Opera, Vegas-style

Sin City troupe puts the old high art in a fun new light

Dressed in the wacky garb of the Whos from Whoville, the Sin City Opera took the stage at the Lake Las Vegas tree-lighting ceremony recently to perform How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Not the concert you’d expect from a group of trained opera singers, but they don’t belong to your typical opera company.

This is what Karalyn Todd discovered in September, when she responded to an ad seeking a piano accompanist and ended up becoming Sin City Opera’s musical director. Todd, who accompanied major classical artists at age 16 and later became a professor of music in Canada, had expected to be greeted with a certain amount of pomp and ego at her audition. “They’re just very eccentric, and very demanding,” she says of most classical vocalists. (Such qualities drove her away from opera and into musical theater.)

Not so these unconventional, self-labeled nerds of Sin City Opera, who are more apt to laugh out their noses than turn them up at anyone. Yet, the four vocalists at the core of the group, for whom Todd now plays, are no slouches. For example, Alex Rodin Mendoza, the company manager, is a graduate of Rice University (the Ivy League of opera education) and has performed numerous roles with various companies. And Ginger Land-van Buuren boasts accolades from The New York Times (for her debut with the Bronx Opera), she’s also sung at Carnegie Hall, and is the voice of the Laughing Opera Singer in those spoofy Fandango commercials. Having arrived here only a week prior to her audition, and having long grown frustrated with the restrictions inherent to classical music (“I felt like I was always coloring in the lines”), Todd was thrilled to discover these non-divas; these kindred souls offering her a platform to explore classical music in refreshing new ways. “I’ve learned to just leave my expectations at the door,” she says.

That’s all local troupe asks of audiences, in its mission to enlighten the community about the wonders of opera, and to bring the art form into the 21st century.

“We’ll do the rest,” promises president and artistic director Skip Galla, a countertenor and baritone.

By the rest, he means they’ll dress up as Dr. Seuss characters, introduce themselves to our families (negative ideas about opera are often passed from parents to children, and Sin City Opera means to intervene), and they’ll carol us while we holiday shop.

Better yet, they’ll also perform operas in English, so we understand them; they’ll modernize antiquated material to appeal to today’s audiences; and they’ll get a little crazy with their musical interpretations. They recently incorporated a whole chorus of kazoos into Offenbach’s classic Ba-Ta-Clan.

“It has to be perfect. It has to be fabulous, but we like to make fun of ourselves, too,” says Michelle Thelen, who not only sings but designs the troupe’s costumes.

Finally, they will do their best to ensure tickets remain affordable (in the $15 range), and they prefer single-act shows to the grand operas which can run up to five hours.

“The grand opera is for people who already love it,” Todd says. Sin City Opera wants to attract people who have never experienced opera.

And it seems to be working. Each opera they’ve performed since coming together a year ago—Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Mozart’s The Impresario and Ba-Ta-Clan—has been to a larger audience than the last. After each show, they are approached by individuals who are surprised, even dumbfounded, over their newborn appreciation for opera.

“We have something of a cult following,” Galla says. “It’s really delightful.”

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