Outdoor opera returns to Durham

Nov. 04, 2013 @ 10:36 PM

The last time Durham residents saw an outdoor opera, it was 1985 when the Durham Arts Council staged Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” in Brightleaf Square.

On Monday, a crowd outside of the Durham Performing Arts Center made up mostly of visitors in town for ArtsMarket saw an opera with a rotating silver piano (with two keyboards), smoke, lights, and a blimp that lip-synched.

Squonk Opera, a company based in Pittsburgh, Pa., put on a free performance of its “GO Roadshow” for ArtsMarket patrons and anyone else who braved the brisk cold. Squonk set up its show on the company’s traveling flatbed truck, complete with lights and sound gear.

Just before the eight-member group took the stage, they paraded street-band style into the DPAC lobby, played some songs, then began the show proper. With plenty of drums, electric guitar and bass, this was not Bizet.

“We call it opera because it combines the arts the way opera does,” said Jackie Dempsey, one of the artistic directors of Squonk, who also played the rotating grand piano. “GO Roadshow” is about a year and a half old, and has toured about 14 states, Dempsey said. “We make a new show every other year and then tour them,” she said.

Patrice Kaluza of Raleigh, who is with SeaSoundStudio Entertainment of Raleigh, said she enjoyed the “oddity” of the production and used a “Star Trek” analogy, saying that Squonk was taking music where it has not gone before.

Kaluza is among the exhibitors this week marketing their performing artists to potential venue buyers.

Squonk Opera’s “GO Roadshow” is the first time ArtsMarket has presented a public performance event. ArtsMarket began in 2000, and is held every two years. This year marks its second time at the Durham Convention Center and Carolina Theatre. Sponsored by N.C. Presenters Consortium and the N.C. Arts Council, ArtsMarket allows performing artists to meet with representatives of concert halls and other venues who are buying talent. Performing artists get to showcase their work in front of possible buyers and presenters.

Barbara Meyer of Admire Entertainment, a Palisades, N.Y., booking agency, was among the first exhibitors to set up tables Monday. Meyer praised the Durham ArtsMarket and North Carolina’s support for the arts. “I prefer coming to this conference than some of the bigger conferences. … You can’t get a bad meal,” she said. “People here take the arts seriously.”

Meyer represented, among others, Australian magician James Galea’s show “I Hate Rabbits,” the “Ask a Black Man Comedy Tour” and “Faye Lane’s Beauty Shop Stories.”

“We’re all competitive colleagues,” Meyer said of the exhibitors. “If one person does well, we all do well.” 

Because of the number of performers and the “crunch to sell tickets,” venues of different sizes often must work as a team, she said.

Local singer and recording artist Yolanda Rabun made her first visit to ArtsMarket. In addition to her exhibitor’s table, she performs Wednesday during one of the showcases, “so I have 15 minutes to wow them,” she said.

She has some shows booked for 2014 and 2015, and hopes ArtsMarket will help fill more of the calendar.

“Being part of this is just invaluable. You can’t put a price on it,” Rabun said.

Rhonda Mayer represented Hobgood Productions from Hobgood in Halifax County. The company represents The Hobgood Players, who present a USO type show, a country legends show and a 1950s and 1960s show.

ArtsMarket has two strong points, she said.

“You get to see people face to face,” which is good for the artists and the venue buyers, Mayer said. The performance showcases “give you ideas for how to improve you act.”

Even if an artist does not get a lot of bookings at the conference, she said, “sometimes the contacts you make come through later.”

Members of Tillers Folly, a Canadian-based trio that plays music in the American acoustic roots music tradition, set up a booth and were preparing for their showcase performance on Tuesday.

In August 2012, the trio won the Independent Music Association’s “Social Action Song of the Year” award for their song “Death and Taxes.” The band has a strong following in the Northwest and hopes to get more bookings in the Southeast, said manager Brian Smith.

Events at ArtsMarket are open only to registered participants. The ArtsMarket continues through Wednesday.