Friday, February 12, 2016

Opera hits high note with low budget

By Qainat Khan
Erik Bagger ‘Antonio’ urges John Calkins ‘Giannetto’ who is in the midst of and embraces with Jennifer Moore ‘Ninetta’ to leave before they all get in trouble during a rehearsal of a scene from the opera ‘La Gazza Ladra’ at Lehman College on Dec. 12.
Jenny Rossetti is instructed by The Bronx Opera Company Artist Director Michael Spierman on Dec. 12 at Lehman Collge, as they rehearse for the upcoming performance produce of ‘La Gazza Ladra.’
Eric McKeever sings at a recitative rehearsal in Artist Director Michael Spierman's apartment on Nov. 10 for the upcoming performance of ‘La Gazza Ladra.’
Michael Spierman, Artistic Director for The Bronx Opera Company speaks to John Calkins during a rehearsal on Dec. 26 at Lehman College.
Jennifer Moore, a soprano, discusses why opera remains relevant
Ben Spierman directs a scene with Jennifer Moore and Sara Fanucchi, then explains how he directs
Ben Spierman talks about working with his father, Michael Spierman, the founder of Bronx Opera Company.
Michael Spierman talks about why he is a musician


Before they put on intricate costumes and get on stages enclosed by grand sets, singers in the Bronx Opera Company don everyday clothing and inhabit an unadorned rehearsal stage. Or a classroom, a living room, a dance studio.

With an annual budget of around $200,000, the Bronx Opera has been working within its financial constraints to launch young opera singers to the next stages of their careers since 1967. It puts on two operas every year and, since 1995, it has been bringing opera into Bronx public schools as part of the Arts in Schools program. 

Its upcoming performance of Rossini’s rarely performed opera La Gazza Ladra is just the latest example of the group’s continuing ability to stage professional productions on a tight budget.

“As my father likes to say, [the Metropolitan Opera’s] toilet paper budget is more than our whole budget,” said Ben Spierman, associate artistic director for the Bronx Opera and the son of its founder.

What began as a $300 performance on borrowed stages in the Bronx more than 40 years ago has grown into a nationally recognized opera company. The last winter show in January 2012 of the obscure opera The Poisoned Kiss by Ralph Vaughn Williams, won a positive review from The New York Times’ critic, who praised the singing, costumes and lighting design.

In order to keep up its work, the Bronx Opera has to spend its money carefully — starting with salaries. The company’s budget only allows stipends for its participants.

“No one gets paid what they deserve,” founder Michael Spierman, said with resignation. Even he receives no compensation, he said.

Unlike the Met, which has its own rehearsal space, the Bronx Opera has to meet inside dorms, churches and in  Mr. Spierman’s living room (which also serves as the Bronx Opera’s offices). Staff members fill multiple roles. For example, Ben Spierman, who is the Associate Artistic Director and is directing La Gazza Ladra, is not only tasked with the company’s artistic vision, but he also juggles administrative and fund raising duties.

A tight budget, however, does not stop the company from its focus on the details. 

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