At first glance a strange idea, on reflection the perfect mix of fun, subterfuge and amazing entertainment! What better way to entertain your party than to surprise them with outstanding performers… but how to introduce the act?
If you tell all of your guests that you’ll be having opera singers, or any style performance for that matter at your dinner party they will come with all kinds of ideas about what to expect. They may not be sure how to act or what they need to do, and expectation can make everyone nervous for all the wrong reasons. If it’s a surprise however, and you’ve chosen some excellent performers, there is only amazement and delight all around!
The concept of singing waiters has been around a long time, but where did it start? Who thought of this strange performance form, and from when and where did it come? These questions, perhaps surprisingly, attract quite a heated controversy and a good lump of confusion.
First of all it might help to clarify a simpler question… What is a Singing Waiter? There are two basic formats of ‘singing waiters’ commonly established. The first is simply when restaurants specialising in this form of in-house service/entertainment hire professional and semi-professional singers to perform the role of waitstaff who also double as performers. They are literally ‘singing waiters’. This is a well established restaurant format that you will find in many European and North America cities, and has been in practice for many decades. This definition is not what we’re focused on here, though there are hundreds of iconic life stories that have derived from that .
The second format, which is a compelling and intriguingly contagious art form, is that of the singing waiters who are professional singers and not functioning waitstaff. These are often opera singers but not necessarily, sometimes performing musical theatre, jazz, barbershop, or any number of styles depending on the ensemble performing and the requests of their clients.
These performers disguise themselves as waiters, blending in with, though usually not usefully assisting actual staff, and perform a short skit which culminates in their breaking into song, surprising the unsuspecting audience for whom they were hired to entertain. These performers produce a featured act for their seated audience typically for a set of 20 minutes, then depending on the act, returning for another 20 minute feature performance without the disguise. Though this performance layout varies, it has been commonly accepted that the typical audience attention span is roughly 20 minutes, so this length performance is often recommended.
The most common settings for these performances are for corporate events, as wedding entertainment and at private parties. For obvious reasons the performance is usually staged during the meal element of these events, but over the last decade the format has diversified and expanded to encompass performance at whatever stage of an event is best suited to the function hosts, and as such the ‘singing waiters’ format actually includes performers dressed as any number of service staff, firemen, security guards, chefs, medical personnel and often even guests incognito appearing and breaking disguise on cue. A flexibility of format makes a singing waiters performance great for themed events as well as giving some real distinction to un-themed dinners.
Different acts maintain a different level of flexibility with regards to the style which they perform, repertoire which they are willing to perform on request, costume and opening skit. Some performers offer a very strictly defined act, with an inflexible script and set list, others have a handful of routines available, and others still are versatile performers happy to design a programme specifically for each client.
Generally it can be found that the larger and longer established companies have expanded and employ a number of different performers and ‘teams’, sometimes globally, give all of their performers a script and strict set list that all of their performers are required to follow. Often more locally run ensembles will be able to provide a much more personal service.
There are many ensembles currently in existence that claim to be the ‘originals’, a title which some of them heatedly defend, often usually implying that this makes them the best, but it is a claim that seems to be supported and sustained only by a clever marketing strategy. Often however, it is interesting when you consider what you are getting from the ‘originals’ because although the founders of these businesses were usually innovators in some respect when they started, their acts have expanded in such a way that the original performers are not whom most clients would find performing for their events. The originality claim, thus, no longer holds meaning.
Our intent in writing this article is to illuminate an art form, not to make enemies, so we will not name and shame any of the specific acts that make these impossibly contrasting claims of originality, but these are nothing if not bold: “The original ‘Singing Waiters’ – surprising and delighting the world since 1998…”, “We and our clients know we are the original and the best…”, “The first company to bring you this concept”,
In fact, our research dates performances based on this format which first were seen and advertised in the 1980s. An act that calls themselves simply “The Singing Waiters” is “an ensemble of professional singers from Los Angeles that became an instant success in Switzerland in 1988 and afterwards throughout Europe”. Ironically this ensemble does not suggest in their marketing that they are the first and original, though there is no documentation that we have found available to substantiate if there is a definitive event from which this format was born.
Though the origin of this performance format is somewhat unclear, it has developed into a form that is now so popular that its origins hardly seem important. Surely after three decades the modern audience is now more interested in who is going to bring them the best, freshest and most compelling performance rather than just who did it first… especially when research suggests that if they claim to be the originals perhaps their marketing should be viewed with a bit more skepticism.
There are a number of reasons that this format has taken off so greatly in popularity. Originality, spontaneity, fun, flexibility and a broad appeal are the key factors to it’s increasingly stable foothold in the entertainment industry.
The singing waiters format is now well established, but not so common that it is ever expected by the guests who are lucky enough to be invited to an event for which such an act has been booked. Although the format is performed by a number of different companies, the number of performers in relation to the number of events which provide such entertainment for their guests creates a tiny percentage. Therefore even if you have experienced it before, to be at a dinner where your waiter, or the person sitting next to you bursts out into a stunning serenade is always breathtaking and entrancing.
Such a performance is unique in it’s flexibility as well, because the format translates as well for the small dinner party of 12 guests as it does for a function of 2000 guests. The technical requirements change depending on what is required to most effectively engage the audience, ie for the small dinner party no amplification is necessary, whereas for larger events microphones and a suitably sized amplification system is used.
Also the style of performance is flexible depending on the flexibility of the act being considered. Many of these acts perform with high quality recorded backing accompaniment, others with live piano or small ensemble, and some talented individuals perform in a cappella arrangements (vocal harmony) without the need for accompaniment at all. This flexibility means that really no matter what the restrictions of your venue are a singing waiters act can easily slot into your venue and timings that make that particular event a talking point for its guests and create a truly memorable experience.
Further, it is not just the element of surprise that makes such a performance so compelling, it is in the proximity that the performers maintain to their audience giving the show an intimacy and immediacy that can not be achieved by a staged performance where the singers are set back from their audience.
It can be argued that such out of context performances of the classic favorites might be an artistic offence, bringing them so out of context from which they were originally composed and intended. This is a heated topic for many musical purists and an opinion with good argument and not to be brushed off lightly. That being said, it is also a common misconception that particularly the classical repertoire is as a rule rigid and overly dramatic, when in fact much opera, for example, is composed as light and fun entertainment. Mozart, for example, was a terrific composer of the light and fun, but sadly that is often forgotten today and those who have not been exposed to his work in detail would never in their ordinary lives realize this. This setting offers the performers a chance to bring this music to life for people that would never otherwise even imagine going to an opera house performance or downloading a Verdi duet.
One unexpected and fantastic side effect of this unique format is that it is presented in such a way as to be of broad appeal to a much more diverse audience than these musical performances would usually attract. Often, particularly with operatic singing waiters, the performance consists of opera favourites which are presented in a fresh, playful setting that involves the audience in amongst and directly rather than performing to them from a stage.
A common reaction that an audience in this setting will offer after the event is that they didn’t think themselves a fan of opera, but found the stodgy stereotypes melting away as they are transported by the playfully fun and larger than life uplifting energy of this exciting music for themselves, thoroughly enjoying the act, and relating to the music, open to future opportunities to explore similar performances. It is this unique type of exposure which singing waiters performances have gifted to the musical arts as a whole, possibly helping to create a new generation of audience for the live and classical arts. This fact alone has surely earned this performance form its place in the history and text books amongst the other respected performance forms! But you can only really understand the magic of truly talented singing waiters when you are lucky enough to find yourself suddenly enjoying the act! Find out more here…