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Pabst and Puccini

Bringing classical music to the beer-stained masses

Author Bob Cooper Illustration Peter Oumanski

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SAN FRANCISCO – On the ragged edge of San Francisco’s “Trendyloin” district, the dim-lit Café Royale is filling up with an evening crowd, here to sip $3 PBRs and to take in a show that does not require a cover charge—a particular attraction for some.

When the music starts, it’s so emphatic that only the young couple making out in back remains oblivious. It’s a scene that’s being played out in countless bars across the city, with one difference: The singers are belting out covers from the 19th century. They call it “Opera on Tap.”

Launched in a Brooklyn bar called Freddy’s in 2005, the beermat bel canto has proven to be surprisingly popular—it can now be seen in no fewer than nine U.S. cities. “We want to break down the image of opera as elitist, stuffy and irrelevant,” says Adina Dorband, an up-and-coming soprano who’s emceeing tonight’s show. “Here you can relax, enjoy a drink and experience classical music in a new way.”

A knockout in a slinky black dress and silver brooch, Dorband peppers her introductions with opera trivia and quips about castrati. During one of her own numbers, a romantic duet, she fiddles with a cell phone, a sly comic turn that elicits raucous laughter.

“There’s a level of intimacy that you can’t get in a theater,” she says later. “Our Carmen has circled the entire bar while singing ‘Habanera.’ Another soprano sat in an audience member’s lap during a saucy duet. It’s a lot of fun.”

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