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Artist Spotlight: The Boston Opera Guy

The Boston Opera guy
Marshall Richards, also known as The Boston Opera Guy, sings in Brattle Square on Thursday, Sept. 8.

Marshall Richards arrives at Brattle Square around 11:45 a.m. and sets up his gear in front of Crema Café: a microphone, a small amplifier, a music stand with a tablet displaying sheet music, and an umbrella branded with the words “The Boston Opera Guy.” By noon, he’s launched into his warmup repertoire of French and Italian art songs, accompanied by a piano recording and the urban sounds of patio chatter and traffic. This surreally European scene attracts small crowds for a few minutes at a time during the lunch rush.

Richards, a lyric tenor, performs in Harvard Square on Thursdays to warm up for his lessons with Thomas Jones, the longtime Harvard voice teacher. Most afternoons, though, he can be found in the city, at Boston Common on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Copley Square, where he met Jones, on Tuesdays and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The Crimson sat down with Richards during a break in his warm-up. A lightly edited transcript appears below.

The Harvard Crimson: How long have you been “The Boston Opera Guy”?

The Boston Opera Guy: I’ve been in Boston since March 15. That’s when I moved to town. Busking is just my way of getting myself out there and “singing for my supper,” so they say…. Before I moved here, I was in New Orleans busking full-time and calling myself the New Orleans Opera Guy. [The name] “The Boston Opera Guy” is a way for people to remember me so they can look me up later online. I can tell people my name, and most people are not going to remember that a few hours later. But if I tell people “The Boston Opera Guy,” then it sticks in their head, and then they go home and they like my Facebook page.

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THC: What’s your favorite place in town to perform?

TBOG: I have the biggest crowds at Copley. I’m the most well-received, it seems like. [Attendance at] the park [Boston Common] is growing, especially with me being on the [Boston Lyric Opera’s 40 Days of Opera] calendar, so I’d say at this point, they’re about even. But Copley’s where I met Tom [Jones], and Tom’s been a huge part of helping me get involved in the community here, and he’s introducing me to a lot of different people and preparing me to audition for these places like BLO, and Emmanuel Music, and Handel and Haydn Society and all these great places in Boston and in Cambridge.

THC: Are you planning on performing year-round?

TBOG: Well, I’ve never been through a winter up here. I moved here in March, so I’ve never actually experienced a New England winter. I’m from the south, I’m from Mobile, Alabama, and I’ve lived in New Orleans and I’ve lived in Los Angeles…. I’m really hoping that I’m gonna secure some more professional work by the time winter rolls around in a couple of months, and if not, I’m probably going to have to take to the subways. Subway’s not my favorite place, but you know, it works, and I’ve got the permit and everything.

THC: You’re performing what many see as an old, elite art form in modern, pedestrian places. Do you think of that as a tension?

TBOG: I think it’s really great. Being a street performer’s not what I started out wanting to do. It’s not, like, my ultimate goal. But in a funny way, it’s ended up being exactly what I want to do, just on a smaller scale—which is to broaden the opera audience and to expose people to it that otherwise have never heard it, or may have certain prejudices, like thinking that it’s elitist, or thinking that it’s antiquated or boring. This has been an opportunity for me to change people’s perceptions on a boots-on-the-ground level…. That’s really my main goal as a singer, is to spark an interest in classical music, because I really value it. When you’re an opera singer, you’re not just a singer; you’re, in a way, a historical preservationist. You’re preserving this tradition that’s older than you, and older than your parents, and older than your grandparents. And the reason it’s still around is because it’s still the greatest music that’s ever been made. Nobody’s gonna come along and make Bach or Mozart obsolete.

THC: What kinds of experiences have you had performing in these unconventional spaces?

TBOG: Every day out here is a new adventure. I never know what to expect…. I’ve just been really pleased with the public’s reaction here. Boston and Cambridge have been better to me than any city that I’ve sung in. People are so enthusiastic and responsive here and really enjoy what I do. It’s very fulfilling to sing this kind of music that’s not necessarily popular music and build these crowds…. Just seeing the people who obviously have never listened to opera at all, never thought that they liked it—it’s most fulfilling when those kinds of people tell me they really appreciate it. Because of course when somebody like Tom, who’s a Harvard professor comes up and tells me that I’m singing really well, that’s incredibly flattering, and that’s exciting too. But it’s bringing it to everybody, and seeing everybody take to it, is really fulfilling and really satisfying.

—Staff writer Trevor J. Levin can be reached at trevor.levin@thecrimson.com.

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