Columbia opera company sidles up to audience Players stroll among the tables HOWARD COUNTY DIVERSIONS

January 22, 1993|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

If you plan on attending the Sunday performance of the Pocket Opera Players at Oakland in Columbia, leave the cape and binoculars at home.

In this informal production, where the audience is always included, the diva might sit next to a startled member of the audience and sing to him an impassioned aria on bended knee as the hero looks on with jealousy.

Or, just minutes before show time, the bass baritone might ask a couple of seated patrons to hang on to his costumes and help him with changes as the opera unfolds.

The program is just as atypical -- scaled-down versions of opera and Broadway theater classics. For Sunday's "night at the operetta", the company of two will perform the comic opera, Pergolesi's "La Serva Padrona," and the musical "My Fair Lady" -- under two hours.

"We do a Reader's Digest," said co-founder Mary Ann Evangelista, a piano and voice teacher in Columbia who performed with the Baltimore Opera Touring Company last year.

"We tie the whole show together. Of course, we can't do everything. We have a story line and do the whole show from beginning to end in character and costume -- just minus everybody else."

Rejecting the use of a stage, she and partner John Reinhardt of Virginia Beach prefer to perform close to the audience. "They stand in the middle of the room, and they walk around," said Oakland director Jan Morrison. "They really work the crowd."

If the audience is sitting at tables cabaret-style, "we just walk over and sing to them," Ms. Evangelista said. "The audience doesn't expect it.

"And we really do include them. It makes people feel a part of it. They've entered into our home and our reality for a little while, and that helps them forget what's going on outside. We love doing it, and the crowd really has fun. And you'll always get the little man who says, 'Oh, yeah, I'll dance with you.' "

Ms. Evangelista, a lyric soprano, and Mr. Reinhardt, a bass baritone, established the Pocket Opera Players two years ago as a way of making opera "more accessible to people who haven't really known opera," Mr. Reinhardt said.

"We bring a new and fresh approach to opera. It's [perceived as] a type of elitist thing, where people think they have to dress in tuxes and the show is performed in a foreign language. But in Europe, it's for the commoners."

To combat the fear of the unknown, the company performs the operas in English, adding just a -- of Italian, French or German.

"And we give a lot of older people a taste of the musical shows -- the type of music they were hearing in the 1950s and '60s," he said.

The duo met more than 10 years ago in Hawaii when Ms. Evangelista, a native of Washington state, performed with the Honolulu Symphony and the "Jim Nabors Polynesian Extravaganza."

"It was a huge, huge show -- kind of like a revue," said Ms. Evangelista, who performed a gamut of Hawaiian songs from chants and wedding songs to the ever-popular "Kamehameha Waltz."

In 1978, Mr. Reinhardt, who was in the Navy and worked with the Hawaiian Touring Opera company, hired Ms. Evangelista to coach and later direct.

Nine years and several moves later, they ran into each other when auditioning for the Atlanta Repertory Company in Georgia.

In 1990, two years after Ms. Evangelista moved with her husband, Paul, an Army sergeant major, to Maryland, she and Mr. Reinhardt decided to form their own company.

"We work well together and felt like we would like to reach a lot of people who wouldn't normally see opera," she said.

The company's name was created over lunch.

"They were serving gyros," Ms. Evangelista said. "Then John said, 'Pockets -- like us -- you could take us in your pocket and we could do dinner shows, conventions, children's shows, banquets.' "

Since then, the duo has shuttled between Virginia Beach and Columbia, performing an ever-growing repertoire of opera vignettes and musicals.

"We've had children asking parents to take them again," Ms. Evangelista said. "We had bikers coming in with their bikes, teens with their friends, people who would never set foot in an opera house realizing opera could be fun and enjoyable."

Two years ago, they performed for the Columbia Festival of the Arts and the following year at Oakland, a refurbished late Federalist-period stone mansion.

"They're charming and have wonderful personalities," Ms. Morrison said. "They've developed a following. People from all parts of the county come to hear the opera. There are others who have heard Mary Ann perform and will listen to her sing in a telephone booth."

Last week, the company performed the "Star and the Birdcatcher," an original takeoff of Mozart's "The Magic Flute," at Waterloo Elementary School in Columbia.

"I was hesitant about throwing a sophisticated show at fourth- and fifth-graders," said Mr. Reinhardt. "But they just loved it. They were completely enthralled. They sucked it up like it was water in the desert."

The Pocket Opera Players are now setting their sights on Maine, where Mr. Reinhardt owns a home. "We're going to intrude on their culture," he said.

But Ms. Evangelista expects a favorable reception: "We're quite unusual. We have something that's special. It's sort of like we create a magic opera for all these people."

The Pocket Opera Players will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Oakland at 5430 Vantage Point Road in Columbia. General admission is $10 for adults; tickets are $8 for seniors and students. Information: 730-4801.

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