The door swings open. It’s winter in Norway, which means 17 hours of daily darkness and bracing cold around the clock, and yet the man in the doorway wears a short-sleeved polo shirt and cargo pants. He looks to be about 60 years old, though he is the type of man who makes you guess, because he likes to play games. His name is Olav Aåmodt and he founded this bar, the Underwater Pub, about 25 years ago, give or take. He’s coy about that, too.
Though Aåmodt sold the pub in 2010, he remains its talent booker and life force. He’s the impresario who decided that what Scandinavia really needed was a rambling split-level tavern with twice-weekly opera, and a subaquatic design theme. His walls are painted turquoise. His ceiling is painted turquoise. Twin scuba tanks sit behind his bar — or make that bars, plural, because there’s one upstairs where the singers perform and then another downstairs by the working fireplace. You enter Underwater through what appears to be the door to a submarine, and above that door is a massive Samsung flat-screen playing an endless loop of saltwater-fish footage. “That’s a shark,” Aåmodt says as the creatures flit by. “That’s a scorpion fish. That’s the most poisonous snake in the world by far. It’s not dangerous, but it’s very curious.”
Aåmodt lives within a quarter-mile of the bar and is plainly still consumed by it. And yet to ask him even elementary questions about the venue — like, say, how it came to exist — is to invite evasion and deadpan. “I love music,” he says. “As you can see I also like scuba diving. So I made an underwater atmosphere here.” Aåmodt’s manner is to utter loopy sentiments and make them seem matter-of-fact. When the photographer for this story asks, in Norwegian, if she may take his picture, he answers in English “of course not.” When I wonder aloud how he listens to music at home, he tells me that he prefers vinyl — and that indeed he takes it on the boat with him when he goes sailing. (He also wears a dive watch.)
The evening’s crowd filters in. Like many places that are bitterly cold and lacking in daylight, Norway has a vigorous drinking culture. (“Norwegians are not a cultural people,” Aåmodt says. “We’re very good at skiing. We are good at chess. And that’s about it, I think.”) A great deal of alcohol consumption takes place in the home here, though a city as cosmopolitan as Oslo has pretty much any type of bar you could want: Hipster hangout Bar Lardo slings pre-batched cocktails; Kniven (translation: “knife”) is devoted to craft beer and heavy metal; the traditional pub Lorry serves reindeer burgers. Amidst these many local watering holes, Underwater has established itself less as a place to get blitzed and more as a low-key bohemian hang with a soundtrack all its own.
“I try to make opera interesting for a new generation.” Aåmodt says. “It has been for a long, long time for old people.” His goal is not to entertain anyone senior to him. “The average age here is about 30 years old. Where in the world do you find that for opera?” At one point in the night, I swivel around in my chair to talk to the three women at the table next to me and Aåmodt is proven right: They are ages 27 to 29 and one, a 28-year-old attorney named Kirsten Lange, tells me she uses Underwater as “the perfect venue for a first date. A Tinder date. I’ve taken multiple Tinder dates here.”
The performance begins. As usual, three professional opera singers — tonight it’s a tenor, a baritone, and a mezzo soprano — have shown up to perform for a fee of $180 and free beer. And while it is strange bordering on comic, at first, to see the serious baritone Johannes Weisser performing Bizet’s famous “Toreador Song” from Carmen while holding a pint glass, the novelty quickly wears off. The club can only hold about 135 people, so guests are closer than they’d ever be at an opera house. The performance is unamplified, and the audience can’t help but remain silent for fear of breaking the spell. “You’ll recognize one thing,” Aåmodt had told me before the music started. “People are completely quiet here. I mean, not whispering. Not anything. If they whisper, I throw them out.”
Each vocalist performs an aria about three minutes long. There’s a long intermission, so the singers can rehearse whatever they’re singing next and the patrons can buy more beer. This repeats until everyone has sung four times. If you are a visiting journalist from the United States, Aåmodt will reappear at your table between sets to recap the set. “This is ‘Lensky’s Aria,’” he says after a Tchaikovsky piece. “What has happened is, he’s engaged with Olga. And in love with Olga. And Olga dances a little too much with Eugene Onegin at a party the day before. And this isn’t a problem, but in this party Lensky gets the feeling that she doesn’t love him so much anymore.” And then, the immutable rule of opera: “If the one you love doesn’t love you, you kill yourself of course.”
The whole evening is like this, a collision of high and low culture. Johanne Højlund, a lovely Danish mezzo soprano, sings from Samuel Barber. A guy with shaved head and a Tesla Motors hoodie pops in and out delivering pizza. Weisser sings a piece from Verdi’s Don Carlo. A drunken patron gets thrown out. A pair of pillar candles burn romantically on a music stand at the top of the stairs. The classical pianist accompanying the singers looks like Captain Lou Albano and swigs from Corona longnecks. In these ways and so many others, Underwater subverts the expectations one might have upon entering a drinking establishment. Like a David Lynch movie, the place seems to operate on dream logic: If you take it on its own terms, what starts out as bewildering winds up as transcendent.
For me, the two most sublime moments come from Norwegian tenor Nils Nilsen. While no American would dare to sing the Righteous Brothers’ dangerously earnest “Unchained Melody” in public after the infamous potter’s wheel scene in Ghost, much less consider it to be worthy of an operatic rendition, Nilsen tackles it with utter sincerity and unlocks the naked need at the heart of the lyric. He doesn’t so much reinterpret the tune as reanimate it. If there were problems with this piece of music, his rendition suggests that’s all on the listener, not the material.
Even better, and somehow more emblematic of Underwater’s whole sensibility, is the moment he performs a paraphrase from Mascagni’s one-act 19th-Century opera Cavalleria Rusticana. Nilsen would downplay it to me later as “a choir thing that’s written into ‘Ave Maria,’” but it was more than a choir thing to Désirée Baraula, a mezzo watching from the balcony with her newlywed husband. The piece had been their wedding procession song, and hearing it now — as a surprise — brings Baraula to pieces. There in the bar, as Nilsen sings, she begins to softly weep. And when the song is over, she blows him a two-handed kiss. It’s a small moment, but it beautifully illustrates the emotional power of opera. Only afterward did I discover that Aåmodt had arranged the whole thing.