Boroughing: Aria Studies
Sophia Merkin

At the beginning of any performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, the lights dim, the orchestra begins to play, and the magnificent Austrian crystal chandeliers are slowly drawn up into the ceiling. Glorious, decadent—the Met.

One blustery evening in November, I attended a wholly different sort of opera—one adorned with a miniature disco ball and barstools. Not a crystal chandelier in the house.

Opera on Tap, a group of roving opera singers who provide inexpensive operatic music at locales distinctly unlike the Met, was playing at the Parkside Lounge, a dingy bar on East Houston.

Instead of being escorted to my seat by an usher, I settled myself in at the corner of the bar, whereupon, ever the obedient nineteen year-old, I ordered a Diet Coke. I sat quietly, alternately people watching and eavesdropping. Several vintage bar signs lined the walls, and a teetering shelf of board games was piled high to my left. I feared that if someone made a rash motion, Battleship and Celebrity Taboo would come crashing to the ground. In the center of the ceiling hung the aforementioned disco ball, a relic from a different musical era.

In the rear of the bar, on a small stage—not more than a dais, really—decorated with hula skirt streamers and old Jazz festival posters, a tall woman clad in black stood singing a mournful French song about springtime. Behind her sat a very bald man, playing on a keyboard.

As she finished her performance, a new singer presented the pianist with sheet music and launched into their song. I had been expecting the performance of one coherent work; instead, this progressed more like an evening of karaoke-opera. Each singer stood up, sang with lustful verve, and then anticlimactically sat back down. All that was missing was a microphone, and a teleprompter.

In introducing their performances, several of the singers played Johnny Carson to the bald pianist's Ed McMahon, joking about the sexual misadventures and misfortunes of classical composers. This routine got tiresome after two hours, but where else would I have learned that Robert Schumann was institutionalized for the last few years of his life?

Unlike this titillating commentary, some of the music was ho-hum. At times, my attention drifted more to the mustachioed, bow-tied gentleman humming along to the music next to me than to the performers.

Finally, one singer grabbed my attention. Singing a Czech gypsy song, she engrossed herself in her performance, swaying and swirling her wrists to the unusual, folksy melody. Such an obscure piece would never have been heard at the Met—but no Met performer would ever forget her words mid-song. I guess this is when a teleprompter would have come in handy.

As the evening progressed, the audience's attention, and mine, waned. Events began to blur together—unremarkable musical numbers, another singer with a faulty memory, and the bald pianist grating my nerves with his desire to share, if not steal away, the musical spotlight. Disheartened and bored, I upgraded from a Diet Coke to a Shirley Temple—don't despair, not Black.


Sophia Merkin is a Columbia College first-year. She has too many favorite operas to list, and she never sings in public.

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