Bronx Opera celebrates its 50th season of opera

OperaMetro had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Spierman, an original Founder and still Artistic Director of the Bronx Opera, and his son Benjamin. Working as partners, Michael oversees the artistic areas of the company with an emphasis on its musical/vocal and instrumental aspects; Ben, as primary administrator, oversees the company as a whole, including its personnel, funding, outreach and, as stage director, the dramatic aspects. In the company’s off-season, Ben is on the move in various capacities with other opera companies around the USA. Both Michael and Ben work closely with Emanuel Nadelman on financial matters. Nadelman, also a founding member, is the company’s Treasurer.

Keeping with our custom, OM formats the interview as if we were talking together, whereas, truth is, each gentleman was interviewed separately by telephone earlier this month.

OM: It’s a pleasure to talk with you, also a pleasure to honor to the Bronx Opera’s 50th season!

Michael Spierman (MS): You’re welcome.

Ben Spierman (BS): You’re welcome.

OM: Okay, give me, please, three or four reasons for the success and longevity of the Bronx Opera. What comes to mind first?

BS: Well, right off the bat, one reason is fiscal responsibility: we close each season with balanced books; a second reason, related to that, we deliver a highly respectable product within our means, which means we do our homework well and consequently we avoid operas just too expensive to produce. Wagner, the big Richard Strauss operas, for instances, are not only expensive productions, but they won’t fit in the smaller theaters we use for our performances. The orchestra pit isn’t big enough. But we work quite well within our parameters. Each season the Bronx Opera stages the operas people want to experience live in the theater, one from the standard repertory and one not so familiar to many.

  Bronx Opera's  Hansel and Gretel , May 2012

Bronx Opera's Hansel and Gretel, May 2012

MS: Also a reason we’re thriving is that we live in a great city. We sing for a highly intelligent audience eager not only to hear works from the not so familiar category, but also apparently eager to experience operas from the standard repertory in a new light. We perform all of our operas in English.

Tell you a story: I invited a woman, friend of mine, to come to one of our performances. Just so you know, she warned me, I hate opera. But then I saw her at the next production with a few friends, and again at another. I thought you hated opera? This isn’t opera, she said, this is like Broadway and I love Broadway. Point is, she could understand what they were singing, the staging was more intimate, the singers well-rehearsed, and the prices weren’t sky high through the roof. Let’s face it: the thought of sitting for hours in the dark in an expensive seat listening to an opera in a language you don’t understand a word of is a real road block for many people.

OM: True, you have to do your homework and the synopses don’t give you the nuances and intricacies.

MS:  What’s more, even those who are used to opera in the original language find new things: another story, a patron said she’d seen La Traviata maybe a dozen times in the larger houses, but ours was the first time she actually understood a lot of the conflict between Alfredo and his father Germont. Now I truly know what I’ve been crying about all these years! she said.

Look, you know Violetta or Mimi is going to die at the end, everything is leading toward that moment, and even if you’re sitting a block away in the balcony, that moment won’t escape you. But if you have to look away constantly to read a translation, line by line, you’re distracted from the moment.

OM: Certainly the English would enhance one’s experience of the not so well known operas. What are some of your greatest hits in this category?

BS: High on my list is Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra.

OM: I like that one!

BS: It was a lot of fun for all concerned to do. Rossini is one of those composers who is more or less pigeon-holed by maybe one or two popular operas, Barbiere, Cenerentola, and the well-known overtures one hears on QXR. But Gazza Ladra is a wonderful opera, I think actually a combination of the best of Rossini. Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love will be on the list soon: we’re doing it in January. Actually this is the third time Bronx Opera has performed it over the years.

  Michael Spierman with Ursula Vaughan William, widow of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1997

Michael Spierman with Ursula Vaughan William, widow of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1997

OM: Two times previously? Wow, where was I?

BS: As long as we’re on Vaughan Williams, The Poisoned Kiss was another hit. Sort of his foray into light fantasy, intentionally closer to Sullivan, but still recognizably Vaughan Williams. Fun piece, and Verdi’s first comedy Un Giorno di Regno was enlightening. Another fun one was Gustav Mahler’s reconstruction of Carl Maria von Weber’s music sketches for the comedy Die Drei Pintos.

OM: I know all these through recordings. My Pintos is an LP set even.

MS: Delightful, the Pintos. And think of all the stereotypes broken here: a light opera from Gustav Mahler? He’s not known as a very funny guy. And Weber? Neither name comes directly to mind when the words ‘light opera’ are spoken. But Pintos was ear-opening! I’ll add to that list Nielson’s Maskarade, Smetana’s The Two Widows

OM: Dvě vdovy?

