Colin Hickey, booking agent for the Badlander, remembers the time this past April when a man stood on the bar's stage pounding PBRs and singing at the top of his lungs. On the surface, it was nothing out of the ordinary—the venue regularly hosts rowdy punk, indie and experimental rock acts. But this man, Creighton James, wasn't just singing, he was belting out opera.
"He was singing a song, a story about him and his wife who are fighting because he's always drinking," says Hickey. "And he was acting it out. The whole time he's pounding these Pabsts while singing opera. He probably drank two Pabsts in this three-minute opera song. And the crowd was just eating it up."
Hickey, ex-frontman of dirty rock band the International Playboys, isn't by a mile your typical opera fan. But that evening, during an event dubbed Opera on Draft, he suddenly became one. And his brother, Shane Hickey, who plays in the new wave rock band Volumen, also found more than a little love for opera that night.
"I liked some things more than others," Shane says. "But then Gina [Lapka] sang an Italian aria near the end and it's like the hair on my neck and arms stood up, you know what I mean? And all of a sudden I'm weeping. I'm literally weeping and it's just because she's singing."
Converting unlikely suspects to opera is pretty much what the founders of Montana Lyric Opera (MLO) had in mind when they started their company in January 2008.
"I read in the Wall Street Journal about this group in New York that goes into this dive pub and sings opera," says Lapka, MLO's executive director. "They have a huge following and I thought, 'What a great idea!' My husband is the Pabst brewing company representative in the area and we thought that idea kind of represents our household."
So far, the company has put on four Opera on Drafts to packed rooms at the Badlander, as well as one in Whitefish. They've also held summer opera camps for kids and toured Montana schools with a vampiric, Twilight-inspired version of The Magic Flute. James, artistic administrator for MLO (and aforementioned PBR singer) says that putting opera into a context people understand—be it bars or vampires—helps people leap past opera's standard misconceptions—mainly, that it's stuffy, and only for rich, gray-haired academics.
"With The Magic Flute, the kids hear 'vampires' and they go, 'Okay, this is a little strange but I'll listen,'" James says. "And then they get into it. But frankly the [adaptation] was the same story. We just changed names and gave people longer teeth."
This week, MLO embarks on a more professional—and more expensive—path to educating the masses, as the company debuts its first semi-staged opera, Giuseppe Verdi's famous Rigoletto. An orchestra led by Missoula Symphony Orchestra director Darko Butorac will score the show.
"I love Rigoletto," Butorac says. "It's full of some of the most famous operatic arias and melodies that people know. And, with opera, you're dealing with vocal super athletes who must naturally fill a whole hall with their voices. For me, that's really spectacular to hear a human voice take on an entire orchestra—and win. It's edgy."
"Edgy" is exactly what James and Lapka say they're pushing for with Rigoletto. In many ways, the opera's controversial history makes it perfect for a younger crowd. Adapted from the Victor Hugo play Le roi s'amuse (banned in France for 50 years), Rigoletto's main character, a womanizing villainous king, had to be revised, much to Verdi's chagrin. At the time, says James, Venetian officials were afraid that Rigoletto might incite a popular overthrow of their king. They forced Verdi to change the king character to a fictitious "Duke of Mantua."
"[But Rigoletto] was still riling up the people," says James. "Verdi was the voice of the Italian revolution. They'd say, 'Viva Verdi!' So, opera is not about lofty ideals."
James adds that Verdi wrote the opera in a creative setting not too far removed from our modern music industry. He tells the story about the 1851 debut of Rigoletto the same way contemporary bands deal with albums being leaked on the Internet.
"He handed the tenor the aria 'La Donna e Mobile' the night of the final dress rehearsal because he didn't want anyone to hear this thing before," he says. "And it was still leaked out."
For the official performance, Verdi put a last minute rest in the aria. The audience, having learned the song on the streets earlier, sang along but were caught off guard by the new pause, which got them to stop and listen as Verdi wanted them to. The point is, James says, Verdi was "of the people" rather than merely a diversion for the rich.
"I think it's hard for people to get past what they've decided opera already is," he admits. "We think of people in New York City going in their tuxes and the women in furs and they're all 80- year-old rich white people. And we say, 'If that isn't me then I shouldn't go to the opera because it will be boring and I'll fall asleep because I saw that on Pretty Woman.'"
But in and around Missoula, it seems, that perception is changing. These days, Badlander bartenders vie for shifts on Opera on Draft night. And people like Shane Hickey, who's more prone to a night of rock n' roll mayhem than a night at the opera, are changing their tune.
"We're trying to get a babysitter for one of the Rigoletto nights," Hickey says. "I mean, we've seen opera in a frickin' bar with no stage and sets and props and whatnot...But I'd like to see it in the whole environment, as it's meant to be seen. Yeah, I'm into it, man. It's weird."
Rigoletto plays at the University Theatre Thursday, July 30, and Saturday, Aug. 1, at 7:30 PM. $16/$22/$28.