It’s been more than five decades since Michael Spierman made his vision of bringing opera to the city’s northernmost borough a reality.
And his Bronx Opera Company continues to delight audiences year after year, his latest production an English-language version of German composer Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera “Der Freischütz.” Although this might be the show’s (and the opera season’s) final weekend at Lehman College’s Lovinger Theater, it doesn’t appear the curtain will drop on this act anytime soon.
And that’s because of Spierman, the Bronx native who grew up just a short walk from what would eventually become Lovinger Theater when it opened in 1980. For him, the opera company’s mission of spreading interest in opera throughout the borough is personal.
“When I came back from graduate school in music, the Bronx had nothing like this,” said Spierman, who studied at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. “And so we decided we would try it to see what happens.”
In November 1967, debuting under the banner of Heights Opera Company, Spierman’s young troupe performed Mozart’s two-act “Così Fan Tutte” at the Amalgamated Housing Co-operative’s Vladeck Hall.
Bronx opera was born.
“I don’t think we ever dreamt in our wildest fantasy that, 51 years later, we would (still) be talking … about it,” Spierman said. “But it went on and on. We gained supporters, we gained friends, we gained colleagues. And we’re very proud of (that) fact.”
Part of Bronx Opera’s success, Spierman said, has been the enduring thematic relevance of their productions. For example, Weber’s “Der Freischütz” — or “The Freeshooter” — focuses on Max, a skilled marksman and assistant forester, who bargains with the devil for seven bullets that never miss their intended target. That way he can win a shooting competition and, therefore, the hand of his love, Agathe, in marriage.
The catch? While Max will fire all seven bullets, all but one are under his control. The seventh bullet is chosen not by the marksman, but by the devil himself.
“The opera has a universal meaning,” Spierman said. “The universal meaning is ‘what is a human being’s price, and what is the consequence of that price?’
“We see this in all walks of life. We see this in the political lives of the country. We see it in the athletes of this country. For example, the individuals who took steroids so they could hit the ball further and hit more home runs.”
Jessica Schneiderman, who plays Agathe, agreed.
“You see it just walking out your front door,” Schneiderman said. “You see it in the competitiveness in school, in the business world. It’s everywhere.”
That relevance also contributes to the diversity of a typical Bronx Opera audience, Spierman said, which can range from 5-year-olds to those in their 90s. “All different kinds of folks from all different backgrounds.”
Spierman’s productions also address the two primary reasons why people typically opt to skip the opera — It’s generally unaffordable, and typically presented entirely in a foreign language.
“We solve that problem by doing every opera in English, so that it really is more like a Broadway show with operatic music and operatic voices than it is like an opera,” Spierman said.
And despite making the opera more accessible to those unfamiliar with it, the actors themselves find that not much has changed on their end.
“Opera singers have this tendency to be perfectionists, and we really care deeply about what we do,” said Daniel Foltz-Morrison, a Kingsbridge-based musician who plays Max. “So, whether somebody’s a first-timer (viewing opera) or a veteran, it doesn’t necessarily change our work that much. I mean, we certainly want to hook somebody and surprise somebody who … has seen it all.”
“We also are aiming for that spontaneous lightbulb moment with somebody in the audience to be inspired to come back,” Schneiderman added. “Whether it’s in English, in German, French, whatever, it’s all about connection.”
Fortunately, it appears Spierman and company have had little trouble establishing such connections.
“One kid stopped me on the way out and said, ‘I used to think opera sucks. No more,’” Spierman said. “That, of course, is a satisfaction beyond what words would express.”