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Underground Opera in New York City

The singers in small companies

by Stefan Zucker

New York City contains more than 50 organizations that perform opera, a surprising fact for many devoted operagoers. Though the media regularly cover the performances and the performers of the Met, the New York City Opera and the handful of companies that present operas in Manhattan’s best-known concert halls, they seldom do more than at most list the performances of the other organizations. Most of these are unable to incur the cost of advertising, and the music-trade publications do not keep track of or even list many of the groups. Consequently regular patrons of opera at Lincoln Center usually are aware of their existence only vaguely. Few of them ever have been to a single one of their performances. Though the presentations of off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theater groups and Equity Showcases frequently are well publicized and well attended, their operatic analogs sometimes languish with more people onstage than in the audience.

These other opera companies rarely are the recipients of grants, bequests or sizeable donations. Their ticket prices are minimal. And except for those run by conservatories, hardly any are supported by institutions. Most are run by singers or singers’ coaches with little money of their own. To exist, many of the more active companies do one of three things:

1) Charge singers fees to perform roles;

2) Require singers to pay for “classes” in which they rehearse roles they wish to perform; or

3) Obligate singers to purchase tickets for the performances in which they are to appear—a method meant to mitigate the stigma of vanity performing.

One way or another a singer often has to pay these companies from $50 to $400 to perform a lead role. At some of the companies, singers sometimes are pressured into studying voice with the head. To maintain appearances, however, many of these organizations do not publicize that they charge singers. Often the only person they pay is the pianist, who takes charge of the musical preparation and plays the performance. But singers notoriously attempt to foster the impression among family, friends and even opera circles that they too are paid.

Most of these organizations—“opera showcases” or “workshops,” as they generally are known—try to ape the Met as best they can. Their repertories are made up of operas it performs, they aim to abide by the same performance practices, they use the same cuts or abridgements and adhere in general to the same tempos. A few of them are more adventuresome. They perform contemporary, or avant-garde or esoteric operas or exhume neglected operas of the past. Some of them attempt novel or far-out approaches to staging. Outside of academe, the majority of workshop performances are in the original language though performances in English translations, particularly of Mozart, abound.

Quality of performance varies drastically, not merely from one workshop to another but, in the case of any one workshop, from one performance to another, for most of the workshops double- or triple-cast roles. Discriminating operagoers sometimes find their tastes satisfied by certain workshop performances; occasionally they even may be moved. A workshop performance can be compelling even when one recognizes that the same performance probably would be ineffectual in a big house. For in the intimate surroundings of a workshop, whatever the singers are communicating reaches you without being dissipated by space and distance; you usually can see the singers’ eyes and that way become involved emotionally in their performances even if their voices and, in a conventional sense, their acting are not transmitting the emotions. Sometimes, however, people who have had their operatic tastes formed by the Met, with its singers and trappings, say of workshop performances, “They are all very well for those in them, but they’re not the sort of things I care to attend.”

Workshop singers are of many kinds. They flock to the city from all parts of the country—mostly to get experience performing roles and thereby make themselves seem more attractive to the big companies with which they hope to schedule auditions—and range in age from children to singers in their 70s. Many are pleasant to listen to but lack interesting or individual voices. Others have arresting vocal qualities but are barren emotionally. Some of the more intriguing ones are persuasive emotionally but have flawed or abused voices. Still others are magnificent vocally or emotionally but are devoid of musicality, or eccentric, or socially withdrawn, or unreliable or neurotic. (Time and again it is said of individuals among them, “If only so-and-so would collect himself or would conform to the requirements….”) There are those who are marvelous in one or two roles but who cannot learn others; those who deliver certain phrases with more penetration than anyone else but who sing out of tune much of the time; and those who are highly evolved vocally, musically and emotionally but who simply sound very different from the types of singers appreciated by the people who run the big houses. (For example, such singers may sound too thick or too thin or have too much or too little vibrato.) And finally there are tomorrow’s full-fledged professionals.

Giuseppina La Puma founded the first opera workshop anybody remembers, The Mascagni Opera, later the Opera Workshop, Inc., 75 years ago. At one time her group gave performances with orchestra of three different operas a week. A dozen prominent singers and conductors began with her, among them Nicholas Rescigno, Julius Rudel, Klara Barlow and La Puma’s daughter, Alberta Masiello. Twenty-five years ago, because of surgery, La Puma was in a nursing home, where she and her singers performed concerts of operatic excerpts. On her return home, she continued to present staged operas once a week until her death, in 1986, at 91.

