Viking hats, a fat lady and a stage — all of these are commonly associated with the opera. But you won’t find any of these at Trattoria Sorrento’s monthly opera nights.
"I’m not a fat lady in horns. The whole concept of opera has changed over the years. It’s all about entertainment," said Diane Abel who started the opera nights about three years ago at Tratoria Sorrento.
A night of opera at the restaurant, located at 4930 Cordell Avenue, Bethesda, includes about two hours of singing and a preset four-course meal of Neapolitan cuisine for $50. The performances take place the first Thursday of every month and June 7 will be the next one. There is seating for around 65 people for the performance, which takes place in one designated part of the restaurant.
"It’s a four-course meal that starts with an appetizer for everyone, a mid-course of pasta then a main course of meat or fish and finished off with desert," said Giovanni DeSimone the owner and operator of the family run Trattoria Sorrento.
Abel, a Potomac resident for the past 18 years, isn’t the only one performing either. Every month she brings along pianist Kate Lewis and a tenor to accompany her.
"Katie is always there and she can play anything in any key, it’s wonderful," said Abel, "The tenor switches up from month to month so you don’t always hear the same voice every time you come."
THE VARYING performances and intimate surroundings are all part of the goal to make opera more accessible and fun for both opera buffs and beginners. Often Abel will walk around and talk with the audience or even ask them to sing along if it looks like enough people know the song.
"It’s just an opportunity to have a personalized performance that is very close to you and real. Diane will walk around the room; there is no longer that fourth wall. It’s all part of the experience, the music, the great food." said Lewis.
DeSimone agrees, "She really, really involves the crowd. She gets them to sing with her, they perform, the whole act."
This is exactly what Abel, who sang with the Washington Opera, wants.
"It’s about making opera more accessible to the public, whether it be a first time thing or a reintroduction," said Abel. "When a singer is on the stage they are so far removed from the people. But with an opera night you can really make a connection with them. You get to know them, talk to them. It’s very warm."
ABEL AND LEWIS do get to know their audience pretty well as repeat customers from month to month are not at all uncommon. The two work hard to present a mix of songs for newcomers and ones that regulars haven’t heard.
"Diane is generally the ringleader and she will surprise you. She thinks nicely and puts together a fantastic program that has new and classic elements," said Lewis.
The mix allows newcomers to hear songs that they may recognize from somewhere else like a car commercial or a movie while also presenting standards from classical opera. The performance isn’t all singing, either. Abel will take the time to tell a story about a song or explain what its premise is, all to get the audience more involved with what she is singing.
"I want people to sit down in a relaxed environment. Then I set the scene with a story about the song or what the opera is about, then sing it," Abel said.
It isn’t always all about opera though.
"We are an Italian restaurant," pointed out DeSimone, "so sometimes she will bring some Neopolitan songs or old Italian favorites."
REQUESTS AREN’T scoffed at either. In fact some people bring lists of songs they would like to hear.
"It’s all about entertainment, so we take requests and if we can do them we love to. Kate can play almost anything, many times she doesn’t even need the music. It’s incredible," said Abel.
Lewis agrees that taking requests is fun but isn’t as sure about her ability to play everything. "It depends on how recently I played it, but if I know a song I can play it without the music. We don’t do much ‘Melancholy Baby.’ though," she joked.
Beyond taking requests Abel will even allow audience members to get up and sing with her. Throughout the years she has had students and adults come up with her and try their hand at singing opera.
"I’ll invite people in sometimes. They come and want to sing and that is perfectly fine," she says.
UNFORTUNATLEY for anyone who can’t make the June 7 performance, opera night at Trattoria Sorrento is off for the months of July and August but will return in September.
"The bottom line is, if you can’t come in June, it will start up again in September, so mark it on your calendar," said Abel.
Marking it down might be a good idea for any local opera fan, as Trattoria Sorrento is one of the few local places where one can see live opera, and even fewer are in such an intimate space.
"It’s either here or the Kennedy Center if you live in the Bethesda area. I don’t know of any other places that do this," said DeSimone.