It's a Sunday night up on the second floor at Germano's Trattoria, a Little Italy stalwart strung along the neighborhood's main drag. The pumpkin-colored walls are hung with vintage Art Nouveau posters, but all eyes are upon vocalist Sophie Louise Roland, a statuesque blonde in a diaphanous maroon dress.
The evening's entertainment, she says, is all about "sensuality." Patrons now have all the more reason to look up from their plates of braised beef shanks and red beet ravioli. "No one is going to die tonight," she adds with a grin.
It's an odd introduction unless you're aware, as most in the room are, that the Canadian mezzo-soprano is fresh from performing the titular roll in the American Opera Theater's production of Carmen at Baltimore Theater Project. In Bizet's beloved-but-tragic opera, death is very much on tap before curtain fall.
With a nod to her accompanist, Simone Luti, who's ensconced behind a Yamaha baby grand, Roland launches into an eclectic evening of song. Arias, of course, but also Edith Piaf torch songs, works from the Kurt Weill songbook and from out of West Side Story—even the Emerald Island chestnut "Danny Boy." The audience eats it up as eagerly as they tuck into their Tuscany-inspired entrees. An encore is demanded and delivered.
"These are songs that I grew up with—songs that first drew me to singing but that you put aside for a long time in your classical training," a radiant Roland says over a post-performance glass of Chianti. "Small venues allow people to appreciate what live performance is all about. Such intimacy—no one ever wrote music hoping for it to be distant from the public."
For nearly two years now, the Cabaret at Germano's—an upstart venue ensconced in an upstairs dining room—has been Baltimore's home for such artistic "intimacy." With table seating for fewer than 100, there's precious little distance between patron and performer. Now held as often as four nights a week, the cabaret has generated an artistic buzz reaching well beyond the Beltway.
The room attracts nationally known artists, such as Roland or cast members from the touring company of Fiddler on the Roof (who dropped by in October while the musical was decamped at the Hippodrome Theatre), along with a host of homegrown performers, such as cantor Thom King, Russ Margo, and Gary Rubin. There are serious opera nights and straight-up silliness, such as internist-turned-tenor Steve Glasser's Italio-Yiddish act, Matzah Balls and Pasta. Also prominently on the bill are the headliners of tomorrow: students from Baltimore School for the Arts (BSA). (This month's schedule includes BSA alum/Rent star Tracie Thoms performing with School for the Arts students on April 8.)
"I'm not sure that anyone anticipated that there was this hunger in Baltimore for cabaret, from both an audience and performer's standpoint," says Timothy Nelson, founder of the American Opera Theater. "I think what Germano's is doing in Baltimore is not only filling a big cultural hole in the city, but is also a fantastic example of the business community collaborating with the arts community to help both survive times like these."
As Nelson sees it, companies like his benefit from cross-promotion opportunities whenever his performers are booked at Germano's. The low-key room can also "recruit a new audience for opera," he adds.
The low-overhead, patch-of-carpet-and-a-piano venue does seem a perfect fit for recessionary times. A rare win-win in the worlds of art and commerce.
Cyd Wolf, the cabaret's executive producer and wife of the restaurant's namesake owner, Germano Fabiani, likes to call the room their "field of dreams." Its roots date to early 2008 when the pair attended a fundraiser at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where their daughters go to school. (Alessandra studies acting, and her younger sister, Francesca, is a dancer.)
"We wished there were more opportunities for the families and the public to see the students perform, and we wished we could participate in a meaningful way," Wolf says.
So they turned a second-floor dining room—used only sporadically as overflow seating or for wedding rehearsal dinners and such—into a cabaret room. They figured, it could boost both the restaurant's bottom line and the local arts scene. They bought a piano and installed a sound system and some basic lighting. It was a happy accident that the space's acoustics proved surprisingly good.
While New Yorkers might shell out big bucks for cabaret acts in some of that city's swanky rooms—Café Carlyle, Feinstein's at Loews Regency, etc.—this is Baltimore. The cover charge was pegged at $10, all of which goes to the performer. Food and drink are available, but their purchase is not required.
"We wanted to keep it simple," Fabiani says. "As long as you pay for a ticket, you can just come and sit down."
In the early days of booking, Wolf and her sister-in-law Juli Wolf reached out to Carolyn Black-Sotir, a veteran touring vocalist based in the Baltimore/Washington area, for help tapping into the region's pool of cabaret performers. Among those who responded was actor/singer Sally Martin who made a couple of trips to Baltimore for shows including both French cabaret numbers and the pearls of the American Songbook.
