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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