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Opera Company of Brooklyn's Founder Brings Opera to 21st Century Audiences

by Julie S. Halpern

“Was opera a 500-year fad?”

When this question was posed to Jay Meetze, Opera Company of Brooklyn’s founder and artistic director, he gave it a great deal of thought. With salaries for increasingly inaccessible opera stars soaring to rock-star levels and prohibitive ticket costs pricing potential opera patrons out of most large opera houses, Meetze realized that this may be true. How can opera companies reach out to the thousands of “non-traditional” patrons who enjoy opera but may not feel comfortable in a large opera house?

If audiences are not going to the opera, why not bring opera to them? Meetze and the members of OCB are doing exactly that.

On any given Saturday night, OCB may be found presenting full operas—minus sets, costumes, or scenery—in houses and apartments throughout the New York City area. OCB has created the BYOB series, performed at homes for invited audiences. Lucky audience members enjoy performances by top-flight singers, many of whom are enjoying national and international careers. Audience members can relax with the casually attired, sociable singers, eat, and enjoy a glass of wine with friends, without worrying about proper opera attire, astronomical restaurant checks, or overpriced parking. OCB has slated performances of L’elisir d’amore and Rigoletto for upcoming productions, with plans to expand to local storefronts and other non-traditional locales.

By changing the public perception of opera, Meetze and his talented colleagues are converting people, one at a time. Opera companies have talked endlessly about making opera accessible to the general public, but have
been essentially clueless about how to make it happen. Meetze’s common sense approach, coupled with an infectious enthusiasm, would be hard for even the most opera-phobic to resist for long.

Meetze graduated from Michigan State University in 1995, majoring in vocal music education. He soon found his understanding of the singing voice, and rapport with singers made him a sought-after conductor. He moved to Chicago after graduation and founded the Chicago City Opera. Shortly after, he was offered a scholarship to the Cincinnati College Conservatory.

Meetze’s travels led him to performances at Glimmerglass, Tanglewood, and Israel Vocal Arts. He was amazed at the caliber of singers he met in these venues, many of whom were largely unknown beyond those communities. How could he get singers like these before a public who would appreciate them?

After conducting with the American Symphony Orchestra League, which led to jobs in Tel Aviv and other cities, Meetze’s conducting work brought him to Manhattan, where he has lived since 1998. In 2000, he realized his dream of an accessible opera company, with $10,000 and the determination that has characterized his career. Singers at all stages of their careers are eager to work with the young company, often charging a fraction of the fees they receive in larger venues.

Meetze loves conducting, loves singers, and enjoys his developing reputation as a singer’s conductor. His greatest influence has been James Levine, who he believes understands the singing voice better than any conductor today. Levine’s standard of excellence and respect for singers’ voices informs Meetze’s own conducting and casting.

Meetze will not cast singers inappropriately, and doesn’t pressure singers to sing material they are not ready to sing or that could harm their voices. He cautions singers to choose material wisely, so they can sing well for the long term. This is great news for singers who may feel compelled to take on roles that may not be congenial to their voices, either because they need work, or feel pressured to please company management.

OCB employs singers at all stages of their careers. Established artists and emerging talent share the stage, but even the youngest singers have a solid grounding in technique and musicianship. Meetze also emphasizes the importance of balance of voice size and type, and will not cast voices of disparate size or color.

Not long ago, popular and operatic music shared many more similarities than today, and singing what is now considered crossover actually was the norm for many singers. These singers divided their time between the opera house and Broadway stages, and photogenic opera singers with good personalities frequently appeared in film and TV. When Broadway musicals and other popular music became less “legit” in vocal range, young singers were often forced to choose between musicals or opera as a career path, giving up opportunities for public exposure their predecessors enjoyed. Opera singers became ever more isolated from mainstream audiences, and opera audiences began to shrink, with major opera houses facing slow ticket sales. Meetze and OCB are determined to bridge that divide.

Showcasing works by American composers is part of the plan to close the gap between opera and popular music. Meetze feels the two are essentially the same, that the difference in perception is greater than the difference in the genres.

