Byline: Bob Keefer The Register-Guard
The word "opera" conjures up strong associations in many people's minds.
Evening wear. Three-and-a-half-hour performances. Incomprehensible plots sung in Italian or German. Lush costumes. Beefy Wagnerian sopranos. One hundred dollar tickets.
Enter Eugene's new Cascadia Concert Opera, perhaps sneaking in through a side door next to the jukebox.
"I run around on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with my husband," says Eugene opera singer and voice teacher Marieke Schuurs, one of Cascadia's founders. "We've gone into little taverns and wine bars, and I've jumped up and sung arias on the spot. And we get people saying, 'Damn, I love that ...' "
Schuurs got together last year with opera singers Bereniece Jones and Jan Kirkpatrick, both doctoral students in music at the University of Oregon School of Music, to start Cascadia last summer. The did their first performance - Giacomo Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" - at a Eugene retirement home last summer.
The group, largely young professional-level singers who are just embarking on their careers, has performed in such unlikely venues as piano stores, churches and private homes.
Admission is generally free, and the singers are unpaid.
On Friday, Cascadia makes a giant leap forward. The group will perform a two-hour concert version of Jacques Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffman" on the tiny stage at Actors Cabaret of Eugene, a venue better known for slick productions of musical comedies such as "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Hairspray" than for high opera.
The ACE performance isn't free - tickets are $15 - but the money goes entirely to the theater, which will serve hors d'oeuvres.
"Our main function is to bring opera to folks who ordinarily would not be going to see it," Jones says. "We are also engaging the musical artists who live here, talented professional singers who don't necessarily want to be traveling across country to do performances."
The impetus to found Cascadia grows out of problems facing aspiring opera singers throughout the country and, indeed, throughout the world. Opera is among the most expensive art forms to produce. That means few companies are willing to take a chance on untried singers.
As a result, even highly trained young operatic artists face a severe uphill battle to find roles in professional productions. Hence has evolved the "pay-to-sing" model, in which young performers actually pay the opera company hundreds or even thousands of dollars to be allowed to perform. (In defense of the system, which primarily exists in the eastern United States and in Europe, such pay-to-sing performances are usually styled as educational training, in the same vein as internships.)
At the same time, though, opera companies are facing the same financial challenges as arts groups everywhere: how to attract enough of an audience to survive.
Thus emerges a group such as Cascadia, which offers aspiring singers professional-level experience and presents opera in unconventional venues, where the singers just might create new fans of the operatic tradition.
"We do all kinds of venues that are nontraditional," says Sandy Naishtat, a Eugene singer who has performed frequently with Eugene Opera and is now on the board at Cascadia. …