Operaoke, Begun as a Lark, Has Grown in Popularity, and Each Week the Cream of Area Musical Theater Professionals Shows Up

“Most people are just excited to share whatever classical music means to them. We’re all pretty accepting.”

Operaoke Photo courtesy of MendelssohnsPDX/Facebook.

As MendelssohnsPDX celebrates its first anniversary this July, Portland’s only classical music-themed nightspot has managed to cultivate a loyal following among the orchestral set while neatly countering just about every newcomer’s expectations. Patrons largely ignore the house wine list and instead knock back cutely named trad cocktails, an eclectic playlist veers more toward jazz and folk than string quartets, and the narrow passageway leading performers to the elevated stage rather blatantly disproves the one thing Americans feel they know about the bar’s most popular weekly attraction: More often than not, Operaoke’s over when the thin fellow sings.

“We always felt minimalism that accentuates surroundings would set the right atmosphere,” says Mendelssohn’s founder Lisa Lipton, executive director of the Newport Symphony and direct descendant of her bar’s titular composer. “In a spirited bar, that manifests as gold tones, whiskey-based drinks and antiquities indicative of music.”

Cabinets above the bar formerly holding the top-shelf liquors of past tenant Sidecar 11 now display a motley assemblage of those instruments—a metallic marching band clarinet, a pair of Wagner tubas donated by a local composer.

“They’re all functional instruments that you can take off the wall and play, and that actually happens on brass nights,” Lipton says. “Maybe you’ve played in middle school or high school. Even if you don’t know how, we could teach you a thing or two. Most people are just excited to share whatever classical music means to them. We’re all pretty accepting.”

However cordial and welcoming the regulars may be, Operaoke remains a daunting proposition, and not just because architectural constraints forced Lipton to erect Mendelssohn’s stage 8 feet off the ground. Begun as something of a lark last autumn, the event has steadily grown in popularity, and each week now sees the cream of area musical theater professionals, golden-throated grad students, touring companies, and local luminaries of all stripes—Zachariah Galatis, the Oregon Symphony’s solo piccolo, lilted Sondheim during our visit—test their pipes with live accompaniment from ever-forgiving pianist Colin Shepard.

“We want to provide a space where you can sing without stress,” Shepard explains, “and, for the most part, people [choose] their very favorite arias: Mozart, Verdi, ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Puccini, audience pleasers, the really beautiful stuff. Rarely do they need to run through something crazy, but I take it as a challenge. I can sight read most everything. On opera night, people usually do opera, but if you’re feeling ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ come down here and kill it!”

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