Opera in a grocery

by Howard Kohn

On a recent Wednesday afternoon Thom Wolf, a renowned Takoma Park videographer, headed to a grocery store to shoot a five-minute opera for You Tube, a performance in an unannounced and unlikely venue that is known in the trade as “opera by accident.”  On impulse he brought along his wife, Emily van Loon. Or rather she agreed to come along. It was the first time she had assisted on one of Thom’s assignments since she made an unfortunate mistake many years ago, when they were newlyweds, on a photo-op of President George Bush in Baton Rouge.

This new job, at a Whole Foods in Baltimore, required a second person to capture the startled bemusement and any other expressions that might pop up on the faces of innocent bystanders who were about to witness the tenor Jesus Hernandez and four collaborators as they strode through the aisles, belting out in full voice the famous lustful drinking-song aria Libiamo from Verdi’s La Traviata.

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a Washington Opera 3 photo Michael G. Stewart_rgb.jpg


photo courtesy Washington Opera

There had been almost no rehearsal, but everyone had full confidence in
Jesus, a “Young Artist” with the Washington National Opera who is in
the final month of a two-year residency at the opera studio in Old

To a neutral observer this confidence might have seemed a
bit misplaced, given that, until 2007, Jesus’ formal training and
scholastic degrees in music totaled zero and his vocational credentials
were primarily as a meat-packer and an Army soldier. Yet Jesus had
established himself as an operatic phenom on a single night at the
Alamodome in San Antonio. Talking his way backstage and into the
dressing room of Placido Domingo, he had performed a wondrous
spur-of-the-moment audition.

“That’s why I was willing to go on
this shoot. I’d heard about Jesus, and I knew it was going to be great
fun,” said Emily the other day, sitting with Thom at his high-tech work
station in the Sycamore Avenue house where they raised two sons.

Thom had a look of relief. “I wasn’t sure we’d ever work together again,” he said. “We could never get past Baton Rouge.”

laughed and squeezed his hand.  “It was me. I screwed up that job. I
was young and wanted to impress Thom with how cool I was, and we just
had a couple minutes as Bush was exiting Air Force One, and I screwed
up the lighting.  After that, whenever he’d ask me to go with him, I’d
make some excuse, and I never went.”

At the Whole Foods store
Thom introduced Emily to Jesus, wearing for his incognito costume a
black apron borrowed from one of the employees.  Emily tested her
camera, a $150 Flip camcorder that looks like a cell phone and fits in
the palm of her hand, and took up her position, a faux shopper.

turned his camera on Jesus, who is a natural ham. With a saucy grin he
toyed with a ripe avocado and flirted with soprano Jennifer Waters and
burst into song.

For Jesus this fanciful tour de force through
the vegetable bins was the latest turn in a remarkable change of
careers.  At the time he met Placido Domingo he was in between
deployments to Iraq.  He had little to recommend himself as a singer
except for partying gigs with a mariachi band and a smooth, bold voice.

The world’s greatest living tenor is presumably not easy to
impress, but Jesus says that Placido told him, “I have no idea what
you’re doing in the Army. You should be on stage.”

On Placido’s
recommendation Jesus applied for and was accepted into the “Young
Artists” program, even though, at age 33, he is about ten years older
than the typical aspiring young opera professional.  He then asked for
an early release from his Army contract, but his supervising colonel
refused.  Only days away from missing out on the opera apprenticeship,
however, Jesus banged up a shoulder that had been injured before.

Army doctor told me I was no longer fit for combat, and he said he
could get me out on an early release. I said, ‘Get me out!’ Angels were
watching over me,” Jesus jubilantly recalled the other day, during a
break from rehearsals at the Old Takoma studio.

This summer,
upon finishing the program, Jesus plans to accept offers to sing and
train in Italy and Austria.  “I’ve led a very different life than
almost anyone else in my position,” he said. “It makes me appreciate
how incredibly lucky I am.”

The incredibly amusing You Tube video, meanwhile, is getting thousands of hits at www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-HJT3epkK0

and Emily have viewed it more than once.  “I love the cutaways,” Thom
said. “The expressions on the shoppers are absolutely priceless.” He
smiled at his wife. “I’m the first to say, you saved my ass.”

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