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Curtain Closing On New York's Amato Opera


While Gillian Clark whips up a career here in Washington, Tony Amato is winding down his in New York. For 61 seasons, he's been making Indie music with tenors and mezzos at the scruffy Amato Opera, just down the street from the legendary nightclub, CBGB's, which closed three years ago. Lara Pelleginelli chronicles the last days of the Amato Opera.

LARA PELLEGINELLI: It's hard to imagine how seedy the Bowery once was now that it's home to million-dollar condos and demure boutiques. When Tony Amato bought a building that housed a church mission and restaurant-supply shop back in 1964, friends couldn't believe he was going to produce opera amid the saloons and flop-houses.

Mr. TONY AMATO (Founder, Amato Opera): The building here was an old loft building, derelicts sleeping, although they were all very nice to me. I treated all these derelicts with kindness and warmth, and they loved me, but I had to clean the sidewalk every day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: Welcome to the Amato.

PELLEGINELLI: Several decades and thousands of performances later, it's his patrons who can't believe the 88-year-old has finally decided to retire.

Mr. MATTHEW GRUEN(ph): They have a feeling for opera that I have not seen at La Scala, I have not seen at the Metropolitan.

PELLEGINELLI: And Matthew Gruen has frequented both. He's been coming to the Amato since 1957, when it was a converted movie house. Now it's a narrow, 107-seat theater, and Gruen says size matters.

Mr. GRUEN: It made you feel like the Circle in the Square, that you were in the opera, that it was part of your life, the intimacy that you don't feel at the Metropolitan.

(Soundbite of opera)

Unidentified Woman #2 (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

PELLEGINELLI: Tony Amato was just a boy when his family left its village on Italy's Amalfi Coast in 1927. They settled in New Haven, Connecticut. All four of his brothers worked as musicians.

Mr. AMATO: So, my father says no, you're going to be a businessman. So, I managed my father's restaurant, my father's butcher market and groceries. So, I learned how to handle people.

PELLEGINELLI: But Tony Amato wanted to be a tenor like his idol, Enrico Caruso.

Mr. ENRICO CARUSO (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. AMATO: I became so interested in singing. So, when I shut the butcher market at 7 o'clock, I would run to the local maestro and learn my operas (unintelligible).

PELLEGINELLI: Amato began to tour alongside stars from the major opera companies, but he eventually landed a job with the American Theater Wing, the organization that gives the Tony Awards. He taught veterans on the GI Bill, and he started his own company so those aspiring singers would have a place to perform. His late wife, Sally, who was also a singer, created scenery, sewed costumes and handled the lightning.

(Soundbite of opera)

Unidentified Man #1 (Opera Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

Mr. AMATO: (Singing in foreign language)

PELLEGINELLI: The Amato Opera is still a training ground for young singers. Each production runs for about a dozen performances and may use up to six different casts, giving lots of people a turn onstage. They all benefit from Tony Amato's precise direction and mostly patient tutelage.

(Soundbite of opera)

Unidentified Man #2 (Opera Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible). Yeah, don't wait all day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PELLEGINELLI: Amato is a taskmaster. Moving around the stage, he demonstrates the gestures and facial expressions that make good opera good theater. The singers only get paid a small honorarium for their labor, but ask anyone, and they'll say they'd do anything for Maestro Amato.

Ms. LORRAINE DAVIDSON(ph): I have homemade peanut butter cookies that I did this morning.

PELLEGINELLI: Lorraine Davidson mans a homely concession stand at the back of the theater. She's singing Marcelina in the current production of "The Marriage of Figaro." She's also the house baker.

Ms. DAVIDSON: This is so typical of Tony. He goes Davidson, can you bake? And I went, no. And he goes, would you like to try? Let me think it over, Tony. Let me sleep on it, and I'll call you tomorrow. And the next day I went, how can I lose? I'll be with Tony Amato, and I'll be in a perfect atmosphere, opera, which I love. I've also sung here for 28 years.

PELLEGINELLI: She's not alone. On the final night of each production, the entire cast and crew, even the divas, stay to strike the set.

Unidentified Woman #3: Okay, now Joseph(ph) get on one side, and then Don(ph) can come down and get the other.

Unidentified Man #3: Right. Don't let him do it all on his own.

PELLEGINELLI: Scenery gets passed hand-over-fist from the tiny stage up to the balcony, where it's carried up the stairs to the third floor for storage. The reward for their labor isn't just the pleasure of working with Tony Amato, it comes with a plate full of his famous meatballs.

Mr. AMATO: The trick is the meatballs have to soak in the sauce to get the sauce into, slow, slow, everything slowly at a low flame. Adagio, go slow, lento, lento.

PELLEGINELLI: With heavy stomachs and heavier hearts, everyone gathers near the stage after the Amato's next-to-last production for a toast offered by singer Craig Wald(ph).

Mr. CRAIG WALD (Opera Singer): We appreciate the love you've shown us, even when you yell at us. We are a family, dysfunctional or not, and no matter where any of you have to go, we'll always have the Amato Opera to look back to in a memory. To you, Tony, long health and thank you.

PELLEGINELLI: Tomorrow, after the Amato's final performance of "The Marriage of Figaro," they'll strike the sets, clean their plates and raise their glasses one last time. For NPR News, I'm Lara Pelleginelli in New York.

(Soundbite of opera)

Unidentified People (Opera Singers): (Singing in foreign language) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lara Pellegrinelli
Lara Pellegrinelli is a freelance journalist and scholar with bylines in The New York Timesand the Village Voice. She has been the commissioned writer for Columbia University's Miller Theatre and its Composer Portrait series since 2018.
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