As music has evolved over the centuries, from jazz to rock to rap, it fits the trend for each generation to reject the songs of their parents and grandparents in favor of a more contemporary, “rebellious” alternative. Syrupy pop tunes backed by computer-generated instrumentals and vocals seem to be what’s blasting from car windows these days. Even classic rock – once termed the “devil’s music” – is waning as consumers are trading live, unfettered performance for the instant gratification of iTunes and YouTube.
When people think opera, many think of an elitist, inaccessible, outdated form of music that they couldn’t possibly understand. What most don’t realize is that opera was once considered just as scandalous as, say, rap might be to older generations today.
“When opera came about, it was the alternative music of the age,” Weehawken resident and soprano Jacqueline Thompson explained last week. “Now it’s become this thing they think they could never enjoy because they don’t feel smart enough.”
“You’d be surprised how many people in the area have already taken a shining to classical music and opera because of [John Jay Hebert and the Union City Opera].” – Lucio Fernandez
“Opera is very passionate, and sometimes even scandalous,” Thompson said. “For instance, ‘I Pagliacci’ is based on an Italian newspaper article about a clown who went murderously crazy. There’s a reason they call soap operas soap operas.”
For the love of craft
“I didn’t know I wanted to be an opera singer, but I knew I wanted to sing,” Canadian-born Union City resident Hebert said. “My voice teacher in Vancouver gave me an opera piece, and I thought, ‘Oh, how exciting, I can actually sing this!’ ”
After graduating from the University of Toronto, he immediately set off on a yearlong Southeast Asia tour of Phantom of the Opera, after which he performed the play in Toronto for another year.
“The tour was one of the best experiences of my life,” Hebert explained. “It was funny, too, because they allowed my wife to come along and she eventually became part of the crew.” His wife Maria Costa was placed in charge of wardrobe.
“She had a knack for it,” he said. The way the tour took advantage of otherwise non-traditional resources by hiring Hebert’s wife for wardrobe would be a move he would file away for future use.
After “Phantom,” Hebert decided to do something different and became a director and producer of documentaries for “small bands” like the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Police, he said, which also informed his current role as artistic director of the Union City Opera.
“Having the opportunity to work with these rock stars gave me a lot of insight into how I might run an opera company,” he said. “My philosophy is to develop and maintain an ensemble company where singers, performers, and crew all work together to develop, market, and sell a product.”
For the love of cultural enrichment
The “sell” is not for financial gain, but for cultural enrichment. Hebert not only brings high caliber, professional opera and classical performers together at local venues for adults to enjoy, but he also believes in the need to start young.
He teaches vocal technique (which includes opera) through the local nonprofit Grace Foundation, an instructional program run by city Commissioner Lucio Fernandez and his wife Megan that offers local children music and arts courses for free.
“In our books it doesn’t matter when you’re starting out or what kind of music you want to eventually sing,” Hebert explained. “Young people still need that foundation of classical technique and training, even if they want to be a rapper. We want to generate a whole new fan base for opera that otherwise may have been lost.”
Fernandez, who happens to be both an avid performer himself and the city’s recreation commissioner, was thrilled when Hebert approached him with the idea for the Union City Opera.
“I remember two years ago when John held a small concert in a brownstone with a white baby grand and four wonderful singers,” Fernandez recalled. “It was mind boggling how wonderful it was.”
He added that while many people have approached him with ideas to bring more arts into the city, most of them don’t have a plan, and some are all about the potential for profit.
“When you’re approached by wonderfully talented man like John who attracts top talent, loves opera, loves to work hard, and loves the city, how can you not support him?” Fernandez said. “John is the kind of guy who delivers, and you’d be surprised how many people in the area have already taken a shining to classical music and opera because of him.”
Union City Opera’s next gala performance, “A Night at the Opera,” will be held on June 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Union City Performing Arts Center located at 2500 Kennedy Blvd. For more information, visit www.unioncityoperacompany.com.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org