KENOSHA, Wis. — Don't tell Nicholas Huff and Kaila Bingen that opera belongs to stuffy old folks in formal wear.
"Live music, including opera, can be accessible to everyone," Bingen said. "The stories in opera connect to the world today: Romance, tragedy and the joyful parts of life are all celebrated in opera."
The two Carthage College graduates teamed up to launch the Kenosha Opera Festival last fall.
Plans were made for an inaugural, gala concert … and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Now, instead of an in-person performance, the first Kenosha Opera Festival event was streamed online on Sunday, Aug. 9.
"We held out for a long time before canceling," Bingen told the Kenosha News. "It was a hard decision to make."
"The tipping point for us," Huff added, "was when the Fourth of July fireworks were canceled in Kenosha. We knew we couldn't have a big gathering."
Viewers can watch the concert at the Kenosha Opera Festival's Facebook page or YouTube Channel.
What they'll see is Huff and Bingen introducing soloists, leading up to a grand finale, the chorus piece from the opera "Nabucco," complete with full orchestra.
"It will look like a normal concert," Huff said.
In addition to short intros by Huff and Bingen, there will also be opera "fun facts" scattered throughout.
"It won't just be about the history of the piece of music," Bingen said. "It could also be some juicy scandal about the composer." See? Opera relates to today's culture!
Injecting fun facts — and fun in general — into the world of opera comes easily to Huff and Bingen, who laughed easily and often during a recent meeting at the Biergarten in Petrifying Springs County Park. The music there was heavy on polkas, offering a peppy backdrop to the conversation.
How to create a socially distanced concert
Huff, a tenor who performs regularly across the country with opera companies, said working with others without being in the same room wasn't that unusual.
"I travel so much anyway," he said, "that it was an easy transition."
Vocalists and instrumentalists were sent the score and a video to perform along with for the finale piece.
Huff then compiled the files to create a cohesive performance.
"It was about 35 different pieces," he said, laughing. "I got really good at video editing."
Huff is excited to, as he puts it, "bring technology and music to work in concert, pun intended, on this project."
Getting performers for the concert was surprisingly easy, Huff said.
"I reached out to people I know, and it really grew from there," he said. "It was surprising how far the network grew. We had people contacting us from across the U.S. and one from Austria."
Performers include a wide range of vocalists and instrumentalists, including students and professors and even an Air Force officer based in New Mexico (that's Bingen's brother, a cello player).
Bingen plays both violin parts for the finale, but that almost didn't happen.
"I broke my wrist," she said, "and was finally cleared to play. Just in time."
'Opera in the air'
The two are hoping to do an official inaugural concert in 2021 and are excited about the potential for the local opera company.
"Everyone we reached out to was really excited to work with us," Bingen said. "People have been so welcoming and open to our ideas."
Kenosha, Huff said, is the perfect place to launch an opera company.
"It feels like opera is in the air here," he said, recalling a visit to Tenuta's Deli, where he heard opera playing in the store. "I asked 'who picks the music?' And I was told 'the boss picks it,' that it wasn't just a random music service. Opera seems baked into the culture here, with the huge Italian influence."
Huff and Bingen also mentioned the wealth of talented music students in the Kenosha area, along with easy access to professional performers in Milwaukee and Chicago.
But what if you hate opera?
"We're bringing in modern, accessible, young performers," Bingen said. "Opera can be accessible to anyone."
Remember, too, if you think you hate opera, it's actually all around us. Think shows like "Evita," "Les Miserables" and a little musical called "Hamilton."
They're all operas, with no spoken dialogue.
"Opera was really the early form of musical theater," Huff said, pointing out that some operas also have spoken parts along with the music.
Looking for a silver lining in the pandemic, Bingen said having to adjust to a COVID-19 world "has brought us new art forms. It was born out of necessity, but we've discovered new ways to perform, over Zoom and other technology. And these new ways are probably here to stay."
Also here to stay, they hope, is the Kenosha Opera Festival.
"This is not a one-time thing," Bingen said. "We want to be here for a long time."