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Random Act Of Operatic Culture

Opera Carolina singer Krista Wilhelmsen perches on a counter at the farmers market.

Over the last 20 years, attendance has declined for cultural mainstays such as the opera, symphony and ballet. That's according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, and it's led the Knight Foundation to go on the offensive with a guerrilla-style initiative to bring the arts literally to the people. The strategy debuted Tuesday in Charlotte at the noontime farmer's market in South End. A lady in a black and white sundress behind the counter of Beverly's Gourmet Food booth hands a fresh salad to a customer. And then, she breaks into song. Heads whip around. Feet stop. Jaws drop. A storm of high notes brings the crowded market to a stand still. And then another woman joins, carrying a bundle of peaches she just bought from a farmer's booth. Soon even the guy selling snacks at the Savory Moments booth is belting the notes of Puccini and Verdi. It's a "Random Act of Culture." "People who may or may not have seen any opera, they can't help but just grin at such a fantastic experience, being enveloped in it, you know," says Opera Carolina's Kristopher Irmiter. He choreographed the musical ambush at Atherton Mill Market with the idea of touching the kind of person he used to be. Irmiter says he didn't listen to opera music when he was young - except by accident. "I bought into a lot of the negative stereotypes that it's stuffy, elitist, it's no fun," says Irmiter. "When I actually got involved in it as a singer, I was like, 'Wait a minute, this is a kick in the pants!'" That's precisely what Irmiter was going for with the 15 or so singers who came to the market dressed in street clothes. They shopped for produce and munched on baked goods right along with the lunch crowd, before suddenly launching into the heart-stopping trills of a famous aria. As they sang, someone held up a sign that said "You've just experienced a Random Act of Culture." The look of wonder in Eugenia Trenklebach's face was priceless. "Oh, that was great!" Trenklebach stammers, a huge smile on her face. "I couldn't believe it was people around, walking around and singing (laughs)." "Pretty cool," agrees another shopper Joe Bonaparte. "The echo in here made it sound very big, so it was cool." Bonaparte says he's never been to an opera before, but the impromptu performance intrigued him. Karie Greathouse, on the other hand, says she goes to the opera a lot. But it was new to her two young sons. "At first I think they thought someone was screaming and I had to explain to them it was opera," laughs Greathouse. Her 5-year-old son Alexander didn't like the singing much. "It hurt my ears," he explains. As a result, he covered his ears through most of the surprise performance. That's probably not quite what the Knight Foundation intended when it gave $30,000 grants to eight different cities, including Charlotte. Each will stage dozens of "random acts of culture" over the next year. The Arts and Science Council is coordinating the effort in Charlotte, with plans for unexpected performances involving the opera, symphony and dance theater. Maybe they'll translate into ticket sales. But Arts and Science Council President Scott Provancher says the main goal is just to give people a memorable arts encounter. "I mean, I was kind of looking around and I saw all smiles," says Provancher after the opera performance. "I think that's the power of the arts is that people can connect with it regardless of whether they know opera or not."