Tora Yi explains that his first name means "tiger" in Japanese, a symbol of audacity not unsuited to his line of work.
Since 2004, Yi has been the owner of Ido Sushi in the West Village. His restaurant features a traditional Japanese menu but it’s the sideline that elicits stares and puzzled remarks from passersby. Every Wednesday and Saturday night for the past four years, Yi has hosted an open-mic night featuring opera singers -- amateurs, students and professionals as well as the occasional cameo from a Met or City Opera star.
“I see a lot of people passing by my restaurant saying, ‘oh, opera and sushi. This is very weird,'" said Yi. “But I always tell people, Chinese invented noodles, but the Italians made pasta out of Chinese noodles and they made a great dish.”
For the Korean-born Yi, the weekly salon was born out of a desire to instill an appreciation for culture in his daughter, Sunabi, who is now 12. “I didn’t plan to do it at the beginning,” he explained. “I had a piano in my restaurant but I knew if I was going to be here all the time, my daughter would be here a lot of time also.”
Personal experience motivated Yi. At age seven, he was enrolled in a piano class but he quit after one lesson, feeling that music-making was not considered a macho pursuit. “That’s the thing I regret most in my life,” he said.
In his home in Whitestone, Queens, Yi starts almost every day by practicing opera arias, sometimes for hours at a time. He has enrolled in voice lessons, studies opera DVDs and occasionally goes to the Met. "It’s not easy,” he said of his training. "I like to listen and sing but not in front of an audience yet. Someday I will maybe. That’s my goal.”
Yi noted that he considered discontinuing the opera nights last summer when his wife, who manages the restaurant's finances, complained that attendance was dwindling and the singers didn’t order any food. But he persevered. “A lot of the singers are not from New York so they needed a nest,” he said. “I feel like I have to do this. Whenever they come they talk about the music industry and sometimes we drink sake together and become very good friends.”
On a recent Wednesday, singers of varying ages and voice categories ascended the small stage in the corner of the restaurant while customers dined on Teriyaki and two of the house specialties: Verdi Rolls and Puccini Rolls.
“Whoever loves art, it belongs to them,” said Yi. “That’s the fundamental idea."