A sampling of opera at Whole Foods

BSO, Washington National Opera singers perform in Harbor East store

March 25, 2010|By Mary Carole McCauley | mary.mccauley@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

There was romance among the rutabagas yesterday at the downtown Whole Foods Market, passion among the persimmons.

Jesus Daniel Hernandez was stationed in one corner of the produce section in the Harbor East store at 1010 Fleet St., wearing the black apron used to designate employees of the grocery chain. He hefted a ripe avocado in his palm, and wistfully eyed lissome Jennifer Waters as she stood by the oranges.

Waters rubbed her thumb meditatively over one of the sunny globes, then flicked her eyes quickly in Hernandez's direction.

Suddenly, he put down the fruit, tossed his hat in the air, and launched into the "Libiamo" from Giuseppe Verdi's "La Traviata" that celebrates drinking and love.

As the pair began to waltz around the aisles, soprano Emily Albrink, mezzo Cynthia Hanna and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov joined the chorus.

Shopper Pat Crossland-Smith looked over her shoulder warily and retreated to the perimeter of the department, next to the nuts. "I was thinking, 'These are not your typical Whole Foods employees,' " she said later.

The lighthearted stunt shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday was aimed at publicizing this weekend's Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts, which will include singers from the Washington Opera's Young Artists Program performing Samuel Barber's "A Hand of Bridge" and George Gershwin's "Blue Monday."

Laura Farmer, the BSO's public relations manager, cooked up the scheme after watching a YouTube video of a similar stunt pulled in a market in Valencia, Spain in November. To date, the six-minute film has received about 3.3 million views.

"I saw that video for the first time two months ago, and thought, 'We could pull that off here,' " Farmer says. "For Baltimore's opera-starved audiences, it's time to get opera into new venues and places you wouldn't expect to hear it sung."

About a dozen shoppers were lured to the produce section minutes before the scheduled performance when a series of giveaways was announced over the Whole Foods loudspeaker, from reusable bags to free pastries to symphony tickets.

When onlookers saw the television cameras, they doubtless suspected that something was up, but they couldn't have predicted precisely what was about to occur. When Hernandez, a tenor, and Waters, a soprano, launched into their duet, the crowd laughed, applauded and jockeyed for position. Several filmed the event on their cell phones.

Despite her initial hesitation, Crossland-Smith, 52, of Parkville, who had run over to the store from her office nearby to pick up some mangoes, was charmed by the event's playfulness.

"It was exciting and a fun change of pace," she said. "I've never been an opera lover. But, after seeing this performance, maybe now I'll consider it."

That's just how symphony officials had hoped she'd react.

After the song had ended, Hanna, addressing the crowd on behalf of the singers, said they welcomed the chance to "show people how accessible classical music can be, by taking it out of the opera house and into everyday life."

Whole Foods employee Mariah Starks said that when the grocery chain was contacted by the symphony, it was eager to make the event work, despite the logistical difficulties. Staff members gave up their lunch hours to coach the new "employees" in their duties.

"Our customers are our top priority, but we thought they would get as much, if not more, enjoyment out of the performance than it would be an inconvenience," she said.

Farmer originally thought of staging the street opera at the farmers' market beneath the Jones Falls Expressway, but it doesn't open until May - long after the concerts have ended. She didn't rule out the possibility that similar encounters might be staged elsewhere. Might there be an influx of French horns into shopping-mall food courts? Or piccolos in Penn Station?

"We don't want to give away our secrets," she said, "but we hope to do more in the future to break down barriers between performers and our audiences."

If you go
Members of the Washington Opera's Young Artists Program will perform this weekend as part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's "Hearts, Cards & Carnival" program at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Show times: 8 p.m. today; 11 a.m., 7 p.m. Saturday; and 3 p.m. Sunday. $26-$60. Call 410-783-8000 or go to www.bsomusic.org.

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