MS: Very good!

OM: Had to look at my Czech shelf for that one. Another favorite of mine, though.

MS: Really works in English.

OM: I’ll bet. Delightful score! Moving on, are there any other reasons?

MS: Our great city also has a deep pool of highly talented young artists looking for stage experience from which they get exposure, start to build a career. We provide an opportunity for that experience.

OM: But if many or most in your cast are young singers, then there must be repertory at least inadvisable for a young voice to tackle, if not impossible. Stamina, breathing, pacing. I can’t imagine a young voice singing Elektra or Tristan.

BS: Well, as I said, Wagner and other composers who write for a large orchestra are out anyway because of the size of our orchestra pits. But yes, big voice roles such as Turandot, Gioconda, Tosca or Otello, to name four, would be probably out. We’d love to do Turandot, but it’s too big in lots of ways: expensive: sets, costumes, extras, special rehearsals…  

OM: I worked backstage with a small company for part of one summer years ago and since, through OperaMetro and the newspaper before it, I’ve gotten to know several other companies locally. I’m continually impressed with the dedication of young singers to their art, their careers, their dreams…you folks provide them with a lot of opportunities for growth.

BS: As in other domains in the arts, a career in opera mostly comes through doing it, on stage, rehearsing and performing with the others, plain and simple. Yes, training and coaching at universities and music institutes are important early on to develop the voice…but you just have to do it.

OM: Impressive that they’d learn a role for performance without any guarantee that there’ll ever be a chance to sing it again. Probably not a lot of calls for a soprano who knows the role of Anežka, one of the two widows.

BS: Maybe not, but they’re game to do it, they love the challenge, and they get good experience being part of the creation of a stage production from the ground up, not just slipping into one that’s been running for several seasons. And if the opera’s out of the standard repertory, singers know it’s probably the audience’s first exposure to the piece too, so that he or she will be the first interpreter of a role for them. There’s a real buzz to these, both on stage and off.

But back to young singers, the theaters we perform in show off the voices quite well. The auditoriums, the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College and the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, are small, only 500 to 600 seats. Our singers can actually sing and be heard without screaming. Much lower risk of damaging a young voice. Very important.

OM: I’m told you do outreach to the schools.

MS: Absolutely! It’s about building an audience and assuring a future for opera.

OM: Which is very important for the performing arts outside of the pop culture.

MS: The kids love it, we love it. We do a special morning performance of excerpts, piano, the understudies for our performance do the singing, then at a follow up meeting we take questions from the students. I remember we were doing The Marriage of Figaro, the scene where the Count arranges to meet Susanna in the garden that night. English, of course. A student asks in the Q & A, “Hey wait, isn’t that sexual harassment? Like shouldn’t the Count get in trouble for that!? And wasn’t Susanna’s husband upset?” Well, this started the conversation when we asked the students who, back in those days, was going to get the Count in trouble? We talked about the abuse of privilege and power, how Figaro (both the play and the opera) was revolutionary at its time, how the French commoners were so upset with the order of things that they stormed the Bastille and took down the government! The day began talking about Mozart, opera, and music and ended talking about 18th Century political history. And it’s relevant today: that connection didn’t escape them either! The point is: the opera was the experience that caused these kids to think about it. Puts it in a different perspective: once you make it relevant, opera comes alive, not just some relic from the past.

OM: Psychologists are fairly unanimous that memories formed in those teenage years can be special and therefore carefully tendered throughout adulthood. Your outreach is an invitation for them to enter a world that may seem to them intellectually and emotionally reserved for adults. Important experiences, to be sure. Thank you, gentlemen, for your words! Hope to see you at Sir John in Love!

Both: Hope to see you!

The Bronx Opera performs Sir John in Love by Ralph Vaughan Williams on Saturday, January 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, January 15 at 2:30 p.m. at the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx; Sir John in Love is performed again the following weekend at Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in Manhattan, 7:30 p.m. on January 21 and 2:30 p.m on the 22nd. For tickets, casting, directions, etc. please visit the company’s website at www.bronxopera.org.

In last week in April and first week in May, the Bronx Opera will tackle Verdi’s Falstaff.

Hansel and Gretel photo by Victoria DePew; set by Meganne George; on stage Jennifer Garuana and Allison Pohl.

Support local opera! And happy holidays to all!

JRS