Outdoor lunchtime concerts feature opera, steel band

First Thursday program held at two city plazas

August 02, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The sounds of a Trinidad-Tobago steel band filled the air at Hopkins Plaza in Baltimore yesterday. At the same time, lilting live opera entertained listeners in Mount Vernon Square.

Both First Thursday lunchtime concerts were free and brought out people who might otherwise have shied away from the sun at noon on an oppressively hot summer day.

"Even though the sun's beating down, it's not bad," said Gloria Hazel, tapping her foot lightly to the Baltimore Islanders steel drums on a shade-free granite plaza at Charles and Baltimore streets. "The music makes me think of the water and the beach. You get lost in the moment."

The concerts are part of a larger program held the first Thursday of every month and are intended to enliven public life for those who work along the Charles Street corridor. Merchants, gallery owners and restaurateurs often stay open later in the evening with other special events designed to attract people to the area.

"We want to promote the advantage of being a downtown employee, to showcase part of the culture that makes downtown a unique place," said Meghann Siwinski, public relations coordinator for the Downtown Partnership, a group of 450 Baltimore businesses and nonprofits. "Also, we want to open the public spaces to better use and encourage pedestrian traffic downtown."

The Washington Monument base served as a background for the singers of Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore. The African-American professional opera company was asked to launch the first opera season of First Thursdays yesterday.

Their performance was briefly threatened by a power outage, but the show soon went on.

Soprano Sabrina Coleman Clark was scheduled to sing melodies from Bizet's Carmen and Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, among other operas. Neither she nor the other singers performed in costume.

"People think of opera as stiff and here we are in a relaxed setting," said Peggy Drayton, sitting on a bench and shaded by a straw hat.

"It fills the park with music and it's a nice lunchtime break," said Lisa S. Keir, executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District. "It's amazing to see how live music draws people to the area."

One passer-by was Lawrence O'Dwyer, an actor with Center Stage who glanced at the Municipal Opera Company's schedule and wondered aloud if they needed a witch to play in Hansel and Gretel.

Rebecca Austin, an opera singer training in New York who knows the company, came to listen.

"This is a joy, sharing their gifts. For a black artist to perform in a venue like this is a springboard," she said of members of the company.

Bornali Kundu, a 17-year-old girl working at the Walters Art Museum, said she took an early break so she could listen to "opera outside."

Serendipity played a role for a couple visiting from Albuquerque, N.M. Todd and Barbara Moore were on a downtown shuttle bus when the driver told them of the outdoor opera, so they got off at Mount Vernon.

"Today's my birthday and I'm an opera fan. This was meant to be," said Barbara Moore, 50.

Tenor Nathan Jones' rendition of "It Ain't Necessarily So," from the ground-breaking 1930s jazz opera Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin was a crowd-pleaser.

There was just one request at the end. "Next time make it cooler," said R. Michael Charles, another spectator, clad in shorts.

For more information about events, call 410-244-1030, or visit www.GoDowntownBaltimore.com.

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