screaming and cheering when they hold a high note? Yes, it’s a rush. Let’s be honest. I’m not the best opera singer in the world, I’m not the best opera singer in the Bay Area, and I’m not the best opera singer Alameda. But I’m the best opera singer these folks have ever heard, because I’m usually the only one they’ve ever heard. People who think they hate this artform have never heard a real aria before. They aren’t going to shell out a week’s pay for five minutes of vocal fireworks and 2 hours of recitative. But they will shell out a half month’s salary to go to Burning Man. They know they’re going to get something new and amazing there, something they haven’t experienced before, and I am part of that. I’m beyond proud; I am deeply honored to be a part of that. I don’t want to create art in a vacuum. I don’t want to create masturbatory theater for people who have to be educated in it in order to appreciate it. This defeats the purpose; it’s cannibalism. I am sick of artists, producers, and companies cutting off their legs to feed themselves. It’s unsustainable. It’s bullshit. Evolve or die.

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to perform at an event in an underground creek. The producers heard about me, and invited me to sing in this insane series of acoustically amazing tunnels. Hundreds of people came through, I help a marching band to lower its instruments through a manhole. High tea was served. An art gallery lined the walls. There were aerialists. A water slide.

I wore a full-length gown, the required hardhat, rain boots, full makeup. It was insanely challenging. I didn’t know exactly where I was going to sing. I wandered, helped man the water slide, sang. I found another singer – we traded improvised melodies back and forth through the tunnels, often unable to see each other.

Later that afternoon, I drove to Petaluma for an audition. The audition form asked about my most incredible performing experience, and I cited the performance from earlier that day. The next question asked why it was important to me, and I replied that it was bringing opera to new audiences. This is the most important thing we can be doing. Then, I proceeded to sing the hell out of the vengeance aria. For those not in the know, the vengeance aria is one of the most difficult, high pieces in the Soprano repertoire. I nailed it. They haven’t called. Maybe the other singers were better, maybe they knew them, there any number of reasons to not get hired for gig. Maybe it’s because I was honest about my important performances. But if you ask whether I’d rather sing to a bunch of opera fans or a bunch of opera ignorami, well, you have my answer. I know which one will be around. Not the flash mob, not Sleep No More. It’s going to be whoever does the next version of that; whoever evolves.

All of the time, singers ask me how I started singing opera with techno, how I got the gig at Burning Man. This is flawed thinking; I made the fucking gig at Burning Man. My training, my personality, the culmination of my interests and skills. Sitting around waiting for someone to hire you is a good way to ensure you never get hired. The lack of creativity, not in the performers, but in the creation of the performances, is killing us. The classical musical world is building Bugattis, putting them on go-kart tracks and complaining that kids don’t want to drive them when they can’t reach the pedals. The classical music world blames everybody else because Josh Bell wasn’t recognized in the subway. If they wanted him to be recognized, they should have made him a rock star, not put him in a darkened theater and then told the audience to “shhhhh” while he played 64ths like he was on rails. The audience shouldn’t have to know what a 64th is in order to enjoy it. We can do better. Maybe some people won’t enjoy it; maybe some performers will resist. They’re the same performers who won’t busk; you never know how good a performer you are until you’ve done it on the street to a disinterested audience. But, when I am not the only aerialist opera singer I know, I know that times are changing, that most performers are desperate to change with them, and just need to know how.

You want real performance? You want to enjoy without having to learn an extra language? You want opera for a reasonable cost in an intimate setting and to be able to drink wine while you watch?

Come watch my circus troupe perform.
Come to a show by one of my favorite companies with which to perform.
Go to Cirque. To Sleep No More.
Vote with your dollar, as you always have, and don’t let anyone tell you you have to be educated to enjoy it.

We will evolve. We have to. I’ll continue to be at the forefront, in a ball gown in an underground creek, lighting the way.