Commuters' Conversations Rise To High Art

Jump on a bus in Manhattan, and instead of eavesdropping on conversations around you, you might just hear some of that chatter set to music. A group of college students turn snatches of overheard conversations into librettos — and perform them on the routes and stops where they first heard the words.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

This weekend, a group of recent Carnegie Mellon graduates are debuting their opera on Broadway - and by Broadway I don't mean the theater district in New York, I mean the actual street Broadway. They call it "Bus Stop Opera," and the action takes place at New York bus stops all weekend.

NPR's Robert Smith tagged along for their morning rush hour premiere.

ROBERT SMITH: The bus has just pulled away from the curb in Harlem when I see her, a businesswoman running along the sidewalk trying to catch it. This is the stuff of operatic tragedy.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ASHLEY BURROUGHS: (Singing) (unintelligible) I missed my bus. (unintelligible) I'm late for work. How am I to deal? My client won't be happy. Not since college have I missed the bus.

SMITH: The commuters standing on the curb just stare and they pull back a little. New Yorkers are used to overreaction, but this…

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. BURROUGHS: (Singing) (unintelligible) I have got to (unintelligible).

SMITH: There are no red carpets or tuxedos. The acoustics here are terrible, but that's all part of bus stop opera. They do have a live quartet. And one-by-one, the characters step out of the crowd for their moment in the stoplight. If you've ridden a bus in the city, you'll recognize these types because the lyrics are drawn from real conversations aboard the bus. There's the guy you don't want to sit next to.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Say that I'm crazy, say I got rabies, say that I'm wanted by the FBI, the CIA, say that I'm insane and wanted for a - yeah, that would be sick then I would get great publicity.

SMITH: Then there's the lonely career woman.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I work at American Express. So now I live in Chelsea and work in the financial district.

SMITH: The Carnegie Mellon students spent months talking to bus riders and listening in on conversations to write this libretto. They've been trying out the opera on the sidewalks of Pittsburgh, but opening morning in the Big Apple isn't going so well. At this first stop in Harlem, there's no applause. The audience leaves when the next bus arrives right in the middle of the performance.

Ashley Burroughs, the singer who opened the opera with her bus-missing aria, says the commuters here seem to be in their own world.

Ms. BURROUGHS: Yeah, people were walking by, they don't want to listen to what you have to say, or people talking on their phone, things like that, until they get something out of it at least, you know?

SMITH: You see, the creator of "Bus Stop Opera," Dawn Weleski, says this isn't really a show, it's an art project. So any reaction is okay with her. When she first came up with the idea, she said it was just to take advantage of captive audiences sitting there at the bus stops.

Ms. DAWN WELESKI (Creator, "Bus Stop Opera"): So I was going to lip-synch opera, bring the high arts to the everyday person and see what happens when both of those mix. But, unfortunately, people were a little threatened by it, and rightly so, I think, and so how could I make it relevant to them? How could I have them enjoy it?

SMITH: Do you get worried that as high-faluting art students from Pittsburgh that people think you're making fun of them?

Ms. WELESKI: I think that that was one of our initial worries that we didn't want to make fun of people or stereotype them, but the fact that the conversations are verbatim, or almost verbatim, and just re-presenting those same conversations to the people, it's just reality, except heightened a bit.

SMITH: Next stop: 96th and Broadway. It's later in the morning and this time they do draw a crowd. Josie Baguski(ph) and her grandkids stop short when they see a young man presenting flowers to a woman he just met on the bus.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Never thought I'd fall for him.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Never thought she'd fall for me.

Unidentified Man #2 and Woman #2: (Singing) (unintelligible) every day, at the Port Authority. Oh, it must be destiny.

SMITH: So, what do you think so far?

Ms. JOSIE BAGUSKI: I love it. It's adorable. The price is right.

SMITH: Nothing like free opera.

Ms. BAGUSKI: Uh-huh. Too bad they don't have little mics, though.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: It is a little hard to hear. Luckily the next guy who plays the sleazeball takes his part of the performance directly to every female he sees.

Mr. NICK COREY: (Singing) Here's my name and here's my number.

NAIROBI: Oh my god.

Mr. COREY: (Singing) I'll be waiting patiently for you to call and be my lover.

NAIROBI: Oh my gosh.

Mr. COREY: What's your name?

NAIROBI: Nairobi.

Mr. COREY: Nairobi, I'm Nick. Give me a call.

SMITH: Nick Corey majored in musical theater and he plans on moving to New York this summer to start his career. So, is he treating this as his big Broadway audition?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COREY: I want to say no. I mean, I'm hoping not to run into any of the agents that saw me a couple of months ago in New York.

SMITH: 'Cause you're worried conditions aren't perfect. Your voice may not be at its peak.

Mr. COREY: Right, exactly. And it's also - what time is it? It's, like, 8:30, yeah, it's too early to be singing this stuff. So, yeah, exactly, I'm not going to invite anybody to see this.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WELESKI: (Singing) (unintelligible) I'm also a star.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: So, Dawn Weleski, you got a standing ovation.

Ms. WELESKI: Oh excellent. Well, they were already standing, but we'll take that.

SMITH: There's not a lot of time to enjoy the glory. "Bus Stop Opera" runs on a tight schedule. Professional opera singers may get a few days off between big performances, but these guys have another show in about 15 minutes 20 blocks down Broadway.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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