Opera Night proves big hit among diners at Italian restaurant in Columbia


December 18, 1992|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

It's not often a diner is serenaded "Happy Birthday" by a strolling quartet of opera singers.

But if you're a patron of Piccolo's Ristorante E Grill in Columbia on Opera Night, and it happens to be your birthday, the tuxedoed chorus will be happy to oblige.

"I've never been sung "Happy Birthday" quite that way before," said Michael Holland of Columbia, who was celebrating his 61st birthday with nine of his co-workers from EJ Grant Antiques in Savage.

The singers were the featured performers of the restaurant's newest attraction that premiered Monday. Accompanied by a pianist, the quartet performed two half-hour sets of selections from familiar Italian operas and that oldie, but goodie, "La Donna E Mobile."

The only eatery in the Baltimore area to offer live Italian opera music, Piccolo's now joins the ranks of Italian restaurants in other cities that feature opera singers or waiters bursting into song as customers dine on veal scaloppine and fettuccine alfredo.

"It's exposing Columbia to opera in a gentle way," said diner Barbara Mangraviti of Columbia, who came just for Opera Night. "And to those who like opera, this is wonderful. And they're good."

Slated to return the second Monday of every month, Opera Night was initiated by Piccolo's part owner, Vincent Guida.

"I always had the idea," said the Columbia attorney. "I visited a couple of restaurants in New York and Chicago last year. They were similar to Piccolo's in food and decor. It was great. Not only do they have excellent food, but they also have excellent entertainment."

Mr. Guida approached the Howard County Arts Council, where he is a board member, to enlist some singers.

"The Arts Council provides other forums for performers," he said. "There's very little opportunity for them in Howard County, so I thought, here we have this great spot to perform -- in my restaurant."

The council's assistant to the executive director, Theresa Moroz, put Mr. Guida in touch with Don Wiggins, a vocal instructor in Laurel. Mr. Wiggins, who recently formed the Washington Repertory Opera, arranged for three of his students to join the makeshift quartet, with himself as baritone.

"It's nice to be able to do something like that in Howard County and to also give these performers a different venue," said Mr. Wiggins, who hopes to establish an opera company in the Columbia area. "I want to build an audience of people who will support the singers."

The conductor plans to alternate membership in the quartet among the 25 students in the repertory, depending on their schedules. He also intends to vary the musical selections.

For Monday's debut, the quartet -- made up of Mr. Wiggins, soprano Ginnie Ritter, alto Mary Ellen Cane and tenor Antonio Giuliano -- performed arias, duets and quartets from "Carmen," "La Boheme" and "Rigoletto," and three Neopolitan numbers. Pianist John Ward provided the accompaniment.

Although Mondays tend to be slow at Piccolo's, the restaurant was bustling on Opera Night.

"It just gave life to the place," said Mr. Guida. "It pumped another level of enthusiasm."

The night began with a clink of a glass as the quartet stood by the piano in the restaurant's bar. While the singers dished up Paliachi, several patrons gathered into the pit or pressed their faces against the bar's partial glass partition, chatting among themselves.

"This is not a normal experience in Howard County. They're talking about it excitedly," said opera fan Nick Mangraviti. "I've seen [opera nights] in Philadelphia. There, all waiter service stops. It's all hushed. The audience knows it should be hushed. But audience education comes with time. The more ordinary it becomes, the quieter it'll become."

Not all patrons were sure how quiet restaurant-goers should be.

"I haven't figured out if I'd like everybody to be quiet or have everybody talking and have it as background music," said Ed Grant of Ellicott City, who left his table to get a closer look.

Although high-pitched opera singers are known to shatter a glass or two, bartender David Prencipe said he was afraid he'd be the one to break glass and disturb the singing.

"I tread a little lightly," said the pony-tailed bartender. "This is more performance than background music. I wanted it to be more definite so people will hear it, so it'll have more of a social standing. But I would've appreciated it if they cracked a glass."

The quartet also felt a bit cramped in the small bar. "It was our first time out," Mr. Wiggins said. "We have to do some arranging, see if we could establish an area where we could have some better lighting and not be in anyone's face."

Or they might take their act on the road, strolling down the aisles with a traveling accordionist as patrons dine.

But even with the commotion, opera die-hards reveled, including 3-month-old Adam Patrick Donovan.

Adam's mother, Denise Donovan of Columbia, who played opera music for her son while he was in the womb, brought the infant for both sets. "He likes the classics," she said.

At the close of Opera Night, Mr. Guida was besieged by patrons offering to perform.

"I didn't want to audition people," he said. "It's not a sing-a-long. It's not my intention to have customers doing the performing. I said we're not opening it up."

But with Piccolo's patrons mouthing the lyrics, could "Opera Karaoke Night" really be that far behind?

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