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Illusionist introduces the magic of opera in Burbank

Illusionist introduces the magic of opera in Burbank
Opera-singing magician Patrick Bell prepares to perform a magic trick with Ajax Jankiewicz, 5, assisting during a show at the Burbank Central Library on Oct. 1. (Photo by Chad Garland)

The audience in the auditorium on the second floor of Burbank's Central Library on Thursday evening suggested incantations.

An 8-year-old in front named Lauren, seated on the blue alphabet rug, suggested "abracadabra." "Hocus-pocus," proffered another grade-schooler. A woman toward the back proposed "presto."

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None was quite right, said Patrick Bell, billed as the world's only opera-singing magician, but Lauren's was close. Instead, the deft baritone would cast his spell using the phrase "opera-kadabra," also the title of his show.

Bell showed off sleight-of-hand tricks he's developed as a professional magician since the age of 13, including a few humorous gags, such as when he riffled a deck of cards from his right hand on top to his left hand on bottom.

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"I'm not trying to show off when I do this," he said, putting the cards behind his back and seeming to riffle them again without looking, before saying "and back up" as if riffling them the opposite direction.

While many of the tricks at the family night event were geared toward the youngsters in the audience, more than a few adults ooh'd, aah'd and applauded when Bell seemed to pass spongy red balls invisibly from his pocket to an outstretched hand or appeared to cut a rope with nothing but his scissoring fingers, then put it back together again with a little spit as glue.

However, as the night's magic words implied, the show wasn't all about illusions. Bell, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in vocal performance from UCLA, delivered on the opera part as well, singing samples of arias for the audience between sets of tricks.

It's a good way to introduce children to opera, Bell said, and though they may know bits and pieces about the art form, many have never seen it live. Early on, he asked the children gathered at his feet if they knew what opera even was.

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Sarah Dias, a 9-year-old Burbank resident, said it's when someone sings "really loud and you express dramatically."

Among the samples Bell sung was a piece from the Catalogue Aria from the opera "Don Giovanni," in which the title character — known in Spanish as Don Juan — makes an accounting of his many "girlfriends" in France, Germany and Spain, he explained to the children.

Parents often cringe a little, apprehensively, when he introduces the aria, he said, but he uses the piece because it's up-tempo and short, plus he can have a conversation with the children setting it up and discussing the meaning of the numbers in Italian, letting them guess at the legendary lover's tally of Spanish paramours (more than 1,000, for the record).

Cathleen Bowley, children's services supervising librarian, said she likes to book performers like Bell because of their ability to introduce a bit of culture. She said she'd hired the singing magician for children's shows after learning about him through a colleague who brought him in for an adult event.

"I thought it was such a cool program [for children and adults]" she said, adding that it's suited for ages "birth to 90."

After the roughly 45-minute show, Sarah and her sister Rachel, 7, said they thought the magic was "good, nice." The opera part "made it unique," Sarah added.

"I liked that part," she said.

Bell will be back for an another performance at 7 p.m. on Oct. 21 at the Buena Vista Library, 300 N Buena Vista St.

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