By James Latham
Here at the festival, we always show some films that emphasize music as well as others made in or about Los Angeles. One film that does both this year, and is an L.A. premiere, is Sing Your Own Song: An Opera Love Story. This feature-length documentary is about a niche culture in L.A., that of restaurants that regularly provide live opera performances. I spoke recently with the film’s creator, Anne O’Neal, to find out more about it.
James Latham: Not many restaurants feature live opera, but there are a lot of different places and situations where people listen to music while eating. What do you think it is that makes food, drink, and music work so well together?
Anne O’Neal: They’re all three sensual experiences that nourish us in different ways. Music can fully engage our senses and also act like a film soundtrack by enhancing our feelings while enjoying good friends, good food, and good wine.
JL: What is it about opera in particular that makes it so appealing to the owners of these restaurants and their customers?
AON: The co-owner of Café 322, Mario Lalli (featured in the film) grew up in an Italian family listening to opera, trained as an opera singer and then performed with New York City Opera. Many of the singers and audience members grew up with opera as part of their family tradition. Patti Palumbo (a soprano and hairdresser who loves to sing as she works) had no thoughts of singing opera until she was discovered by a vocal coach while styling hair. The emotions evoked by the music are timeless. New or old passion, listener or performer, once opera catches your interest you get hooked.
JL: Is this particular combination of food and art mostly an L.A. thing? If so, why do you think that is? Regardless, what are some of the local restaurants that you can recommend?
AON: In the 1960s there was a very active opera scene centering around Sarno’s in Los Feliz. World famous opera singers would stop in there after performances or concerts and just get up and sing as the spirit moved them. There were also talented amateur singers who performed regularly, including Alberto Sarno the owner. Several of the singers featured in the documentary met at Sarno’s. Right now, there’s an open mic night Sundays at Olympus Greek Tavern in North Hollywood and Wednesday nights at Cucina Bene in Sherman Oaks for opera, show tunes, and pretty much whatever the crowd that night feels like singing.
JL: Your film says a lot about the performers, from how they first got interested in opera to why they prefer this particular kind of venue. While a restaurant venue may be relatively modest and obscure, the performers enjoy the benefits of a steady local gig that can work for them creatively as well as personally and professionally. Young aspirants have a safe place to grow, while older artists with families and other commitments can enjoy the combination of creative outlet and life-work balance; and all of them can bond together. Anyway, what do you think of all this?
AON: I was really drawn in by the story of how this diverse group of people, all different backgrounds and ages, had bonded together through their love of opera and become a second family. The feedback from a live audience is an invaluable asset to any artist. Accompanied by a wonderful pianist like Danny Guerrero, the younger singers have a chance to develop and expand their repertoire. Many of the mature singers have sung professionally and now have moved on to other fields for various reasons. They still have glorious voices and this type of venue gives them an opportunity to share their gift. Part of the pleasure of filming the movie was seeing the mentorship of the younger singers by the more mature singers and the joy on the part of the audience members as the younger performers blossomed.
JL: I think I saw the DVD cover for the movie Aria in the background of one or two shots in your film. Several years ago, I saw that film with a friend who was a very knowledgeable opera lover. The film consists of ten short pieces directed by different filmmakers; each piece is a sort of music video for a particular popular aria. My friend hated the film for its MTV-inspired style as well as its “greatest hits” mentality of plucking individual songs from their original works and slapping them together out of context. From your experience, what would you say to people who have rigid or elitist notions of what opera is, and how it should be presented to audiences?
AON: Opera appreciation can take almost as much time and dedication as performing opera. But if you’ve ever seen a movie, a television show, or a commercial—you’ve enjoyed opera. It probably is best to start listening to the more familiar pieces, even out of context, because you already know the melodies without realizing it. My apologies to your friend, but if liking The Lone Ranger gets you interested in opera (the famous theme song is taken from the overture of the opera William Tell by Rossini) I think that’s great. The idea of opera can be intimidating but the experience of opera is immediate, encompassing and emotional. Even the smaller opera companies now project supertitles above the stage so you can follow what’s going on, and at the restaurants there always seems to be a friendly tablemate to fill you in on the details of an aria.
JL: With the many challenges today facing both restaurants and opera, how optimistic are you about the long-term prospects of these particular restaurants? Or even of opera itself?
AON: Many small businesses, especially restaurants, are still feeling the effects of the economic downturn, so it’s hard to say. The opera restaurants offer a great deal: dinner and a show for the price of a meal, so I hope they’ll be able to continue on. Opera started as a popular art form and I think all the major opera companies are running special programs to make opera more available and accessible to a larger audience. Opera’s been around for 400 years, so I’m crossing my fingers for at least 400 more.
JL: Anything you’d like to mention that we haven’t already covered?
AON: I started this film because a dear friend, Jenny Saraceno, told me about her wonderful friends and the good times they had singing opera at a local restaurant. Jenny was an accomplished pianist in her own right, as well as teaching and leading the choral programs at Arminta School in North Hollywood for many years. Sadly, Jenny passed away around this time last year. Her passing made me think of all the young lives she touched and the joy in music that she had passed on to a younger generation. At a time of drastic budget cuts, I think we all need to speak up for supporting arts education in the schools. It’s important to learn the core curriculum, but I think arts education is equally important in helping us learn why we do things and what’s important in life.
JL: OK, thanks for your time, and for sending us your film.
AON: Thank you. I’ll get down off my soapbox now. We’re all excited about Sing Your Own Song’s Los Angeles Premiere at The Valley Film Festival. Hope to see you there!
The 14th annual Valley Film Festival takes place December 10-14, 2014, at the all-digital Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood. For more info, visit our website or Facebook page. The L.A. premiere of Sing Your Own Song: An Opera Love Story is 7:00 pm, Friday, December 12.