Bronx Opera was formed 50 years ago.. a good reason to celebrate.
It is the second-oldest company in New York that has continually-presented opera over the last half-century and it has given experience to generations of singers. For many, working at Bronx Opera gave them their first opportunity of being in a fully-staged production.
The company was founded in 1967 by Artistic Director and Music Director, the conductor Michael Spierman, and it opened its doors with a production of Così fan tutte. Often the fare has been of repertory standards – Rossini, Mozart, Verdi, Donizetti – but it has also presented some lesser known works such as Copland's The Tender Land, Nielsen's Maskarade, and Vaughan Williams's The Poisoned Kiss.
Bronx Opera does much for its home borough providing community concerts and outreach initiatives. This season, they will present concerts throughout The Bronx and Westchester, work with community members at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, bring music into the lives of senior citizens at the Riverdale Y Senior Center, and continue their Opera-in-the-Schools program which introduces 1000 children each year to Bronx Opera's productions and the operatic art form. Valuable work.
I asked Michael Spierman if he'd dared to imagine that the company would have gone on for so long.
I am very surprised that the Bronx Opera has lasted for this half-century. We never planned for longevity… it came upon us almost without warning.
His son Benjamin, today Bronx Opera's Managing Director, has a different view, though, of course, he wasn't involved at the outset:
I'm not surprised at all. We're a responsible company that does good work, and we never owe anyone money that we can't pay. That's the formula for survival.
The main productions of the 50th season are two takes on the story of Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff: Ralph Vaughan Williams's rarely-performed Sir John in Love, which was staged in January, and Verdi's Falstaff, which will go on in the Bronx, at Lehman College's Lovinger Theatre on 29 and 30 April, and in Manhattan, at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse on 6 and 7 May.
It was the third time that the company had produced Sir John in Love (having given the US premiere in 1978) but it will be its first Falstaff, which will be sung in English.
I asked Ben, why two Falstaffs?
Because of the fascinating juxtaposition of us as a company that, in 50 years, had done Sir John twice, but had never done Falstaff. And because to tell the Falstaff story in these two different ways is a stretch worth making.
The source of any work of art — in this case a play by Shakespeare — provides many exciting angles to explore. Presenting two totally different interpretations by first rate composers presents fascinating experiences for both our audiences and the artists involved.
Sir John in Love, as the New York Times pointed out when reviewing Bronx Opera's 1988 production, “is probably the closest approach before Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream to a satisfactory Shakespeare opera in English”. So definitely worth revisiting.
As a springboard for a career the company has undoubtedly been successful, with over 200 singers going on to sing at The Metropolitan Opera alone.
The Susannah of Lori Phillips, in Susannah, and the Phoebe of Mary Phillips in The Yeoman of the Guard were high points. And as a very young child – recalls Ben – I remember the booming bass voice of Willard White as Bartolo in Barber which made a huge impression on me, and… well, he's our only knight.
I'm possibly a little biased because he's one of my best friends, but Kyle Pfortmiller's 2002 performance in the title role of Suppe's Boccaccio was something to behold.
Then, of course, there is the creative team. Ben Spierman, whose opera productions include last year's critically acclaimed Lucia di Lammermoor for Opera San José, was learning his profession from close-up experience as a teenager.
Linda Brovsky, Nic Muni, Albert Sherman, Cindy Edwards… watching them work influenced me to direct, and the lessons I learned from them stay with me in my own work. They were mentors, even if I didn't know it at the time.
Just the list of more than one hundred productions is impressive enough, but Ben is justly proud of the company's financial responsibility.
It's tempting to spend what you don't have and do what is beyond your possible scope. We've managed to resist that temptation while still doing interesting work that challenges us.
The list of opera, dance and theatre companies that have closed before even having made their mark is a long one. Over-ambitious young directors or producers who wish to launch their careers end up leaving unpaid costumers, set builders and other collaborators to absorb their debts.
I also think that morphing from a “pure arts” organization into one that that works a lot in the community and still does excellent, professional level artistic work is another achievement that makes me very proud,
Anniversaries are inevitably occasions to reflect on the past, but also to look to the future. I asked Michael what he would like to see happen over the comping years.
We hope to expand our community and education projects and to ever increase the quality of our full productions. Of course, there are many, many variables well beyond our control — the economy, the continuing demographic changes, etc — which will impact this.
Ben would also like to see the company tackle more new work with commissions from local NYC composers. Always with accessibility to the fore, therefore always in English.
Michael, who 50 years ago, as a recent graduate of New York University's University Heights campus in The Bronx (now the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York), created the Heights Opera Company, that a year later became known as Bronx Opera, concludes:
Some of the company's achievements are easily measured: the large number of our talented graduates who went to the Met and other great venues, for example. Others are difficult to quantify.
The number of folks, including children, who became enthusiastic about our art form, based greatly upon our efforts, and the increased prestige of our home borough, based partly on the consistent positive images we project.
A satisfying thought as the company raises its glass — together with the thousands of artists who have passed through its doors and even more who have assisted its productions and community activities — to half a century of joyous opera producing.
Libiamo ne' lieti calici!
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.