Arts News: Opera Supper Celebrates Decade of Casual Song

On the third Monday of the month, the air kisses flutter from cheek to cheek as friends greet friends in Californos’ Bistro for the Opera Supper, a monthly classical music open mic event. The Opera Supper celebrates its 10th anniversary Jan. 16. What started out as a short-term promotional event for Kansas City’s now-defunct Puccini Festival has continued for a decade of casual enjoyment of vocal repertoire.

Aaron Barksdale-Burns, co-owner of Californos, is the driving force behind these events. A trained vocalist, he’s gone into the family business, managing the Westport staple, located in the former Trolley Barns.

On the third Monday of October, singers arrived, clutching bulging binders of sheet music. One soprano bobbed a curtsy when a table of regulars heralded her with “brava!” University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Richard Williams walked in, shook Barksdale-Burns’ hand and announced, “Happy Third Monday,” before seating himself at the piano. “He’s a small orchestra, but a good one!” said Barksdale-Burns as Williams rolled a few chords, ready to begin the evening of song.

With Monday night football muted on the bar television, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the average jazz club: People chattered at the back of the bar, softened by tableware clinking, the receipt printer chugging and ice slinging into glasses.

But all around the piano in the center of the room the audience listened intently. “People have this image of classical music as ‘eh’,” Barksdale-Burns grimaced, “but (the performers) do a lot of different things and it’s really fun!”

Intimate and welcoming, the Opera Supper event is typically held in the street-level Bistro, though if reservations warrant, it moves to the downstairs ballroom. At the reserved tables, patrons aged 20 to 80 gather to eat, drink, sing and listen.

Over the last 10 years, singers have come and singers have gone, of course. Co-founder Megan King Anderson, a soprano, moved away, though she plans to attend and perform Jan. 16. One singer participated for seven years and even met her husband at the Opera Suppers, before life commitments made their demands.

At October’s Opera Supper, Barksdale-Burns lamented it was the last night for one of their regulars. Then in walked a group of Conservatory students, including a nervous young tenor gripping a score.

Throughout the evening, some of the performers announced their choices; some simply began to sing with Williams’ opening chords. They conferred with each other, rotating between the six singers performing that night, offering a mix of arias, art songs, and selections from the American songbook, with works from Gabriel Fauré, Andrew Lloyd-Weber, Giacomo Puccini, and — in a little silly Halloween spirit — “Duetto buffo di due gatti” (“Humorous Duet of Two Cats”) with two sopranos exchanging “meows” in the style of Gioachino Rossini.

It’s always a fun evening in a laid-back environment, simply enjoying music, food, and friendship.

It’s a mix, too, of business and pleasure. Just as Barksdale-Burns was finishing a phrase — he takes his turn along with the other singers — the bar phone rang. With the servers all busy, he tapered off and stepped over to pick it up: “Californos!”

Photos by Serena S.Y. Hsu

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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