Her group came to be notorious because of the impassioned performances of a bent-over, very ancient lady, the late Olive Middleton. Middleton had performed leading roles at Covent Garden under Sir Thomas Beecham, between 1908-11. During the 50s and 60s, she came to be regarded as a caricature by the opera queens, who flocked to her performances to kiss the hems of her gowns, carry her in triumph on their shoulders and drink champagne from her slippers. Because of the lady’s varied taste in repertoire, singers who appeared with her got a chance to learn roles in a number of works not ordinarily encountered on the small-opera-group circuit, among them Ernani, Norma and Die Walküre.

For many years La Puma’s was the only New-York-based small company to give more than ad hoc performances. Then in the late 40s and early 50s the Amato Opera and Community Opera were born, while during the mid 60s there was the Ruffino Opera. The 70s saw a fabulous burgeoning in the number of these groups, with some mounting only a handful of operas or formed only to present a specific work, with others giving upwards of 50 performances a year. Almost none of the 25 companies I profiled in a similar survey in the late 70s exist today.

Arguably it is not inappropriate for unknown singers to pay to sing, especially in the case of lead roles, for rehearsing and performing are learning experiences. In any case production expenses have to come from someplace, and in New York City unknown singers particularly in standard repertoire are without drawing power at the box office. When an unknown singer puts on an opera himself, he inevitably spends at least four times what it would cost him to pay for a role.

The workshops shade into the small professional companies, with many of the latter paying only token fees or only certain singers but not others or only for certain productions. Many singers go back and forth between the two sorts of groups. Some who in general appear only if paid sing for the non-professional groups if they feel the potential for exposure is good or if they are offered a particularly gratifying role.

What becomes of singers in the opera underground?

Even those singers who perform most often with the small professional companies cannot remotely make a living thereby. And merely continuing to sing is costly: voice teachers charge $40-300 and more a lesson; coaches who prepare singers musically for rehearsals are $35 an hour and up; opera scores cost around $18 each.

A few drop out of singing—usually after having spent many years at it—and go into other walks of life. A certain number are supported by their spouses or families. Many take temporary or part-time work outside music to support their opera addictions but leave themselves available for auditions, rehearsals and performances. Some become musical comedy singers or professional choristers but in many cases periodically go on unemployment to do leading roles with the opera groups. A modest percentage succeed in finding voice students and thus perpetuate their kind. Others gradually abandon their aspirations of making the major leagues, take steady, non-musical jobs and gratify themselves by performing the most wonderful roles with the opera underground, decade after decade; they come to regard performing with it not as a stepping stone but as an end in itself. (This can be a painful re-orientation to make, for it is difficult to sing well if one does not focus one’s life on one’s singing.) And there are the handful who make the transition to completely professional careers as solo singers with major companies.

Though the professional prospects of the undiscovered singer are bleak to the point of hopelessness, the underground has created a reservoir of several thousand routined singers that bigger companies tap all too infrequently. Most forego all prospect of a good standard of living in order to sing.

I adapted the above article from my “Underground in New York,” published in 1989, in Opera News. For the adaptation, I removed profiles of a number of small companies that either have gone out of existence or changed beyond recognition. At that time there were 92 companies in New York City.—SZ

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Some Obstacles to a Singing Career

by Stefan Zucker

In the U.S., few singers earn livings unless they are engaged by major companies. There are nine reasons for this:

1) Arts councils now have little money. Foundations have shrunken stock portfolios. Even though there recently may have been some improvement in the latter, foundation budgets are shaped by the downturn of the last few years. Therefore grants to opera companies are small.

2) Because of what The New York Times terms a “societal change,” fewer people are buying CDs, videotapes, classical-music DVDs or tickets to classical-music events, including opera.

3) As a consequence, most opera companies have downsized their budgets 25 percent, compared to 2000.

4) They give roles to singers who had roles in productions that were canceled.

5) Opera companies tend to cast roles with known quantities.

6) Singers are a glut on the market.

