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Zany Non-Opera Opera Comes to Charlotte

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Opera's something people usually either love or hate. And that's why "Charlotte: The Opera" is struggling a bit to fill the house. So here's the thing Morenga Hunt would like to get through your head. "This is really not an opera. It contains elements that you might find in an opera, such as singing, and it tells somewhat of a story, but not like a traditional opera." Hunt is with the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. He's the one who decided to bring the Pittsburgh group Squonk Opera to Charlotte with its performance made just for the Queen City. But if it's not an opera, what is it? "A bit like a dreamscape, artistically represented, and in a fun way," says Hunt. And as trippy as your dreams can sometimes be, so too is Squonk Opera. In the finale, singers fly through air dressed like rosy-cheeked cherubs over a huge inflated globe. There are lots of flashing lights and high notes, and that's just the ending. An earlier scene features enormous rubber hands wiggling their floppy fingers at the audience. But the star of the show is the city itself. The Squonk team interviewed about forty city leaders, artists, scientists and regular folk. During one interview, Squonk artistic director Jackie Dempsey asks Charlotte music teacher John Tosco if he has any stories about driving around Charlotte. "The name changes on all the roads," Tosco chuckles. "Queens turns to Kings, turns back into Queens and into something else all in a matter of six blocks." Dempsey says the reason for the interviews is to let "the people of the town speak for the town. So it's not us saying 'This is what we think Charlotte is.' This is people from Charlotte telling other people from Charlotte, 'Hey we think this is what it's like here.'" Charlotte is the 12th city to be featured in a Squonk Opera. Dempsey says the basic template and music is the same for each, but video footage from the interviews and the city's streets and landmarks is what resonates with the audience. She says they also look for things to poke fun at. "We pick up little quirks here and there that some people won't know about their town," says Dempsey, noting that several people have mentioned water mains that seem to break every year. "So it's that process of discovery at the same time as sort of um, recognition that we're all in this together." So it's a celebration of Charlotte, but also kind of a roast. Or as Squonk's video designer Buzz Miller quips, "It's a roast and a toast and some other you know, casserole vegetables, too." Miller's remark sends Dempsey into a fit of giggles. Their zany humor is the show's signature. They bring local artists onstage to play the straight man, like Charlotte slam poet Bluz Rogers. He plans to work those notorious broken water mains into one of the pieces he's written specifically for "Charlotte: The Opera." Another is about NASCAR. Here's a taste. "We fast forward. Put our tires on, one at a time just, to get in line and move through the city. We are fast paced. Gas it up. We're going to move forward and progress. Yes, this is how we get down. Forty-five laps and around town and we're back at it again." As a slam poet, Rogers says he never imagined he'd be part of an opera. "That was the furthest thing from my mind," he says, laughing. "But then again, I didn't think I'd be doing anything with NASCAR either, so the sky's the limit!" This is the first time the Squonk Opera has incorporated slam poets into a performance - partly because Charlotte's Slam team is one of best in the nation. Several local dance groups will be in the show, too. . . all in an effort to show the real Charlotte in a zany-dreamscape-multi-media-rock-opera sort of way. They just hope the opera part doesn't scare you off. "Charlotte: The Opera" opens Friday, Nov. 21, at the McGlohon Theater. Hear a live conversation with the show's creators Thursday, Nov. 20, on Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins.