Opera on the Vine brings music to unexpected places in the Tri-Cities

Jill Madison, Paris Rodgers, Cynthia Vaughn and Molly Holleran perform at the recent Opera on the Vine pop-up opera event at Emerald of Siam in Richland.
Jill Madison, Paris Rodgers, Cynthia Vaughn and Molly Holleran perform at the recent Opera on the Vine pop-up opera event at Emerald of Siam in Richland.

The stage at the Emerald of Siam in Richland usually plays host to rock shows.

Or blues shows. Or funk. Or indie. Or even Americana.

But on a Sunday evening earlier this year, several classically-trained singers performed pieces from a different — and, given the setting, somewhat unexpected — musical genre: opera.

And they just about blew the roof off the place.

The concert, called Arias at the Emerald, was coordinated by Cynthia Vaughn and marked the debut of her Opera on the Vine.

The opera company offers pop-up shows at wineries, breweries, restaurants, corporate events, private homes and the like.

The Emerald showcase was casual and fun, filled with levity and also “extreme talent,” said Dara Quinn, Emerald co-owner.

“I’m really excited about (the company) and I feel blessed they chose the Emerald as one of their venues,” Quinn said. “It’s a great addition to the music community here.”

The company is a trademark of Vaughn’s Magnolia Music Studio-Riverwalk in Richland, which offers voice lessons as well as instruction in piano, strings and trumpet.

Vaughn is a classically trained singer and has performed professionally around the country.

She spent a decade on the faculty at Colorado State University, teaching voice, before moving to the Tri-Cities a few years ago.

She relocated because of her husband’s job at the Hanford site.

When Vaughn arrived in town, she quickly became involved in the performing arts scene. She was blown away by the depth of talent here, particularly when it came to singers.

“There are quite a few really high level classically-trained singers who have performed across the country, and they’re here because life brought them here or they grew up here and left and came back,” Vaughn said. Those singers have some opportunities to perform classical music locally, but those opportunities are limited — especially when it comes to professional gigs.

However, Opera on the Vine is changing that. The company has multiple events coming up, starting with a June 10 show at Hightower Cellars in Benton City.

Another Emerald showcase is planned June 18, and Opera on the Vine also will have singers at the Raise the Paddle event June 22 at the Reach interpretive center in Richland.

Vaughn put on pop-up opera shows in Colorado, serving as coordinator of Opera Fort Collins Guild’s monthly Arias@Avos showcase at the Avogadro’s Number restaurant.

Once she knew the Tri-Cities was ripe with vocal talent, “I had this ah-ha moment” about starting a local iteration, she said.

She debuted Opera on the Vine after taking part in Launch University through Fuse Coworking Space in Richland. The program’s help was invaluable, she said.

Opera on the Vine is a professional company, paying performers for their work. It’s the area’s only opera company, but it does follow in the footsteps of another.

Years ago, Washington East Opera staged full opera productions in the Tri-Cities. However, it shut down a while back.

Vaughn’s Opera on the Vine is an exciting addition that helps fill the local opera void, said Reg Unterseher, a performer, composer and instructor who was the previous opera company’s chorus master.

“The audience (for opera) is still here. The audience is absolutely here,” he said. And, Opera on the Vine’s pop-up style means the company “can perform anywhere people might go to have a good time,” he added.

If the Emerald show is any indication, a good time is all but guaranteed.

Opera can seem intimidating or inaccessible, but part of Vaughn’s mission is to highlight its power, excitement, emotion and fun.

It can be funny, too, she said. Laugh-out-loud funny.

At Arias at the Emerald, for example, singers Justin Raffa and Steven Slusher stole the show with a song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers.

The operetta centers on two handsome and winning Italian gondoliers, one of whom — it’s unclear which — is heir to throne of Barataria.

Raffa and Slusher came out in modern costume, inspired by Raffa’s East Coast roots, and “hammed it up,” in Raffa’s words.

“They sang this whole opera duet like dudes from New Jersey. They brought down the house,” Vaughn said. “It was hilarious.”

Raffa, artistic director of the Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, said art forms like ballet, symphony and opera are sometimes thought of as being “frou-frou and better-than-thou.”

But they were made for the masses, to delight and entertain. And “artists like Cynthia are making opera accessible, fun and relevant. You don’t need to have a master’s degree in voice to appreciate it,” he said. “Cynthia has eliminated a lot of barriers for people to come and hear this amazing music. It’s a very safe way to introduce people to this art form.”

Jill Madison agrees. An Opera on the Vine performer, she studied vocal performance at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, one of the best programs in the country.

She’d planned to pursue music as a career, but eventually switched tracks and became an electrical engineer. Still, she loves opera. It’s a passion.

And Opera on the Vine is a treasure for the Tri-City area, she said.

“Come out and give it a try. It’s something that’s going to absolutely take off,” she said.

For more on Opera on the Vine, including performance details, go to operaonthevine.org or find the company on Facebook under Mid-Columbia Opera on the Vine.

Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529, @SaraTCHerald