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Salsa Verdi

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At first it seemed like a normal neighborhood restaurant. The Mexican Festival on 102nd and Broadway in Manhattan is colorful, crowded and noisy. It was Friday about 10:45pm and the customers who were finishing up their dinners were talking - even yelling - over the live mariachi band. I took a seat at the bar, which was a little quieter and darker than the main dining room.

At around 11, the mariachi stopped. I wondered why the bar seemed to be getting more crowded instead of less. A man sat down and opened a small upright piano, which I hadn't even noticed was there. A young woman handed him sheet music, and he began to play. She opened her mouth and began--dramatically, beautifully, caressingly--to sing a German aria (I believe it was a Schubert leid, the last thing I expected to hear in this venue).

Welcome to opera night at Mexican Festival, where in the midst of lively bar chatter which only seems to diminish a little for the performers, classical singers get up to sing their hearts out, one after the other--sometimes alone, other times as a duet or trio. Many seem to be students. Some are dressed up in sparkles, and some are in sweats or jeans and you would never expect what was about to come out of their mouths.

A few of the singers seemed nervous as they walked up to the piano and plopped down their music, but that vanished with their first intake of breath. They knew they were good. Besides Mexican tenor Juan del Bosco, who moves his audience with an amazing combination of verve and sweetness, I was delighted by a powerful tenor named Lindell Carter as well as an artful soprano, Heather Bobeck. When Bobeck sang "Sempre Libera" from La Traviata, all the singers boisterously sang the responses from wherever they happened to be sitting around the room, including the man sitting next to me at the bar. I admit, it startled me at first. Later, one plaid-clad mezzo, deep into her role, flirted her way down the room as she sang "The Habanera." Hardly anyone seemed to be listening, but of course I was wrong: A dozen people belted out "Prends garde à toi!" exactly on cue--then went back to their drinks.

Being at Mexican Festival on Friday nights is a bit like being on the set of an opera--as if you are one of the extras on stage who happens not to be singing--or like being at an opera cast party. It's Cheers for opera lovers. Juilliard with a shot of tequila. There is an extraordinary sense of camaraderie. The place oozes good spirit, encouragement, and fun. Naturally, one of the songs that inevitably gets performed is "Toreador" from Carmen. Even the non-singers will join in on that one.

To me what makes this such a unique phenomenon is the combination of casual atmosphere and formally-trained voices. A lot of people seem to be just hanging out, talking to their friends while the singers are performing. Until your senses become adjusted, it seems oxymoronic to be listening to such proficient opera singers in this dark Mexican restaurant on Broadway and 102nd St. at midnight.

It all began one day when the aforementioned Juan del Bosco happened to stop by the restaurant and discovered they had mariachi. In Mexico in the early decades of the 20th century, mariachi was actually sung by operatic tenors. So it was natural for Juan to ask if he might sing occasionally with the band at Mexican Festival. He soon got to know the restaurant's two owners, Tony Carcamo and Jaime Lucero, and he started inviting friends to come there to hang out - they were mostly singers, dancers and musicians.

Then one night Juan said to Tony,

"What if we do opera night here?"

Tony said, "What do you need?"

"Just a piano."

And so Tony bought a piano. (You know what they say: Build it and they will come.)

In a city that is choking with tourist traps, chain stores and entertainments that most people can't afford, it feels miraculous to find a pocket of secret musical magic going on in this unexpected corner. I guess it shouldn't surprise anyone, given how many creative people are clustered on this island; indeed three of the best music schools are right here--Juilliard, Mannes and Manhattan School of Music. Still it's amazing to wander off of an almost deserted Broadway into such a treasure trove of talent and musical communing. It's obvious that many of these singers are friends. Whenever I go I always get the impression that I had somehow gotten into a private party - or some sort of relaxed audition scenario I am able to watch because I knew the secret password.
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A couple of weeks ago I took some curious friends there for after-dinner drinks. Juan was there to greet us (when he is not singing, he serves as host), as was the ever-charming co-owner, Tony. Only in a small town does one usually experience that "we're-closed-but-who-cares-it's-just-us" feeling. In fact, it struck me that there is no sense of Diva behavior here; everyone supports each other, there is no visible competitiveness. One of the reasons for this might be that no one is paid to perform - except the pianist. (According to Juan there are three or four different pianists, who rotate depending on which one is free that night). And just to make it even more appealing, every once in a while, a opera superstar will perform there, such as the renowned Javier Camarena, who sang there last March, on his birthday.

I love opera, so I'm in heaven on these Friday nights. But a part of me wishes I could have experienced the karaoke hour that reportedly used to follow the opera, but which has since been (apparently) usurped by the opera crowd. To have been taken on the strange odyssey from Mariachi to Madame Butterfly to "Mack the Knife" all in one night would certainly have been one for the books. And then who knows, by 2am I might have taken the stage myself. (www.JeanneMartinet.com)