2 June, 2000
Small Time Opera
The grand spectacle of opera
is expensive to stage, pricey to go to, but to the fans it's
wonderful to watch. And, of course, it needs acres of space
to do it properly. But there is another type of opera, as personified
by The Amato Opera Company in New York. If you can imagine that
grandest of operas, Verdi's Aida, set in the Egyptian
city of Thebes at the time of the Pharaohs, being staged in
your front room, you are getting close.
Every year the company performs six different productions on
a stage just six metres wide. The orchestra sits in a cellar
that has been dug out below, and even though everything's in
miniature, the Amato's performances have been charming audiences
for more than 50 years. But while toy opera companies such as
this were common in the past, the Amato Opera is now part of
a dying breed in New York. Miles Warde went to talk to the company's
79-year-old founder, Tony Amato, during a recent production
of the French opera, Manon.
than 10,000 singers have now passed through Amato's hands, many
of them heading on to careers in some of the biggest concert
halls in the world. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been spotted
in the audience and when 'the mom and pop opera' celebrated
it's 50th anniversary, even Bill Clinton singled it out for
The tiny opera house, which now has a big
reputation, was founded in 1948 as a non-profit making organisation.
It had no fixed base and moved from venue to venue, including
a school auditorium, town hall and church mission building.
Since 1946 Tony Amato held the post of Director of the Opera
Workshop at the America Theatre Wing and with his wife, Sally,
decided to set up his own opera company. The company's aims
were clear: to present affordable, entertaining opera, and to
provide a training ground for young singers seeking training
and experience in opera.
The early company employed students from Tony Amato's opera
classes and because of union regulations, performances were
free. The Amato's invested their own savings to get the company
started and although ticket sales were prohibited, contributions
were requested during the intervals.
Today, virtually all the company's funding comes from ticket
sales and the company is thought to be the only self-sustaining
opera house in the US. A seat costs $25 and the house is always
sold out. Tony Amato's dream has come along way and he is proud
of his achievements,
'It's a great achievement, especially when you see the end
of the production and can say to yourself, every nail, and every
piece of wood I put together in that set. And artistically,
I put the singers together as well'.
Rudolph Giuliani has been spotted in the audience
and when The Amato celebrated it's 50th anniversary,
even Bill Clinton singled it out for praise'
The current season boasts Strauss', Die
Fledermaus, a new production of Massenet's, Manon,
Puccini's, Madama Butterfly and to close the season an
English performance of Mozart's, The Marriage Of Figaro.
In addition at the end of each run the audience are also invited
(at a cost of $50 per head) to attend a champagne gourmet buffet.
How is it possible to produce such grand opera in such a cramped
space? Tony explains:
'We have a big chorus, 30 people and a chamber orchestra
of only ten, sometimes eight according to the opera. The opera
sit below the pit, down out of sight. The conductor is a problem,
because the pianist is at a different level, so in order to
control the orchestra, pianist and the singers, the conductor
has to sit at an angle. The left hand controls the orchestra,
the right hand controls pianists and singers, so he gets a good
Labour Of Love
The Amato's take an active role in all areas of the performances.
Tony is the company's musical director - he selects the operas,
auditions, casts and rehearses staff - he also conducts most
of the performances. He comments:
'I might not have the background of a conductor, but I am
self- taught in my music, and in my staging, and I believe that
when you are self-taught and put in the hard work to prepare,
it stays with you it doesn't disappear.'
Sally is also no stranger to hard work and Tony refers to her
as 'the Callas of the opera company'. She sews all of
the costumes, handles the light board, acts as the make-up consultant
and takes care of most of the business side of the operation
including ticket sales.
The Secret Of Success
There was a time when toy opera companies thrived in Manhattan,
but now cuts in the arts funding mean that The Amato, is virtually
one of a kind. When a critic from The New York Times
witnessed a production of the Barber Of Seville, he proclaimed
the Amato to be,
'The Feisty Opera - as intimate as the Met is grandioso,
revels endearingly in the contrast.'
Tony Amato agrees that it is the intimacy of the setting that
had aided the company's success. He explains:
'In this theatre, people receive the intimacy, they get the
facial expressions. They [the audience] also feel that
it is like a family. We try to give them warmth as soon as they
enter the door. I think it is hard to do that in a big theatre
with 3,000 people…People say, "get a bigger theatre Tony", but
then it would be dangerous, because then we couldn't control
it. It would loose the intimacy and the unions would choke us
up. I think that small is beautiful.'
is The Amato Opera?
Amato Opera can be found in a narrow building at
319 The Bowery, New York. It is a 107 seat theatre
with storage space for 55 opera sets.
tiny opera is supported by the Amato Opera Circle.
This is a voluntary organisation, which has been
active since 1953 and consists of approximately