Fresco Opera’s ‘8-Bit Opera’ incorporates the fellow art form of video games – Isthmus

Fresco Opera is known for creating fresh and accessible versions of the genre, and its Garage Opera series fits that bill perfectly. Thanks to the earnest efforts and hard work of the wife-and-husband team of artistic director Melanie Cain and executive director Frank Cain, Fresco Opera consistently delivers innovative and engaging performances. This summer’s show, titled 8-Bit Opera, debuted in two suburban garages June 29 and 30, and returns for two more shows, in two different garages, July 13 and 14.

The opera features a unique plot twist inspired by the video game world of the Mario Brothers. The 45-minute rendition was light on storyline, but heavy on audience interaction, centering on a young man playing his video game. The audience at the July 30 show, about 150 strong, helped the game’s heroes make choices of weaponry as they went into battle.

Melanie Cain wrote the English words for 8-Bit Opera, which features masterworks from great composers, including Purcell, Mozart, Donizetti and Verdi. The show had a banana theme (also carried over from Mario), including KwikTrip bananas and Laffy Taffy banana candy tossed into the audience. 

Singing outside presents numerous challenges, including varying acoustics, ambient noise, unpredictable weather, and, in this case, the absence of a conductor. These issues were evident in several of the ensemble’s performances, with the young cast displaying inconsistent vocal quality. While opera is traditionally “unplugged,” I would have preferred the singers to use microphones for the musical numbers for the sake of acoustics, as they did for the dialogue. The skillful pianist occasionally struggled with the outdoor conditions too.

Even so, the strongest performances stood out. Samuel Alvarez was impressive as a young gamer. Wearing a T-shirt reading “I put my game on pause to be here,” Alvarez led the final number, “Holding Out For A Hero,” and excelled in both singing and choreography. 

Lauren Shafer had fine moments with a lovely light soprano that moved quite well, though she didn’t always connect her high voice to the low. Allison Hull led the cast admirably with a beautiful lyric voice and exemplary musicianship. To borrow gaming terminology, Hull’s work was a generation ahead of her colleagues. 

Fresco Opera’s inventive approach and energetic presentation captivated the audience despite any flaws. Whether you are interested in gaming, opera, neither or both, I encourage you and your family to attend. If Fresco’s mission involves bringing opera to an appreciative and interactive audience, then mission accomplished. The performance reaffirmed the company’s dedication to revitalizing the operatic experience for contemporary viewers. As one attendee quipped, “It was like drinking Trader Joe’s two-buck chuck — it was good, the price was right, and it was readily available.” Enough said.

Garage Opera shows will run two more times: July 13 at 2110 Vilas Ave. in Madison and July 14 at 2341 Talc Trail in Madison. Performances are free, begin at 2 p.m., and bring your own lawn chair.

Dan Koehn, vice president of the Isthmus board of directors, knows a “bit” about opera, having sung in the Chicago Lyric Opera chorus and co-leading Opera for the Young as general director.

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