Anthony Amato, Tony, founder and everything else of Amato Opera, died yesterday morning at age 91. Memorials are here, here, here, and here. Everyone talks about the stars that came out of that narrow fire trap on the Bowery, but to your average singing Jane, it was a repertory company to call home.
In 2001, I experienced Amato Opera in two ways: in the pit and on the stage. I got involved in Amato at the beginning of my singing studies and the end of my life as a French horn player, and was somehow roped in to play a show, sight-unseen and without an audition or a rehearsal. The orchestra, or “orchestrina,” as I think it was dubbed, consisted of what could fit into the tiny pit: a skeleton crew of a string quintet, one of each of the winds and brass, and a marvelous lady from Long Island who made the electronic piano sound beautiful.
At each performance I was greeted by a 5 dollar bill binder-clipped to my music stand, and the serious company of musicians frantically studying their scores. The orchestra never rehearsed before performances, and occasionally we had to be put back on track by Tony’s loud singing. During my first show, I could practically feel a gun to my head, and to this day I have no memory of what I played.
As my singing progressed, I worked up the nerve to ask for an audition. Tony gave me a private hearing, which I later realized was a privilege. One poor woman found herself singing Una voce poco fa at our cast party, thinking she was coming to a solo audition. Tony had an ear for talent, so the newspapers say, but he must not have been blown away by mine. I joined the company of aspiring girls in the chorus, with the tantalizing promise that he might offer me a comprimario role down the road.
I learned the lessons you sometimes need to stumble over before you get them. With Amato Opera’s reputation for nurturing young singers, I waltzed in there expecting to be cared for. Here I am, young, a singer – nurture me! Tony taught me that just showing up wasn’t going to get you anywhere, and that – generally speaking – anything valuable had to earned the hard way. “Tony can I have a role” wasn’t going to cut it with him, or, I deduced, any other opera director.
But Tony didn’t assign roles based on talent alone. Singers of Mediterranean lineage seemed to land many more comprimario roles, no matter how flat they sang. Tony’s friends did pretty well too. I remember an aging Nemorino, a wizened Frasquita, and a salt-and-pepper Countess.
Time spent in the theatre was either rehearsing in the 107-seat “mainstage,” in the top floor costume shop where we would get changed and keep our character shoes before making it down the rickety back staircase for the show, or in the stifling backstage, breathing in dust from the ages. Every space that was not used for performance was used for storage, such as the boxes marked “blood” and “scars” stacked above the backstage toilet.
I made it to the small stage in my own little roles a couple of times. In a run of Rigoletto I played Giovanna, the nurse who sells out the heroine, and on another day as the Page, whose three lines I could sing right now. Soloists had one chance to rehearse onstage, and were expected to watch others’ rehearse and absorb the staging from that. Observing, I found, is not the same as doing, and as Giovanna I struggled to remember the staging I had seen and keep out of Gilda’s way. He was irked with me. For his 5’3″ frame, Tony’s shout was always surprising, a resonant bark that seemed to come from the theatre itself. It was much easier to perform the Page, which I didn’t rehearse at all.
I stayed at Amato for a season, before I got restless from singing in the chorus and vying for parts. There were more beautiful places in New York where I could have spent my time. But once the music started and we were all onstage, nothing else existed in the world.
We were singing Elixir of Love, with opening choruses meant to evoke the simple life of the Amalfi coast and simple loves of Italian peasantry. We were wearing straw hats and tattered Victorian dresses, pretending to sip cups of limonata made from pink-painted Styrofoam. It was weeks after September 11, 2001, when reality was no longer attractive. On that tiny triangle of a stage, with not much more than our imaginations to create a new world, we were safe and happy.
Thank you, Tony, for a lifetime of music.