Opera is the rock concert of classical music

Apr 19 2019

By Amy Kenny

Julie Nesrallah knows what you’re thinking, but she isn’t snobby, despite the opera singing.

“I’m not a snob and it’s not a snobby scenario,” she says over the phone from Toronto, where the mezzo-soprano hosts Tempo, a classical music program on CBC, serves as executive producer of Carmen on Tap (more on that later) and works as a singer and actress. “That’s not what opera is about. It’s about being raunchy and loud and sweaty. It’s not quite like a rock concert, but, in classical music, it’s kind of the equivalent.”

She’ll prove that to Whitehorse when she brings An Operatic Cabaret to the Old Fire Hall for two nights on May 10 and May 11.

“Julie is one of the most charismatic opera performers in the country,” says Casey Prescott, CEO of the Yukon Arts Centre. “And as the Yukon Arts Centre continues to build out more opportunities for Yukoners to see live opera, we could think of no one better to present to help build more interest and enthusiasm for the art form. Yukoners will be in for a real treat as Julie is an operatic tour de force.”

It wasn’t always that way. Growing up, she was in a rock band. She loved Miles Davis and Van Morrison. She still does. But after the rock band and after testing out musical theatre, she tried some classical singing.

“And the classical repertoire was the thing I did best. No one was more surprised than I was … I’m from a middle/lower middle-class Lebanese immigrant family, born in Ottawa,” she says. “I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth, going to the symphony.”

“But you can like a lot of things and now it’s time to get opera out of that little tower.”

Nesrallah does this by bringing opera into non-traditional spaces with events such as Carmen on Tap. The format for the performance is this – Nesrallah and a cast of eight descend on a bar (usually Lula Lounge in Toronto, though she has performed at various venues there and in Ottawa), explain the story of the 1875 French opera Carmen, and then sing it while people lounge with their pints.

She says she often finds that the barrier people have to opera is simply the language, which keeps them from understanding the universal themes. Once she explains what the French or Italian or Russian lyrics are about, it’s easier for audiences to connect.

Carmen is about a woman who is a gypsy and she falls for a guy and he falls for her but then he starts getting too possessive.”

It’s relatable. Nesrallah says it’s amazing to look at operas and realize that we’re still dealing with the same things today they were in the 1800s – whether that’s the heartache of being ignored by someone you love, or the hope you feel at the beginning of a new relationship.

“I think the storytelling in opera is essentially the same storytelling that has made up all the stories of humanity since the dawn of time,” she says.

When she performs at the Old Fire Hall, along with pianist Robert Kortgaard, she’ll be singing a few songs from Carmen, as well as some classical and show tunes.

“It will be my first time up to the Yukon and I can’t wait. I think it’s one of the few places in Canada where I have not sung yet so it’s really exciting.”

“And really, at the end of the day, it’s about making a connection. My most favourite thing in the world is going somewhere new and making a connection with people, so this is the thing I hope for the most. I’m going to put on a sequined dress and sing my heart out for you and I know that we’ll find something in common.”

Tickets are $30 and are available at yukontickets.com.

Amy Kenny is a Yukon-based writer. Her journalism has been published by Up Here, Walrus, Vice, Canadian Geographic, National Geographic Book Publishing, Yukon News and the Hamilton Spectator. Her fiction, poetry, non-fiction and reviews have appeared in Hazlitt, Room, The Antigonish Review, Prism and The Humber Literary Review. She has also written web and promotional content for numerous travel, tourism, health, wildlife and arts organizations.