7) Managers’ commissions are 10 percent. Although managers do arrange auditions with opera companies, they typically won’t represent a singer unless he already has enough contracts to suggest he’ll bring in a substantial amount in fees. One prominent manager told me he declines to represent anyone who wouldn’t earn at least $100,000 a year. Some managers require less.

8) Singers become discouraged from endless auditioning and unkept promises.

9) Since 40-50 opera companies come to New York each year to hold auditions, singers who persevere may get some thousands of dollars in engagements. This is enough to keep hope alive, but sooner or later virtually all singers who try to live from performing alone run out of money.

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Quann’ a femmena vo’ Lyrics, Translation, and Sheet Music

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The lyric to “Quann’ a femmena vo’ ”

(When a Woman Has Decided to Do It/If a Woman Wants It)

The song is in Neapolitan.

Note, transcription and synopsis by Dr. Gian Paolo Nardoianni

I am sorry to say that Gigli’s Neapolitan (in this song, at least) is every bit as bad as his French (do you remember his “Vainement ma bien-aimée”?). He pronounces many words in an absolutely unintelligible way. The lyrics never were translated into Italian, let alone English.

What follows is an almost literal translation, with a little paraphrase here and there to make the text clearer:

Vincenzella tesseva a Fravòlanotte e ghiuorne vicino ‘o telare:

‘a spuletta faceva vulare

zuche zuchete zuchete zù (onomatopoeic words imitating the sound of the loom)

Faticanno sta bona guagliona

‘na canzona cantava d’ammore

cu ‘na voce ca propete ‘o core

mbarzamav’ e faceva accussì:

Turì turì turò turì turì turà (onomatopoeic words imitating the sound of the loom)

ai voglia ‘e dì no, ai voglia a spià

quann’ a femmena vò dint’all’uocchie t’ ‘o ffà!

A cunning flirtatious young girl called Vincenzella (=little Vincenza) is a weaver by trade and lives in Fravòla( Afragòla, near Naples). She weaves night and day sitting at her loom. She makes the spool fly. While working, this good girl sings a love song with a voice that just charms everybody’s heart and says: “You can say No as many times as you want, you can hire as many spies as you want: but if a woman wants it, she can cheat on a man under his very own eyes.”
Finalmente sta nenna spusajed’ o paese nu ricco cafone:

doppo ‘n anno ‘o facette barone!

zuche zuchete zuchete zu.

Chistu chiochiere jeva ‘n campagna

e lassava tessenn’ a mugliera:

quanno a casa turnava la sera

‘a truvava cantann’ accussì:

Turì turì turà turì turì turà

ai voglia a dì “No”, ai voglia a spià:

quanno a femmena vò dint’all’uocchie t’ ‘o fa.

At last the girl gets married to a rich peasant of her village. After a year, she makes him a cuckold. When in the morning her half-witted husband goes to work on his farm, he leaves his wife sitting at her loom, and when he gets home at night he finds her singing: “You can say No as many times as you want, you can hire as many spies as you want, but if a woman wants it, she can cheat on a man under his very own eyes.”
Suspettuse na sera turnaien’ora prima pe sta cchiù sicure

ma sentette purzì dint’ ‘o scure

nu vasillo azzeccuso accussì

piglie ‘a scatola, appiccia ‘o cerino

e tramente smiccea ‘a cannela

Vincenzella cummoglie c’ a tela

‘o ‘nterzetto e cantaje accussì:

Turì turì turà etc.

One evening, the man smells a rat and decides to return home an hour ahead of time. Once there, he hears in the dark the noise of a smack. He strikes a match and while, with the aid of a candle, he tries to peer into the half-light, Vincenzella hides her lover, covering him with her canvas and sings: “You can say No as many times as you want etc.”

Gian Paolo Nardoianni, MD, was born in Potenza, in the South of Italy, and studied piano at the local conservatory. After graduating from the University of Pavia with honors in medicine he devoted himself to orthopedics. He now lives and works in Potenza.

Special thanks to Professor Adriano Vargiu for providing a copy of the sheet music for the song.

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Madama Butterfly: Annotated Libretto

(ritorna innanzi e stropicciandosi le mani dice fra sè:)
Open Ed eccoci in famiglia.
Closed Sbrighiamoci al più presto in modo onesto.

