<bt>Above the clattering of pans from the open kitchen and the clamor of the Saturday night dinner crowd, a clear alto voice resonates above all at the Macaroni Grille in Kingstowne. Everything seems to stop as Suzanne Luft goes from table to table, singing Italian opera songs known as arias.
Before movies, opera was a way of telling a story. Luft is as much an actress as a singer in her performances.
"Part of the song is my delivery of it," she said. "Some of these songs are a character role. They're all pretty much love songs. Performing the role is essential to getting to the meaning of the song."
Luft especially likes the enthusiasm of the children as she goes table to table.
"The kids are probably the best part," she said. "For the most part, they're pretty excited. They make it really fun."
While singing arias in Italian, French and German, Luft seems to have a fixed stare, not letting the surroundings throw her off. However, she can count on the other wait staff to try to join the act as well.
"The staff tries to make me laugh when they walk by," Luft said.
Luft has a music degree from University of Maryland and strayed from music before finding the Macaroni Grill job.
"It's the first job I've had where I'm doing what I went to school for," she said.
ARIAS at the height of the weekend dinner rush almost seem out of place in this world of chain restaurants, unchanging menus and drive-in windows. But at Macaroni Grill, a nationwide chain specializing in Italian food, opera is part of the deal.
"It's one of the things that truly sets us apart for casual dining," said manager Chris Middlekauff.
The restaurant gets crowded, and sometimes mistakes happen, but that's when Middlekauff really relies on Luft’s undaunted attention to her singing.
"People are more forgiving or understanding when they have entertainment," he said.
Laura Fogarty has Italian in her blood and considers the arias at dinner to be a nice touch. Over the summer, Fogarty saw all the Macaroni Grill singers on various days.
"I think it's nice, different and quaint," Fogarty said, "especially for people who are proud of their heritage. I admire the singers. To be able to do that takes a special person."
Dianna Merrifield enjoyed the singing at dinner, too.
"I thought it was a nice touch," she said.
Louis Adams, corporate spokesperson, noted that the opera isn't a feature in all their restaurants, but "most of our 200 Macaroni Grille locations have opera singers," he said.
"The roving opera singers are big crowd pleasers," Adams said.
The Macaroni Grill chain is based in Dallas, Texas, and boasts 12 restaurants in the area. The song list doesn't vary much from location to location, though.
"I think there are a few standard arias from the opera world," Adams said.
Luft is currently the only singer at the Kingstowne location, but manager Bill Bulmer is looking to recruit more. The restaurant lost two singers in recent weeks with the start of the new school year.
"We'll probably be going to local schools," Bulmer said.
Luft grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore but now lives in Alexandria. When she isn't singing three or four nights a week, or teaching voice at Jammin' Java in Vienna, she's doing freelance graphics for Blue Guitar Design in Alexandria. Luft has even thought about teaching song in schools. "When I was teaching my friends, I enjoyed it," she said.
Luft has also considered trying other venues for Italian opera in the area, such as opera night at Tuto Bene on Glebe Road in Arlington.