For openers, opera

Shoppers can typically find an eclectic collection of locally produced goods inside Atherton Market in South End: fresh flowers, ostrich meat, handmade jewelry, all-natural root beer, soy candles.

But on Tuesday, people browsing during the lunchtime rush at the market in Atherton Mill got to sample an unexpected bit of local flavor.

Krista Wilhelmsen, an Opera Carolina singer posing as a vendor, emerged from a booth and began belting out "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" in her beautiful soprano.

And with that, the Arts & Science Council unveiled the first in a series of dozens of "random acts of culture" it plans to spring on the Charlotte area over the next year.

In all, five soloists performed Tuesday, each popping out from behind a different booth; there was also a chorus of about 10 singers that joined in during the finale - the brindisi from Verdi's "La Traviata" (which Opera Carolina will stage at Belk Theater in 2011).

But the indelible image of the day was of Wilhelmsen dropping to a knee to serenade Jonah Cameron, a Beverly Woods Elementary third-grader, at close range. Jonah couldn't stifle his nervous giggling but didn't break eye contact as the 31-year-old blonde's warm tones rang out and about 100 people looked on.

How did he feel about the whole thing? "Embarrassed."

His mother, Tara Cameron, was more effusive. "Charlotte needs more stuff like this to happen," said Cameron, who has season tickets to the opera. "I don't think a lot of people really realize that we have the opera here. Downtown is more than bars and restaurants."

Said Wilhelmsen: "I think a lot of people feel that opera is this old, stuffy art form that's dying, but we're trying to make it accessible to everyone. This type of thing is really accessible."

The random acts are being funded by a $30,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which gave a total of $432,500 to the ASC earlier this year. The Knight Foundation gave identical $30,000 grants to arts councils in seven other cities.

Though the eventual goal is for these random acts to come as a surprise, on Tuesday at Atherton Market, it was clear half an hour before anything happened that... something was going to happen. TV crews and several photographers with cameras too big to hide were milling around by 11:45 a.m. Around the same time, the ASC's entourage arrived.

"I think the photographers outnumbered the participants," said ASC president Scott Provancher, laughing.

"That's all right, though. It's about starting a conversation and being aware of the things in your community. Sometimes it takes those things getting presented in a way you're not expecting, so you step back and say, 'Oh yeah, that's pretty neat that there's an opportunity here. I didn't know that.'

"I don't think we have tangible (goals) coming out of this initiative - it's more about awareness and experimenting.... All in all, I saw lots of smiles and folks' faces getting engaged and lots of applause."

Perhaps the loudest applause came from John Rudisill. He shouted a booming "Bravo!" after the finale.

"Thought it was great," said the Charlotte lawyer, 56. "Although I was expecting dancing girls."