(I servi portano delle bottiglie di Saki e distribuiscono i bicchieri agli invitati.)

(brindando cogli invitati)
Open Hip! hip!

Coro degl’invitati (brindando)
O Kami! O Kami!

Lightly covered Beviamo ai novissimi legami,

Invitati, Yakusidè
O Kami! O Kami!

More heavily covered beviamo ai novissimi legami.

Cugina, Madre
Beviamo, beviamo.

Invitati, Cugina, Madre
O Kami! O Kami!
Beviamo ai novissimi legami.

(I brindisi sno interrotti da strane grida che partono dal sentiero della collina.)

Bonzo (dall’interno lontano)

(A questo grido tutti i parenti e gli amici allibiscono e si raccolgono impauriti: Butterfly rimane isolata in un angolo.)

Cio-cio-san! Abbominazione!

Butterfly, Invitati
Lo zio Bonzo!

/ Goro
| Un corno al guastafeste!
| Chi ci leva d’intorno
| le persone moleste?!…
| Bonzo
\ Cio-cio-san! Cio-cio-san!
(sempre più vicino)

(Al fondo appare la strana figura del Bonzo, preceduto da due portatori di lanterne e seguito da due Bonzi.)

(Vista Butterfly, che si è scostata da tutti, il Bonzo stende le mani minacciose verso di lei.)
Che hai tu fatto alla Missione?

Parenti ed Amici
Rispondi, Cio-cio-san!

(seccato per la scenata del Bonzo)
Open Che mi strilla quel matto?

Rispondi, che hai tu fatto?

Parenti ed Amici
(volgendosi, ansiosi, verso Butterfly)
Rispondi, Cio-cio-san!

Come, hai tu gli occhi asciutti?
Son dunque questi i frutti?
Ci ha rinnegato tutti!

Parenti ed Amici
(scandolezzati, con grido acuto, prolungato)
Hou! Cio-cio-san!

Rinnegato, vi dico,…
il culto antico

Parenti ed Amici
Hou! Cio-cio-san!

(inprecando contro Butterfly, che si copre il volto colle mani: la madre si avanza per difenderla, ma il Bonzo duramente la respinge e si avvicina terribile a Butterfly, gridandole sulla faccia:)
Kami sarundasico!

Parenti ed Amici
Hou! Cio-cio-san!

All’anima tua guasta
qual supplizio sovrasta!

(ha perduto la pazienza e si intromette fra il Bonzo e Butterfly)
Open Ehi, dico: basta, Covered basta!

(alla voce di Pinkerton, il Bonzo si arresta stupefatto, poi con subita risoluzione invita i parenti e le amiche a partire)
Venite tutti. Andiamo!
(a Butterfly)
Ci hai rinnegato e noi…

(Tutti si ritirano frettolosamente al fondo e stendono le braccia verso Butterfly.)

Bonzo, Yakusidè, Parenti ed Amici
Ti rinneghiamo!

(con autorità, ordinando a tutti d’andarsene)
Open Sbarazzate all’istante.
In casa mia niente baccano e niente Covered bonzeria.

Parenti ed Amici (grido)

(Alle parole di Pinkerton, tutti corrono precipitosamente verso il sentiero che scende alla città: la Madre tenta di nuovo di andare presso Butterfly, ma viene travolta dagli atlri. Il Bonzo sparisce pel sentiero che va al tempio seguito dagli accoliti.)

Parenti ed Amici (nell’uscire)
Hou! Cio-cio-san!
(un po’ lontani)
Hou! Cio-cio-san!

(Le voci a poco a poco si allontanano. Butterfly sta sempre immobile e muta colla faccia nelle mani, mentre Pinkerton si è recato alla sommità dal sentiero per assicurarsi che tutti quei seccatori se ne vanno.)

Bonzo, Yakusidè, Parenti ed Amici (uomini)
Kami sarundasico!

Parenti ed Amici (donne)
Hou! Cio-cio-san!

Bonzo, Yakusidè, Parenti ed Amici (uomini)
Ti rinneghiamo!

Parenti ed Amici (donne) (cupo)
Hou! Cio-cio-san!

Bonzo, Yakusidè, Parenti ed Amici (cupo)
Ti rinneghiamo!

