In New York festival, opera shows diverse incarnations

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In New York festival, opera shows diverse incarnations

New York (AFP) – New York is famous for the Metropolitan Opera but the city is home to more than 50 smaller opera companies, performing everywhere from parks to bars to private homes.

In a first-of-a-kind festival, an alliance of the small companies is putting on performances across New York, hoping to reach new audiences but also to cross-pollinate by showing opera aficionados the breadth of offerings across the metropolis.

The New York Opera Alliance chooses not to define “opera” or to set quality benchmarks, admitting to its fold any group that thinks it fits the bill and can chip in $75.

The inaugural New York Opera Fest, which runs throughout May and June, features classics plus innovative fare including operas designed for video and pieces about sex education performed by Opera on Tap, which plays in bars and other public spots.

One company, On Site Opera, will put on Marcos Portugal’s version of “The Marriage of Figaro” inside an ornate house in Manhattan, which will serve as the count’s palace with the audience watching inside.

Jessica Kiger, the company’s executive director and producer, said that such on-location performances were complementary rather than a replacement for grand opera as seen at the Met.

“For us it’s just important to match the space with the story. So it’s not just about taking opera outside the opera house, but to find a space that really resonates with the story or where the characters live, or would be, so that we can have a truly immersive experience,” she said.

Kiger, whose previous productions included staging Rameau’s “Pygmalion” inside the Madame Tussauds wax museum, said that on-site operas were also more fluid, with performers reacting more to the audiences and developing their characters.

“That to me has always made a huge difference. It’s a lot of talking about who your character is and less about, ‘Now I cross here in the music,'” she said.

– Reaching broader audience –

Some opera companies reflect their neighborhoods. The Bronx Opera Company, based in New York’s northernmost borough, aims to bring performances that are accessible and affordable.

The Bronx Opera keeps some of the trappings of grand opera, playing in proscenium theaters with a conductor and orchestra, but its two performances a year are always in English.

During the New York Opera Fest, the Bronx Opera staged Rossini’s “Cinderella” sung in English rather than Italian.

“The art form doesn’t have to look like it looks at the Met,” said Ben Spierman, the company’s associate artistic director.

“The Met’s a fantastic thing in the city but it almost doesn’t necessarily relate to the kind of thing that we all do, which is a little more grassroots and community-driven both in terms of the artists and where we perform,” he said.

– Return to opera’s roots? –

The rise of the opera alliance comes amid financial challenges for the Met and other major US music institutions, which enjoy less generous government funding than counterparts in much of Europe.

The New York City Opera, created as a more populist alternative to the Met, went bust in 2013 as it faced mounting debts. 

But a group of philanthropists and businesses recently revived the “people’s opera,” staging Puccini’s “Tosca” at a theater near the Met in Lincoln Center. 

The reborn New York City Opera next month will reach a Spanish-speaking audience with “Florencia en el Amazonas,” a work of magical realism by Daniel Catan. 

Small companies have seen a growth of interest since the New York Opera Alliance was created five years ago as they benefit from unique characteristics in the metropolis — a huge potential audience and a cultural shift toward independent art.

Annie Holt, executive director of the alliance, said that the festival’s lively, small-scale productions may be more in line with opera as envisioned in the art form’s formative years in Italy.

“For me it’s Wagner who engenders the sort of modern way that we thought about opera across most of the 20th century — it’s high art, it’s through-composed, you sit down in your seat and you’re quiet and the lights are off,” she said.

More casual productions “are actually in some ways for me a return to the origins of opera, not a departure from it,” she said.

Jessica Kiger (L), executive director and producer of On Site Opera, and Eric Einhorn, the artistic director, pose at the site of her company’s latest production at the ornate house known as 632 on Hudson in New York City on April 9, 2016
Copyright AFP/File Shaun Tandon

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