"Frankly, I wish we had a Germano's down here," says Martin, noting that much of her D.C. cabaret work is done in theaters and clubs or at private events and embassy functions. "It's a great room. But what distinguishes Germano's is that they are really devoted to the performing arts, so they looked for opportunities to get all kinds of performers in there, especially young performers."
The Baltimore School for Arts gets two billings a month, split between the music and theater departments. There's a heightened sense of energy on these student evenings, when as many as 18 eager teenagers can be jostling in the wings.
"This is really a trial by fire," says Richard Pilcher, Baltimore School for the Arts theater instructor, on a night he's brought more than a dozen juniors to the cabaret to perform dramatic scenes and staged readings. It's a full house—parents, of course, but also some 30 health care executives who trooped in after a company meeting.
"The space makes enormous demands on the students' concentration," Pilcher adds, while his charges dig into plates of rigatoni. (Yes, a free pasta dinner is one of the students' perks for performing here.) "It is at once more intimate and more challenging to their focus because there are waiters bringing food and people eating. It makes for a great learning experience."
"It really makes you focus on the moment," agrees 17-year-old Andrew Ordaz, dodging a server's plate load of calamari as he waits to take his turn on the front-and-center carpet (where he'll portray a crazed driving instructor). "It can be a real confidence builder to just go out there and do what you have to do."
This real-world opportunity to perform beyond the familiar confines of the school stage is, in a sense, a professional paying gig, albeit one where the cover charge is a donation to the school. Last year, between these cover charges and a fundraiser held in the room, Germano's raised around $10,000 for the Baltimore School for the Arts, money the public school sorely needs.
"As part of our mission, we envisioned the cabaret as being another venue for the arts organizations that we viewed as cultural partners," says Wolf, putting not only the School for the Arts in this category, but also the Lyric Opera House, Baltimore Theatre Alliance, and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. "These organizations saw the value of promoting their talented performers and educating the public through the intimacy of our venue."
For many artists, any opportunity to practice their craft while earning a few bucks—and a free dinner—is welcome. While the gruesome tales of Edgar Allan Poe might not be everyone's cabaret cup of tea, veteran local actor (and School for the Arts instructor) Tony Tsendeas puts them to use in his one-man "Poe Show," where he acts out characters from classics like The Raven before impersonating the dark bard himself.
"Tonight I'm going to tell you stories that are full of horror, torture, murder, and the macabre," he tells a rapt Germano's crowd.
Fortunately, most are through eating when he launches into his depiction of gothic characters possessed of "gin-nurtured demons" and "fiendish malevolence." On a chilly Tuesday night, it's not the best turn out, but in the end, that's okay. For the restaurant, the cabaret adds 40 or so diners who might not have come out at all midweek. And for Tsendeas, with a one-year-old baby at home, it's a paying gig that helps him hone his one-man horror show.
"It's so difficult to make a living in theater, which can be an unfriendly art in terms of capitalism," Tsendeas says after the show. "One reason cabaret might be coming on strong now is economics—it's essentially a few feet in a restaurant rather than a whole theater."
For budding musical theater star Branda Lock, a twentysomething from White Marsh who performs decidedly more traditional cabaret, Germano's has been a godsend. She's performed there at least 10 times—in the early going, she was part of a regular vocal ensemble dubbed the "Germano-tones."
"I've also been able to develop my own shows, which I love," Lock says. "It's been nothing but a great learning experience."
One of her latest self-styled cabaret nights is billed as "Romance with a Twist."
"Basically it's singing all the love songs from the sappy romantic movies everybody loves," she says of a show whose cinematic sources include Casablanca, Sleepless in Seattle, and When Harry Met Sally.
"I think it's really good that Germano's has a nice mix," Lock says. "Young performers can go see veterans doing some wonderful standards and learn so much, while, at the same time, they have young performers adding a little more hip, modern music that's fresh and what we need to keep cabaret moving forward."
"It's great to be able to go and actually earn some money doing something you like to do" says James Fitzpatrick, a musical director and pianist from Annapolis who's frequently called on to accompany vocalists at Germano's—including the Fiddler on the Roof cast members. "We all take gigs where we are paid to just play the notes and not invest our being, but here you get to actually do the things that are in your heart."
In the end, cabaret, by its most basic definition, is simply entertainment provided in a restaurant or nightclub setting. It's not rocket science. Charles Street's Italian eatery Sotto Sopra now has monthly opera nights and has added monthly American Songbook-type shows as well. There's talk that others may follow.
"I'm excited that this is taking off in Baltimore," says Fitzpatrick. "I know there are some other restaurants that are sitting up and taking notice. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then we are going to see more and more cabaret going on in Baltimore."