Parenti ed Amici
Hou! Cio-cio-san!
(lontano molto)
Hou! Cio-cio-san!

(Comincia a calare la sera. Butterfly scoppia in pianto infantile. Pinkerton l’ode e va premuroso presso di lei, sollevandola dall’abbattimento in cui è caduta e togliendole con delicatezza le mani dal viso piangente.)

Covered Bimba, bimba, non piangere
per gracchiar di ranocchi…

Parenti ed Amici (lontanissimo)
Hou! Cio-cio-san!

(turandosi le orecchie, per non udire le grida)
Urlano ancor!

Pinkerton (rincorandola)
Covered Tutta la tua tribù e i Bonzi tutti del Giappon
non valgono il pianto di quegli occhi cari e belli.

Butterfly (sorridendo infantilmente)
(Comincia a calare la sera.)
Non piango più.
E quasi del ripudio non mi duole
per le vostre parole
che mi suonan così dolci nel cuor.
(si china per baciare la mano a Pinkerton)

Pinkerton (colcemente impedendo)
Closed Che fai?… la man?

Mi han detto che laggiù
fra la gente comstumata
è questo il segno del maggior rispetto.

Suzuki (internamente, brontolando)
E Izaghi ed Izanami
Sarundasico, e Kami,
e Izaghi ed Izanami
Sarundasico, e Kami.

(sorpreso pertale sordo bisbiglio)
Closed Chi brontolandola lassù?

È Suzuki che fa la sua preghiera seral.

(Scende sempre più la sera, e Pinkerton conduce Butterfly verso la casetta.)

Closed Viene la sera

…e l’ombra e la quiete.

Closed E sei qui sola.

Sola e rinnegata! Rinnegata!
e felice!

(Pinkerton batte tre volte le mani: i servi e Suzuki accorrono subito, e Pinkerton ordina ai servi:)
Closed A voi, Covered chiudete!

(I servi fanno scorrere silenziosamente alcune pareti.)

Butterfly (a Pinkerton)
Sì, sì, noi tutti soli…
E fuori il mondo…

Pinkerton (ridendo)
Closed E il Bonzo furibondo.

(a Suzuki, che è venuta coi servi e sta aspettando gli ordiri)
Suzuki, le mie vesti.

(Suzuki fruga in un cofano e dà a Butterfly gli abiti per la notte ed un cofanetto coll’occorrente per la toeletta.)

(inchinandosi a Pinkerton)
Buona notte.

(Pinkerton batte le mani: I servi corrono via. Butterfly entra nella casa ed aiutata da Suzuki fa cautelosamente la sua toeletta da notte, levandosi la veste nuziale ed indossandone una tutta bianca; poi siede su di un cuscino e mirandosi in uno specchietto si ravvia i capelli: Suzuki esce.)

Quest’obi pomposa di sioglier mi tarda
/ si vesta la sposa di puro candor.
| Tra motti sommessi sorride e mi guarda.
| Celarmi pottessi! ne ho tanto rossor!
| Pinkerton
| (guardando amorosamente Butterfly)
| Closed Con moti di scoiattolo i nodi allenta e scioglie!…
| Pensar che quel giocottolo è mia moglie! mia moglie!
| (sorridendo)
\ Ma tal grazia dispiega,
/ ch’io mi strugge per la febbre d’un subito desìo.
| Butterfly
\ E ancor l’irata voce mi maledice…

(Pinkerton, alzandosi, poco a poco s’avvicina a Butterfly.)

… Butterfly, rinnegata…
Rinnegata… e felice…

(stende le mani a Butterfly che sta per scendere dalla terrazza)
Heavily covered Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malìa
ora sei tutta mia.
Open Sei tutta vestita di giglio.
Mi piace la More open trec Less open cia tua bruna
fra i Covered candidi veli.

Butterfly (scendendo dal terrazzo)
Somiglio la Dea della luna,
la piccola Dea della luna
che scende la notte dal ponte del ciel.

Covered E affascina i cuori…

E li prende e li avvolge
in un bianco mantel
E via se li reca
negli alti reami,

Covered Ma intanto finor non m’hai detto,
ancor non m’hai detto Closed che m’ami.
Open Le sa quella Dea le parole che appagan gli ardenti desir?

