At the front of a small lounge in The Westgate hotel, a man named Martin – badly in need of a shave – is singing a sad song in Spanish. Or Italian. I'm not sure. It's open mic opera night, and the place is packed. Martin finishes and the crowd erupts in applause, punctuated by shouts of "Autre! Autre!" But I'm sandwiched between people who glance furtively behind me, toward the entrance. Something important is about to happen. I feel as if I'm in a secret club, only I don't know the secret. That is, until tenor Daniel Hendrick strides into the room, his long blond coif bouncing.
"It's "DanIEL!" It's "DanIEL!" people whisper excitedly, leaning Frenchly on the second syllable. Grown women – and I mean senior citizens – are squealing in anticipation.
As he approaches the microphone, my friend and opera guide Claudette Rortvedt whispers to me with a knowing wink: "Watch! The chandeliers will vibrate."
Mr. Hendrick steps back from the microphone. "You know me," he says, laughing, "I don't need a microphone." It's no joke. This very large man, who performs with professional opera companies, might as well be Pavarotti as far as I'm concerned. All eyes are glued to him as he holds one insanely high note after another. It is some of the most powerful music I've ever heard. The song's last note is long and high and Hendrick does it justice, closing his eyes and spreading his arms wide for the finish.
Open mic opera? In southern California – land of blond surfers and fish tacos? Yes, The Westgate is just part of a circuit of San Diego bars, cafes, and restaurants where amateur, semiprofessional, and professional singers perform.
The phenomenon isn't new, but it's becoming more common. For the past two to three decades there have been restaurants with nights given over to singers performing opera scenes or customers wanting to get up and belt out a few arias, says Duff Murphy, host of The Opera Show on Los Angeles's radio station KUSC.
"Things like opera education programs in schools and smaller opera companies in the US have made the music more popular now," says Mr. Murphy.
Open mic opera isn't just popular with the over-50 crowd either; at The Westgate there are plenty of attractive 20- and 30-somethings. "There is an element of cool – especially among more intellectually charged musicians – in attending opera performances," observes Murphy.
The growing popularity of open mic opera isn't surprising, says Robert Hansen, executive director of the National Opera Association, because opera programs at colleges and universities are "bursting at the seams."
"There is a huge population out there now of singers who want some sort of opportunity to sing, whether they make a living doing it, [or do it] for pocket money or just for the love of singing," he says.
The audience and atmosphere at The Westgate, and at other opera hangouts to which Ms. Rortvedt – a French native – guided me, is decidedly European and South and Central American, with just a spattering of people like me, a minivan-driving American mom. These are the kinds of people who greet one another by kissing both cheeks. The large majority of the crowd are regulars.
Joe Cruz, a retired producer and director who moved here from L.A. a year ago, started coming to see the opera singers almost as soon as he unpacked. "A lot of us – an inside group – get together at dinner parties and someone always breaks into song. You can't stop these people from singing," Mr. Cruz says.
He sits next to a grouchy older man who keeps asking people to stop talking: "We came to hear them, not you!" Cruz whispers, "He's a regular."
Chantal Roché, a French compatriot of Rortvedt's, enters the room. She makes her living as a singer – everything from opera to Sinatra – performing at private engagements and, on off nights, at places like The Westgate. I introduce myself and Ms. Roché takes my hand as if she knows me, confiding: "People tell me all the time, I sound like Edith Piaf.... I don't know if it's helping my career, because I can sing in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Arabic. I usually do the popular Italian arias."
When Roché sings, her vibrato commands attention. She came to the US "a long time ago" when she was a mom raising kids. But in her 40s she decided to pursue a lifelong dream. She sold her skincare business, had some headshots taken, recorded a CD, and transformed herself into a singer.
Cafe Bassam is one of the only places in San Diego where people still smoke cigars indoors and opera has been on the menu for a decade. Rortvedt says the place reminds her of Europe.
"In France and Italy, especially, there are cafes all over where you can go in and hear singing, hear opera.... I come here, and I feel like I'm home," she says.
Young people passing by, peek in, hear the booming voice of Luigi Luevano, and decide to stay for coffee.
Mr. Luevano has an impressive vocal range, although he has never had a lesson.
More than just an opera singer, Luevano is an entertainer, and people come as much for his singing as his comedy. Though he is the main attraction at Bassam's, anyone can stand up and sing, and a woman from the San Diego Lyric Opera steps up to join him. "This is my ex-wife," he says. She rolls her eyes. Then he walks toward a young woman sitting alone and extends his hand. "And this is my next wife." She blushes as he sings to her in Italian.
A pretty young woman in a long gold skirt sings next. By day she's an artist, at night, a singer who has trouble hitting the high notes and tends to go flat. But the crowd is generous.
Then Jef Olson, a tall, slim singer who resembles a young Art Garfunkel, takes the microphone and fills the small room with his haunting, melancholy voice.
When it's Luevano's turn again he signals to his accompanist that he wants "Solamente Una Vez" ("Only One Time"). "Solamente" ends, and he starts up with an Italian song that translates to "Tell Her I Love Her," making a show of loosening his tie – black with white polka dots – before hitting the high note.
Luevano also sings on Friday nights at La Dolce Vita, a small Italian restaurant in the chic suburb of La Jolla. The night I'm there, Olson and Roché are also singing. At one point the owner, Enzo Castiglione, begins playing the bongo drums. Olson, Roché, and Luevano decide to sing "O Sole Mio" as the finale. Their voices fill the room; everyone stops chewing, jaws hang open.
"That's what's so fun about open mic opera," says radio host Murphy. "Darned if you don't find some of those singers, who may not have the most beautiful voices, somehow convey the sentiment the composer was looking for better than anyone else. They aren't trying to win a contest or contract," he says. "They just want to make music."