Arias sung at supper in Piccolo's restaurant 'Opera Night' attracts diners, co-owner says

September 24, 1996|By Beth Reinhard | Beth Reinhard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's 15 minutes before curtain time, and the pianist is stuck in traffic, the microphone is missing and the tenor is the only one in costume.

Pass the Parmesan, please.

Welcome to "Opera Night" at Piccolo's restaurant in Columbia's Owen Brown village, where diners on the third Monday of every month can enjoy Puccini with their pasta or Verdi with their veal.

"It's Little Italy comes to Columbia," declared Vincent Guida, Piccolo's co-owner.

The two-hour repertoire is performed by the Baltimore/Washington Metropolitan Repertory Opera, a 5-year-old company of 25 people who aspire to sing professional opera full-time.

Three members each month grace a small stage in a sunken section of the restaurant big enough for five tables, a bar and a Yamaha baby grand piano.

With a garlic aroma, dim lamps and white tablecloths as scenery, they sing arias and duets from various operas, as well as Italian folk songs familiar to even the nonopera buff.

"Just about everybody loves to hear 'O Sole Mio,' " said Linda Rose Payne, a member of the company who organizes "Opera Night" at Piccolo's in Columbia and at its other location in Fells Point on the fourth Thursday of each month.

The programs demonstrate a restaurant's ingenuity in luring well-heeled patrons on a traditionally slow weeknight.

The entertainment attracts about 50 more diners than normally would show up, Guida said.

The performances also spotlight how struggling opera singers seeking exposure, practice and a few dollars perform at venues well below Lincoln Center.

Hoping to become the next Placido Domingo or Jessye Norman, many singers pay to participate in apprentice programs while auditioning for the rare opportunity to make a living from their passion.

Most members of the Baltimore/Washington company have "real jobs" as church choir leaders, accompanists or music teachers.

"Sopranos are a dime a dozen," said Payne, who teaches theater and voice out of her home in Silver Spring. "The competition out there is really fierce."

But it's nothing compared with the competition at Piccolo's each month between libretto and the clanging of silverware, tickety-tack of the cash register and chatter of uninterested barflies.

After all, Piccolo's is a no-jacket-required restaurant that seats 190, not a fancy concert hall where the crinkle of a candy wrapper is a nuisance. Many people have simply come to eat -- and talk.

"It's not like doing a performance where people have come special to see you," Payne said. "You never know what kind of a crowd you're going to get."

Cult following

Aside from the sporadic inattentive diners, "Opera Night" has attracted a bit of a cult following, about 10 regulars who live nearby, enjoy the food and love opera.

Perhaps the biggest fan is Dr. Carole Parnes, a Columbia pediatrician who has missed only a couple of performances at Piccolo's since they debuted two years ago.

Parnes grew up in the Bronx listening to her Italian father sing "O Sole Mio" around the house.

As a teen-ager, she nurtured her fondness for opera by taking the subway to the New York Metropolitan Opera and buying standing-room-only tickets.

"I'd see the sophisticated society people who would get dressed to the hilt, but were only there to be seen, not to hear opera," Parnes said. "So if it was a long opera, they'd leave after the first act and hand their tickets to the standing room-only people. I would get seats right down in front, which made me love opera even more."

Now, Parnes and her husband have their own table -- front and center -- at Piccolo's. No need for opera glasses. They also subscribe to the Baltimore Opera.

"Some of the voices you hear at Piccolo's are just as sweet," Parnes said. "They've turned me on to a lot of operas that I had never listened to before."

In fact, Parnes swears that Payne and Rohan's duet from "Lakme" is better than the acclaimed Joan Sutherland on compact disc.

Another frequent guest is Victor Broccolino, president of Howard County General Hospital. Broccolino remembers growing up in East Baltimore in the 1940s and listening to Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera.

"I like being so close to the singers at Piccolo's, and the acoustics aren't bad here," he said, sitting at a table with five other opera aficionados sipping red wine.

The night of Sept. 16, the pianist finally showed about 7: 55, the performers decided to do without the microphone and the tenor, Antonio Giuliano, was the only one who donned black-tie.

Payne, a soprano, wore a ruffled white blouse and black trousers, while the other soprano, Teresa Rohan, Payne's sister, wore a flowered dress.

The show started with Giuliano, a dark-haired, 32-year-old about a third the size of Pavarotti, singing Italian folk songs. He performed "Matinata," "Ti Voglio Bene" and "Musica Proibita," all songs about boundless passion. With Giuliano's dramatic expressions and soaring voice, you don't have to understand a word to feel a bit weepy.

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