On the New York Opera Fest

By · Photography © Pavel Antonov, from On Site Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro” · Date 06/23/2016

I honestly thought I knew all about the New York City opera scene. I tracked Opera On Tap. I had been to LoftOpera in Brooklyn. I spent years going to local opera competitions and all levels of the Met’s National Council Auditions. I was up to date on New York City Opera’s finances—hell, I was at the final performance of “Anna Nicole.” I adore the Opera Orchestra of New York. I considered it a personal affront that neither Zachary Woolfe nor Michael Cooper followed me on Twitter.

But the first annual New York Opera Fest proved me gleefully wrong. I was barely scratching the surface on the New York City opera scene. The fest was put together by the New York Opera Alliance, a consortium of smaller local companies. Through May and June, the festival included these companies’ performances in various spaces around the five boroughs of New York.

Peter Szep, the festival chair who also founded the alliance, made me feel better about my ignorance.

“The real surprise of the whole thing for me is when we formed the group, we thought there’s maybe a dozen groups and we can do a little festival with five or six,” Szep told me.

But then the alliance founders did some research. They made calls, and the people they called made some calls, and they found that rather than a dozen groups, there are some 80 working on opera in New York City. Not all of these are full companies—some are just individuals or opera-related organizations—but the number is still staggering.

The New York Opera Alliance now has close to 50 members. Szep had always wanted to have a festival, and this was the year the organization went for it. More than 20 companies put on over 50 events. This festival is the alliance fulfilling its potential.

The events included traditional and nontraditional performances, master classes, talks, videos, and basketballs. They were performed in concert spaces, churches, bars, playgrounds, and one stunning townhouse.

The NYOA itself is a fascinating beast. It was founded in 2011 partially with the idea of holding a festival. The alliance brings many of the smaller companies in New York together. They promote and support each other’s work. They trade tips on finding workspaces and cast and crew members.

“I’ve been around [opera] my whole life and I truly have never seen this amount of cooperation; it’s truly exciting,” said Ben Spierman, managing director of Bronx Opera and a member of the NYOF committee.

According to Spierman, the alliance is a real community. He confidently dispelled questions I had that these organizations might see each other as competitors rather than partners. Any group who might view NYOA that way, he said, would not join the alliance in the first place.

“I don’t think we’re competing for audience,” Spierman said. “I think we’re trying to broaden the audience for opera.”

The Opera Fest is a big way to try that over this two-month period (performances are still ongoing). At each performance, there are ads for the festival encouraging you to see more.

“The real thing for me is just that there’s something for everyone,” Jessica Kiger, the executive director and producer of On Site Opera, as well as a festival committee member, said. “You can find something to go to with your children, you can find a great date night. It’s opening up the door to give people access to all different kinds of events, and a lot of them are free.”

I checked out the Vertical Player Repertory’s “Malvina di Scozia” by Giovanni Pacini, the Center for Contemporary Opera’s “The Wild Beasts of the Bungalow” by Rachel Peters, and On Site Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro” by Marcos Portugal. These were performed, respectively, at a church on the Upper West Side, the National Opera Center in Chelsea and 632 on Hudson, a townhouse in the West Village.

Aside from Christ and Saint Stephen’s Church, I had never been to any of these places. All of the music was also new to me—and to most, since it was mainly American premieres.

The traditional church fit the styling of “Malvina di Scozia,” which was presented in concert form with choruses. The 1851 opera fell into the formatting of early 19th century opera, complete with plenty of melodrama.

The crowd was mixed, leaning to the older side. I brought a friend who I had previously taken to his first opera at the Met half a year earlier. Walking out, he told me he now understands why I like the art form so much. For him, seeing the music and drama presented just so worked entirely.

It’s here I have to admit I didn’t know the National Opera Center existed. It’s a few blocks from the office I’m at every day—I’ve walked past it dozens of times—yet I had no idea it was there. “The Wild Beasts of the Bungalow” was a fun, dark satire of a young girl growing up, presented as a concert reading.

It was great to see opera about girlhood—just as it was great seeing opera made by a living composer—who was also female—conducted by a woman. It really drove home the whole advantage of having smaller companies to promote otherwise under-recognized voices. This crowd was very much on the younger side.

Finally, there was On Site Opera’s “Figaro.” The opera took place in various locations around the restored townhouse, so you had to follow the cast around. I was surprised to find myself notably the youngest person in the crowd. I had assumed this active format would appeal to a younger group, but apparently older generations are hipper and more attuned to the underground opera world than us.

Tickets for “Figaro” sold out in a few hours. Anecdotally, Szep said, alliance members have seen ticket sales go up from previous years with the festival, although statistics aren’t finalized and there is no exact way to determine if that’s thanks to the festival. But this was, of course, an intention for the festival.

“The more attention each of us gets, and the more each of us mentions the fest, and the more audience is aware of the fest, the higher the attendance and the higher the awareness of all of us goes,” Spierman said.

The townhouse was tucked between restaurants in the West Village. Like the National Opera Center, I’d walked by it before with no clue there was such a beautiful space right inside.

“Hidden gems of New York,” the woman sitting next to me said.

That’s how the New York Opera Fest felt as a whole. Afterwards, I wanted to see what the New York Opera Alliance could show me next. I didn’t realize there was all this opera going on around me, and now I feel as if there’s magic dust sprinkled around this city full of secret wonders. ¶