Le sa. Forse dirle non vuole per tema d’averne a morir,
per tema d’averne a morir!

Covered Stol- Open ta paura, l’amor non uccide
Covered ma dà vita Gradually opens, so that by “celestiali” he’s open e sorride per gioie celestiali
Covered come ora fa
(avvicinandosi a Butterfly e carezzandole il viso)
nei tuoi lunghi occhi ovali

(Butterfly, con subito movimento si ritrae dalla carezza ardente di Pinkerton)

Butterfly (con intenso sentimento)
Adesso voi
siete per me
l’occhio del firmamento.
E mi piaceste dal primo momento
che vi ho veduto.

(Ha un moto di spavento e fa atto diturarsi gli orecchi, come se ancora avesse ad udire le urla die parenti: poi si rassicura e con fiducia si rivolge a Pinkerton.)

Siete alto, forte.
Rideste con modi si palesi
e dite corse che mai non intesi.
Or son contenta, or son contenta.

(Notte completa: cioelo purissimo e stellato. Avvicinandosi lentamente a Pinkerton seduto sulla panca nel giardino. Si inginocchia ai piedi di Pinkerton e los guarda con tenerezza, quasi suplichevole.)

Vogliatemi bene,
un ben piccolino,
un bene da bambino,
quale a me si conviene.
Vogliatemi bene.
Noi siamo gente avvezza
alle piccole cose
umili e silenziose,
ad una tenerezza
sfiorante e pur profonda
come il ciel, come l’onda del mare!

Covered Dammi ch’io baci le tue mani care.
Mia Butterfly! come t’han ben nomata tenue Open farfalla…

(a queste parole Butterfly si rattrista e ritira le mani)
Dicon che oltre mare
se cade in man dell’uom,
(con paurosa espressione)
ogni farfalla da uno spillo è trafitta
(con strazio)
ed in travola infitta!

(riprendendo dolcemente le mani a Butterfly e sorridendo)
Closed Un po’ di vero c’è.
E tu lo sai perché?
Perché non fugga più.
(con entusiasmo e affettuosamento abbracciandola)
Lightly covered Io t’ho ghermita
Ti serro palpitante.
Open Sei mia.

Butterfly (abbandonandosi)
Sì, per la vita.

Covered Vieni, vieni!
Via dall’anima in pena
l’ango- Closed scia paurosa.
(indica il cielo stellato)
Covered È notte serena!
Guar- Closed da: dorme ogni cosa!

(guardando il cielo, estatica)
Ah! Dolce notte!

Closed Vieni, vieni!

Quante stelle!
/ Non le vidi mai sì belle!
| Pinkerton
\ Covered È notte serena!
Ah! vieni, vieni!
È notte serena!
Closed Guarda: dorme ogni cosa!

Dolce notte! Quante stelle!

Covered Vieni, vieni!

Non le vidi mai sì belle!

Open vieni, vieni!…

Trema, brilla ogni favilla …

Covered Vien, sei mia!…

… col baglior d’una pupilla! Oh!
/ Oh! quanti occhi fissi, attenti
| d’ogni parte a riguardar!
| pei firmamenti, via pei lidi, via pel mare!
| Pinkerton
| (con cupido amore)
| Closed Via l’angoscia dal Covered tuo cor
| ti serro palpitante. Closed Sei mia.
| Ah, Covered vien, vien, sei Open mia!
\ Ah! Covered Vieni, guarda: dorme ogni cosa!
Open Ti serro Covered palpitante. Ah, vien!

Oh! quanti occhi fissi attenti.
/ Quanti sguardi ride il ciel!
| Ah! Dolce notte!
| Tutto estatico d’amor ride il ciel!
| Pinkerton
|Closed Guarda: dorme ogni cosa.
| Ah! vien! Ah! vieni, vieni!
\ Ah! vien, Covered Ah! vien!

(Salgono dal giardino nella casetta.)

(Cala il sipario.)

Fine dell’atto primo.


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Tosca: Before and After

We could provide thousands of examples where our tech Jonathan Casper has corrected video problems, the majority of them similar to the ones he fixed in the samples here. Only the first clip is pitch corrected. Audio restoration will be the final step in preparing the master.