Thirsty Thursdays: Pulling Back the Curtain with Courtney Kalbacker of Baltimore Concert Opera by Samantha Buker

Does Oriole Park Stout pair well with Rossini? Do you take your Donizetti with Saison de la Maison? Be assured, there is no wrong answer at Thirsty Thursdays with Baltimore Concert Opera. You can try them all.

Getting ready for their guests is half the fun for Courtney Kalbacker, Managing Director at BCO. She closes up the door to her back office (formerly a dressing closet) and descends a spiral stair all the way to the ballroom where singers are rehearsing. She goes behind the red velvet curtain and attacks a turn-of the-century cast iron crank with a 20-pound wrench. This, in turn, lowers the screen upon which surtitles will be projected later that night. In a few hours, the front door of the Engineer’s Club will open to admit an unlikely crew of opera-goers. They’re mostly young. They’re more likely to have a favorite brew than a favorite aria. There are no diamonds, but plenty of up-dos and cute cocktail dresses crowd the salon.

11 West Mount Vernon, which Concert Opera Baltimore calls HQ, is a place with plenty of ghosts who don’t pay the ticket price. Kalbacker tries not to think about them, or she couldn’t be able to work those late nights in the dark halls of this Gilded Age home. The former Garrett-Jacobs Mansion is a Baltimore treasure that was almost lost in 1961 to urban renewal, had the intrepid Engineer’s Club not wanted to make it their new, enduring home. Similarly, when our former grand opera company filed for bankruptcy in 2008, Baltimore Concert Opera kept opera alive here. In 2009, BCO’s first season began with a single seed investment of $750.

Austin Bitner, head of Engineer’s Club, saw the value of this unlikely partnership and offered his support. Now, it won’t be long before they’ll be celebrating a decade of concert opera. But you might ask, what is concert opera?

The short answer: there are no costumes, stage props are at a minimum and the singers are allowed to be “on book.” The orchestra could be as small as a single pianist. The long answer is to simply take the plunge and try it out.

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Just like one audience member who was brave enough to snag a front row seat for “Arias, Ambers & IPAs.” Little did he know that’s like sitting in the splash zone at an aquarium: You are fair game for the soprano to use YOU as a prop. In the Mozart aria, “Prenderó quel brunettino” Donata “Donataforgetamyname” Cucinotta sings “what a game this will become” while burying her belle poitrine in his face, shaking robustly before delivering a playful slap. She then takes his hand and runs away back stage with him. He’s blushing like mad when he rejoins us to grab a taste of Brewhouse No. 16’s #NoCoffee Porter. “I had no idea what would happen!” he said. “I’ve never been to an opera before in my life.”

The second season of Thirsty Thursday is off to a great start. The singers are eager to lead you into the story of the opera aria they’re about to sing. They boil it down to a simple rule: “cake” or “death.” That is, comedy or tragedy. You meet scumbags like Don Giovanni. A sweet woman starts out her aria by texting, ultimately relishing in a joyful discovery of love through the song’s supposed subject –“vanilla ice cream.” But beer, of course, is the theme of the evening. And our singers partake right along with us.

Matt Curran, the night’s exceptional bass-baritone gave the aria “Als Büblein Klein” from The Merry Wives of Windsor. The merry humor of his “Give me my glass,” as he signals for Ms. Kalbacker to bring him a draft from the wings in a huge glass. “One, two, three–” he cries out before chugging, just like any local student. “One, two, three!” he belts out again, but, for this second round, he has a smaller draft.

Thirsty Thursday lightens opera up to an entry-level all-access pass. It resonates. Their performances almost always sell out. They might well be one of the few institutions in Bmore who can boast 450 new ticket buyers in the last season alone. I grabbed one last beer, Oats M’Goats, with a college-age gent in the audience. It’s the range of emotion, he said, that brings him back. He came to the Thirsty Thursday wine pairing last season too. Although, he admitted, “I’m not sure if I’m ready yet to sit through a whole opera.” If Baltimore Concert Opera keeps upping their game, he’ll be back. This season boasts an opera in English: Susannah, on February 24 and 26.

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Opera in English is something Kalbacker has been pushing for from the start. And not just at BCO. She wears two managing director hats. She also works for the DC metro area’s Urban Arias. This cutting-edge group offers only English-language opera, most recently one based on Oliver Sacks’ “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”

In April, Urban Arias will offer a new diversion: opera blindfolded. The audience won’t be peeking. They’ll be wearing blindfolds for Lera Auerbach’s The Blind, a 12-singer a capella work. Other recent performances featured our hometown vocal gal, Melissa Wimbish, embodying Josephine Baker… or a lady of a certain age meeting her blind date “At the Statue of Venus.” Defiant swagger or achingly opening wounds, Wimbish brought parts of the program to her Carnegie Hall debut.

Courtney Kalbacker looks at her work this way: to tackle the challenge of mounting grand opera. There are two tactics. BCO dispenses with sets and full orchestra, but keeps the standard repertoire. Urban Arias expands the repertoire but keeps the sets and very high production value.

She’s been honing her arts and culture strategy in a ten-month program with The University of Pennsylvania/National Arts Strategies. Her big awakening was to pursue the hyper-local, communitarian ethos 100%. This is exactly what made Station North Arts District what it is today. Exploiting synergies is a big part of BCO’s success too. First, the synergy with Engineer’s Club. Second, the partnering with Opera Delaware to workshop unique rep that isn’t often performed. Third, what Kalbacker calls the “Donate Beer Dare” which led to Arias, Ambers and IPAs. She enjoyed grabbing a beer on nearby Calvert Street after work one day. A young brewery, Brewhouse No. 19, occupies an old fire station. She struck up a conversation with the management, who told her that as a local brewery, they could help her out. November 10th will be “Vino in Verdi” with highlights from the upcoming full opera, Rigoletto. She’s confident about talking her way into a fine selection of wines with the help of J. Bitner, who is something of a baron of the beverage sector.

As recently as August, Ms. Kalbacker was still working as a nanny to make ends meet. Then, round the same time, both Urban Arias and BCO wanted her to expand her job description, with pay to match. She jumped at the opportunity rejects the idea of a traditional career “path.” She calls it a “career meadow” where she can frolic.

Baltimore amazes her. She came here just five years ago, with her husband (also a singer), and knew no one. Now she feels integrated into our creative class. In fact, they’ve made the commitment. They bought a house, on Oliver Street, and plan to stay for years — and not just to keep the city grant money. Baltimore is a great home for her and for the operatic arts.

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From Baltimore Concert Opera‘s Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera pairs top-flight opera highlights with beer, wine or spirit tastings. Join us for a special night out for “Vino and Verdi” – Nov 10, 2016 and/or “Love Potions” – Feb 9, 2017