If you think opera is an outdated bore, Katie Small is ready to change your mind. It’s a lot more than people dressed like Vikings singing loudly in foreign languages. Small, the founder of the Small Opera Company, wants to show the world that opera is timeless. “People think that music today is about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and I tell them opera is too! It’s just a matter of making it accessible and contemporary and giving it a fresh face lift,” she says.
If you’re still unsure, look up a performance of the “Habanera” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, one of Small’s favorite pieces to perform. It’s scandalous. It’s sexy. And when the entire chorus erupts in unison, you can feel it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak French. Opera is intended to hit you in the gut with the raw emotion of the music. The themes are controversial, sensuous, devastating, beautiful. It’s the incredibly powerful music, not necessarily the words, that tells the story.
But if you don’t know all of the wonderful ins-and-outs of opera yet, Small is going to help you learn by bringing the music out of the opera house and into unexpected public places like farmers markets and wine bars. “Most people think of opera as being stuffy,” she says. “They think that you have to put on a tuxedo, buy a ticket, spend lots of money, and go be fancy. I’m showing people that opera isn’t scary. It’s been my mission to have both opera patrons and newbies enjoy opera equally.” The group emphasizes the music with minimalist costumes and stage scenery, but they add to the relevancy and humor of the performance by bringing in modern props like iPads, Snuggies, and Rastafarian hats.
Another clever method for capturing audience attention is the “Beep Game” — a game inviting audience members to yell out “Beep!” during a performance, forcing a swap between the singers even if they’re in the middle of a challenging high note. “When people who aren’t familiar with opera see the Beep Game, and they see us dancing around having a good time, they’ll stay and sit for a while,” says Small. “I had one woman come up to me at the farmers market and say, ‘I just got a parking ticket, and I’m not mad at all. I was supposed to grab a coffee and run, but I ended up staying for your whole show.’ That’s what I’m looking for — I want complete non-opera patrons to turn their heads and give opera a chance.”
Small founded SMOP in Atlanta in 2016 to combat the stereotype that opera is an elitist pursuit. “In Atlanta, you can throw a rock and hit a soprano. There are professional level singers everywhere,” she says. “So the mission was to make opera more mainstream, more everyday, and let the community of non-musicians know that we’re just like you. We can come out in jean shorts and a tank and drink some wine and sing some opera.” Since moving to Charleston in March 2017, the Small Opera has performed at public and private events across town. They continue to look for new, fun venues for pop-ups, themed events, wine nights, and opera brunches. They once did monthly opera brunches at Carmella’s that were so popular that they had to stop. The venue was simply too small for the amount of people that showed up to watch every month.
While spreading opera awareness and enjoyment is SMOP’s focus, the group is happy to mix it up. “We don’t have to limit it to opera,” says Small. “We do musical theater. We do standards and crowd pleasers.” They also perform at parties and events for children, some of the most rewarding experiences for the group. “The kids love it more than I would’ve expected,” says Small. “They love it when we’re animated. We just recently partnered with Black Tie Music Academy and did a Disney sing-along. It was fantastic. All the kids dressed up, and we called it ‘Divas Do Disney.'”
Small grew up in a musical household where her parents, who are choir singers, made up songs for her about everything from their address to what they’d eat for dinner. Her love of music, and especially of singing loudly, persisted over the years and led her to the operatic advocate she is today. “Opera is the olympics of singing,” she says. “If you can sing opera, you can sing anything. I’ve been very fortunate to bring opera to people who have never experienced it before.
You can catch a SMOP’s Pop! at the Marion Square Farmers Market on Sat. Dec. 1 and at Park Circle’s Stems & Skins on Sat. Dec. 8. Visit smallopera.com for a complete list of events or to contact for collaboration.