Stumbling upon a musical performance is not uncommon in Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín. But hearing Puccini’s La bohème in the tranquil corners of nearby Envigado or Verdi’s La traviata under the tall tower blocks of Sabaneta is a scene that was, until recently, unimaginable. Pierino Priolo and his family started the street opera project during the pandemic, but the success made them determined to keep bringing lyrical art to every corner of the city.
Every week, from Tuesday to Saturday, opera is performed in various neighborhoods across Medellín. But rather than putting an expensive suit on and setting off to the theatre, the spectators enjoy the arias directly from their homes – with the streets themselves turning into a provisional stage.
Pierino, a Venezuelan tenor, music professor at the University of Zulia, and choir director, has been performing in the streets since the second half of 2020. Accompanied by Ana María Linares de Priolo, his wife and an experienced soprano singer, he aims to bring the genre closer to people, as well as secure a living for himself, his wife, and their three children.
“The whole experience has been incredibly rewarding and heart-warming. When we perform, we see people get excited, scutter to the balconies of their apartments or gather in the gardens of their units, and enjoy opera with us,” says Pierino, who sees music as the universal language connecting people.
While the couple aims to explore as many new zones of the city as possible – sometimes they do revisit an area. When they return to neighborhoods, they are greeted with a warm welcome: “People often tell us they were hoping to see us again and asking why it took so long. This is something that gives us a lot of encouragement,” Ana María notes.
The audience may not welcome Los Priolos into their homes directly, as the performances tend to happen in outdoor spaces, but the couple is still aware they are entering communities and appreciate the welcoming spirit. As Ana María highlighted, this provides for beautiful experiences: “During one show in El Poblado, we hadn’t even finished the first song, and a few elderly people were already approaching us. They brought chairs and some pillows to be fully prepared for our show.”
However, it’s not just the support that Los Priolos enjoy. Initially, the couple was astonished by how many people would ask them to perform specific pieces. The requests can even sometimes be the less known arias, Pierino says, such as Peri’s Euridice or Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment.
Hearing people sing along is surprisingly common too. With Brindisi from La traviata or O Sole Mio as the two opening songs, it’s obvious that the couple knows how to draw attention to their performance right from the start. According to Ana María, one of the most recognized arias in their repertoire is La Donna È Mobile, from Verdi’s Rigoletto: “the audience hear the rhythm, immediately recognize it – and often they start singing too!”
Back in Maracaibo, their hometown, the Priolos were members of the choir and dedicated their lives to lyrical art. However, the family was forced to leave the country due to political tensions. When asked to perform, alongside his colleagues, on president Maduro’s tour across the country, Pierino refused. What followed was a series of threats and problems, meaning that the family made the difficult choice to emigrate.
“The Venezuelan culture, by tradition, is a universal culture,” Pierino claims. Having Italian heritage himself, he stressed that the demise of the country’s culture is aggravated by the fact that many of the people with diverse attributes had to leave.
“The culture that is lived in Venezuela right now is that of resilience and survival. People are eager to get food, water, and medicine, and thus don’t have any spare time for cultural recreation, which was more common before,” he explains, expressing his hope that the country’s arts and music roots stay strong despite the Chavista rule.
Migration stories aren’t rare in Colombia, the home of over 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees. However, a Gallup poll published in October 2020 found that 69% of Colombians have an unfavorable perception of Venezuelan immigrants. When Priolos explained how welcoming and kind the Antioquian people have been, it’s only obvious to think of street opera as an initiative bridging together and connecting the two nationalities.
What’s more, the singers have also raised pride among Venezuelans themselves. Karla Bolívar Osorio, who has lived in Colombia for the past 11 years, first heard the performance in Sabaneta, back in October 2020: “To hear opera in my neighborhood that night was just wonderful. The atmosphere was so special as people went to their balconies to listen and applaud,” she said, noting that it was even more exciting to hear that the singers were from her hometown.
As concert halls and theatres in Colombia keep operating at limited capacity, initiatives like street opera continue bringing people together. Carlos Andrés Mejía Zuluaga, a composer and director that has led diverse opera, zarzuela, and operetta productions, remarked: “In most cases, people have accepted this type of musical performances in the streets. But they have also expressed certain melancholy over the fact that musicians had to get to this point. Often, they had to do it out of necessity, either to sustain themselves economically or allow them to keep sharing their art.”
According to Andrés Felipe Gómez Restrepo, the general director of Metropolitan Opera in Medellín, the workflows have been heavily disrupted by the pandemic. Still, since the end of last year, the institution has prepared various activities such as a virtual opera concert or smaller, thematic performances in places such as the El Tesoro shopping mall.
“To draw interest, the aesthetics and concepts around opera productions need to be attractive and effectively entertaining, from special effects to audiovisual resources. In this sense, there’s a lot that opera can learn from the cinema,” Andrés Felipe adds, hinting at strategies such as influencer marketing too. And this is why Los Priolos also make their best effort not only to sing but act too.
However, there’s another reason why novel initiatives and fresh ideas in the opera space are so relevant. According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics, in 2020, the main reason not to attend theatre, opera, or dance performances in Colombia was simply because of dislike or disinterest. This equated to 53.5% of cases, the highest rate across other cultural categories, with Covid-19 being a factor in not attending only in 16.5% cases.
Opera may have a long history in the country, with the Opera of Colombia having celebrated its 45-year anniversary this May, but the struggle to abandon the “music of elites” label continues. “Rather than seeing going to the theatre as an activity that nourishes artistic, cultural, and spiritual needs, societally, attending opera is still somewhat seen as an activity that allows you to show off expensive clothes and luxurious cars,” Carlos Andrés notes.
Interest in opera doesn’t necessarily vary across economic classes, he claims. The root of the problem may simply lie elsewhere: “Even people that would be interested in the genre and can afford to go choose not to, simply because they don’t want to face the pompousness.”
That’s why Carlos Andrés values the initiative Los Priolos have taken: “Street opera can make people see that music is, at the end of the day, made by people with dreams, needs, and emotions. They deserve to be heard, even beyond the false galas and pretense associated with opera in theatres.”
Providing education, as well as further opportunities to enjoy lyrical art, is sought after. Karla, who had a strong impression having witnessed the performance, saw street opera as a great strategy to encourage people from Medellín to value the genre. “I would love for there to be more opportunities to enjoy opera.”
And while the past two decades have seen a more active lyrical arts scene in Colombia, Los Priolos see big potential in younger generations too: “It’s wonderful when the kids come. They start dancing to what we sing; my husband moves his hands to direct them, and it’s very sweet. Even teenagers that come tend to stick around for a while,” Ana María added.
Not only is this good news for the genre, but it is also something that will likely dictate the future of Los Priolos too. While performing, they met many people offering collaborations, although the pandemic-induced slowdown has stalled any progress. Now, the couple is excited about a project they want to develop in the neighborhood where they live.
In partnership with Casa de la Cultura, they aim to start a lyrical choir that would serve as a training group for young people and adults, giving them the opportunity to improve themselves and perform in Sabaneta, Antioquía, and even the whole country. “Currently, there’s no lyrical movement here in Sabaneta,” Ana María notes. “So we need to dream big.”