IS IT OPERA?
In my sixth post, What Do We Do?, I spoke of Opera OGGI New York and how it was founded in 2007 by myself, Bill Lewis and the late great Chloe Owen. The opera company was started first and foremost to give performance possibilities to the great number of singers flocking to NYC to gain experience and pursue a career in opera. The fall of 2007 was one that was filled with enormous insecurity, the presidential elections were moving towards conclusion, the economy was wobbling and we'll to be honest, I was operating blindly as we made our way through the first semester. Interestingly enough, it was quite the success and it was another indication that worry is not constructive in the least. Much enormous creativity was a part of our first production, Suor Angelica and it became a mainstay throughout the years.
These are pictures from our production of this unforgettable opera by Puccini in St. Anthony of Padua Church on the corner of Sullivan and Houston Streets. This beautiful shrine has a long and powerful history of serving first the immigrant Italian Community and now the greater community of the community at large. This scene shows us the arrival of the Principessa to speak with Suor Angelica for the first time in 7 years.
Look at the stage ( the altar) and you will see that there is one chair and nothing else. The costumes were arranged, fashioned and created by cast members, there are certain props that were collected and utilizes again by all of us. A cane here, a small jar there, flowers, etc. The bare minimum in every case was utilized. And, this is where we begin our conversation as it were, is this opera? Is it some how "less than" other more lavish productions? Must one have the budget and the forces and the physical infrastructure utilized by the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro Alla Scala, Wiener Staatsoper, Sydney Opera House in order for it to be considered opera at its fullest? NO!
From the very beginning of Opera OGGI New York, I had one simple understanding. We had very limited funds, and I had no intention of utilizing what little we had to create posh, impressive sets. I was all in favor of doing all that we could as long as it has little to no cost. And, further, I was quite aware of one simple thing. The music, the text, the realities of that combination, the sincerity of the emotion and singers willing to be fully truthful in their expression thereof, was more than enough to do justice to each and very work we would tackle. Further, I also knew something else...I never conduct, compose or present a work thinking of its popularity. I care not for popularity neither personally nor professionally. I do not apologize for any art form. I do not believe in the realities which are demonstrated in the current trends to peddle - concert music performing stars through their sex appeal. This is all beyond ridiculous. What I do understand and believe is that it's incredibly misguided to "apologize" for art, any art. It's deeply distortive to compete with the entertainment industry and further to treat art as a commodity. Many serious problems exist in the art world today because of the infusion of corporate thinking. Corporations in America are beholden to "shareholders" and no one else. The bottom line is what matters, and we can easily see any where we look, in any industry throughout every part of life, how that corporate hierarchy continues to cause enormous damage.
Art will survive. How am I so positive about that? Simple, look at history. Examine every serious cross roads, during times of great conflict, great tragedy, great challenge, you will find art and artists there. [Author's note: For those of you who divide or separate artists and musicians, I do not. We are all artists involved in the creation of art]. You might be surprised how many great public artistic events have taken place during such times.
I will leave you with one final story.
Mr. John Tapper a very dear friend and supporter of Opera OGGI New York, was very enthusiastic when I went to him one day to put up a poster of one of our performances in the neighborhood. Not knowing that I was a musician he quickly put them up and continued to do so for every performance from then on. John and his family have a very important store called "The Garden" in Greenpoint on the corner of Manhattan Ave and Kent St. It has and continues to be a great ambassador to people from all walks of life who go there to shop. If you're even in Greenpoint do go into the store, you won't be disappointed. Now, as I said he was a great supporter, however, he did not come to our performances. One day, I went to him to discuss a presentation of Suor at the Church of the Ascension on Kent St. 1/2 block down from his store. I explained that we were going to present Suor, for we had not previously presented it in Greenpoint and asked if his son would play the part of the boy. He was quite thrilled and after speaking with his lovely wife, agreed to provide us with our final cast member. The day of the performance came and went and it was, as always, a powerfully fulfilling experience for all concerned. A few days later I saw John and he told me this..
" You know that my mother and my sister were and are employed by the Metropolitan Opera for many years now. I too, was an usher for a very long time in my younger days and studied piano very seriously for many years. I met many of the great performers and sometimes even became friendly with them. When you told me that you were going to do Suor I was quite concerned to attend because, I didn't know if I would like it with your minimalist production approach and piano only performances. But, of course, with my son in the. cast, I had to attend and did so willingly. I had no idea the shock I was about to experience, for 5 minutes into the performance I forgot there was no orchestra, no lavish set, no special effects and became completely emerged in the beauty of the writing, the emotional truth of the singers and the enormous power generated from yourself as I became completely swept up in the production. It gave me one of. the most satisfying opera experiences I have ever had."
I of. course, was over joyed, for it is one of my great privileges in life to share my work with dear friends. His opinion his sentiment, was echoed by many others before and since and I was always grateful for their feedback and support.
Sincerity, truth, honesty in performance coupled with ample rehearsal are what bring opera to life. There is NO NEED for lavishness, exaggeration, tricks nor apologies. All that is required is that you open your heart and let your child sit and become a part of the story. Believe me, you'll be glad you did! Thank you all for being with me today. Thomas