Sparks & Wiry Cries Blog

Magnum Opus Tasting Concerts

Jan 14
1/14/2017 10:22 AM  RssIcon

Did you know that the terms used by sommeliers and wine aficionados to describe the layered characteristics of fine wines directly parallel those used by opera professionals to describe the subtleties of the voice? Medium-bodied, rich, silky, buttery, round, succulent, toasty, attractively well-balanced with a persistent and lingering finish: Mersault Cote de Beaune or lyric mezzo-soprano, Kate Lindsey? 

Magnum Opus Tasting Concerts is a brand-new, salon-type event combining wine tasting and song recitals. We produce curated recitals that feature world-class singers matched with world-class wines whose descriptions parallel one another. But more on that in a bit...

I'm a professional opera singer who has always had a boundless curiosity for wine. Luckily for me, one natural extension and perk of this business is spending time with donors who love great wine. In 2007, while working at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, I tasted a life-changing wine at the home of my hosts, Dr. Kenneth and Marjie Smith: a 1978 Robert Mondavi Cabernet. I never knew wine could be like that, perfection in a bottle. This wine—this experience—sent me on a journey of exploration. 

That summer I was planning a trip to southern Italy, so I started to investigate the wines of that region, Puglia and Campagnia. I fell in love these rich, dark, southern Italian varietals. In the summer of 2008, with a few months off from singing, I went to stay with my girlfriend (now wife) Anne-Carolyn Bird, who was working at Wolf Trap Opera Company. I wanted to take a wine class to feed my curiosity, but there was nothing available. So, instead, I finagled my way into a job at a boutique wine store opening near our apartment. I interviewed with the owner and told him that I had some experience in Italian wine—so he hired me to be their Italian wine buyer. Umm... ok! 

I became tasting secretary for the store, taking copious notes and doing more listening and tasting than talking. I immediately noticed that the way the wine people talked about wine was very similar to the way singers talk about the voice. It was a fascinating discovery, but one that wouldn’t fully connect in my brain for years to come.

Beyond the linguistic similarities, I found that our industries are practically identical. The distributor will come into a store bringing his or her top wines based on the store’s needs (read: opera manager presenting their singers to an opera company), and we will taste to make a selection for the store (audition). After tasting (hearing) and discussing and making our selections, the wine store will then contact the distributors to bring in the selected wines (singers hired). This is not to say that singers are simply a commodity in the opera world! However, the parallels are clear. Both businesses are subjective, true, but both work around some simple objective truths: each wine or singer must have integrity, must be well put-together, and inevitably must be enjoyable, either now or down the road.

Fast forward eight years, to April 2016: I was driving cross-country when I passed a German vineyard in southwestern Missouri. They had a billboard that read: "German wine, German food, German music!" This was my AH HA! moment. While pairing food and wine with music is certainly not a new idea, no one had ever taken the descriptive characteristics of wine and matched them with opera singers that have similar characteristics, producing a concert featuring the two. In that moment, Magnum Opus Tasting Concerts was born.

The first question I had to answer was what form these concerts would take. I knew the events would be intimate, and most often with just a piano, so the rich, deep, and diverse world of song repertoire seemed a perfect fit. The ultimate goal is to find music that shows off as many facets of the voice as possible, and song—especially a song cycle—can display the full spectrum of both the voice and the human experience.

How do we put together a Tasting Concert? First, I find singers and we select repertoire. Then, I listen to determine the fundamental characteristics of their voice. After I have a “profile” of their voice, I consult with my advisors to see which wines could match this singer, sharing qualities, origins, connections to the music, and so forth. We seek to find real specificity in the connections, allowing us to create a uniquely curated recital. 

Although I had given many recitals, I'd only produced a few by myself, so I knew I needed help to get a company started. Many friends have been generous with their time and knowledge, and one of them became my partner, Daniel Teadt. Dan is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, a world-class baritone, and an accomplished recitalist. Together, we reached out to our colleagues in the worlds of opera and wine—and several who have feet in both! Singers, pianists, professors, sommeliers, wine distributers... each person we have consulted has added to the richness of our concept. 

Together, we have begun to build an infrastructure of song and wine across the country. Our first three events have been intimate affairs in private homes in New York City, Boston, and Pittsburgh, but there are concerts in the planning stages with opera companies nation-wide. Each of these “pop-up” events is tailored to the audience, featuring world-class singers and wine professionals to help guide them on the journey of a Tasting Concert.

Bringing these two passions together has been a real joy for me; seeing how beautifully they line up surprises me every time. I can’t wait to share this discovery with each new audience so they can experience it for themselves.

So let’s raise and glass—and drink in the sound!

 - Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, founder of Magnum Opus Tasting Concerts. To stay up to date on the latest pairings, click here for the Magnum Opus Facebook page.

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