OCB is also moving into the area of recording. The company is recording a revised version of Brooklyn native Thomas Pasatieri’s La Divina. One of the most exciting aspects of the project is the participation of Pasatieri himself, who is delighted to be involved in the recording. OCB is also planning recordings of the works of other great American composers.

Pasatieri’s acclaimed operatic settings of literary masterpieces such as The Seagull, Signor Deluso, and Washington Square have become staples of American opera, but the composer may be even better known for his scores of feature films such as The Little Mermaid, American Beauty, Erin Brockovich, Finding Nemo, and Primary Colors.

Pasatieri met Meetze last summer after receiving an e-mail from Sarah Jane Hintz, OCB’s then executive director, who invited him to a performance of La Divina and Signor Deluso Meetze was conducting. La Divina is an early work, written when Pasatieri was a 19-year-old Juilliard student. Coincidently, he had recently begun reworking the piece for chamber orchestra, rewriting sections he found overly melodramatic.

Pasatieri e-mailed Sarah and told her of his new version. Pasatieri and Meetze met, and soon began plans for a recording of the reworked opera. Pasatieri originally wrote La Divina for a coloratura soprano, but he felt that the character should have a heavier voice and began rescoring the piece last year.

Pasatieri has had a long and enjoyable collaboration with soprano Sheri Greenawald. Ms. Greenawald recently retired from opera performance to take the reins of the San Francisco Opera Center, America’s oldest training program (which includes the Merola Program). When Pasatieri approached her about singing the lead role of Madame Altina in La Divina, he found that she was singing better than ever.

“Her sound and technical control are fabulous,” he says.

Ms. Greenawald agreed to do it, and Pasatieri was thrilled. OCB and Pasatieri were also delighted when soprano Ashley Putnam signed on to sing the role of Cecily, Madame Altina’s maid. Putnam and Greenawald are close friends and have performed together often. Putnam now teaches voice at The Manhattan School of Music, and the recording was a great opportunity for the two sopranos to work together again.

Signor Deluso is also being recorded with a group of exceptional up-and-coming artists, and Greenawald and Putnam will record an additional piece for two sopranos, “Divas of a Certain Age.” The piece was originally written for Matthew Epstein’s 50th birthday as a solo piece featuring Ms. Greenawald, and later rewritten as a duet performed by the soprano and Frederica Von Stade in San Francisco. This recording will feature Pasatieri accompanying the divas on piano.

The title of the piece tells it all, with the divas recounting the triumphs and challenges singers face at midlife. Touching, but ultimately life-affirming, the singers, fueled by vodka, vow to remain in the singing game somehow. “Fifty’s but another door / And we’ll sing for 50 more.”

An Intimate Look Into the Recording Process

How often do we get a chance to spend an evening with artists such as Pasatieri, Greenawald, and Putnam? I was delighted to be invited to the last rehearsal for the recording. It was a thrill to meet Ms. Greenawald and Ms. Putnam, and watch these exceptional artists at work. I have admired both sopranos throughout their careers, and even in a casual, process-oriented environment, their professionalism and lustrous vocalism made this an evening to remember. The only sad aspect of the evening is that these sopranos have retired from active performing, and this may be the last chance I will have to
hear them.

Casually attired in jeans and a sweater, petite, youthful Ms. Greenawald still managed to embody the role of Madame Altina, the alternately imperious and terrified, aging soprano facing retirement. Pasatieri is absolutely right about her voice, which remains strong, powerful, and sensitive to every nuance of the music. The prospect of retirement is a sensitive subject to those of us forced to confront it, and Ms. Greenawald captured the fragility behind the bravado and humor in a perfectly balanced performance.

Ms. Putnam, singing the role of Cecily, Altina’s maid, is admired for her magnificent voice and sensitive acting portrayals. Ms. Putnam brought depth and poignancy to the smaller, less showy role of Madame Altina’s loyal companion. Like Ms. Greenawald, Ms. Putnam is well known for her work in American operas and contemporary works, and her empathetic performance here is a pleasure.

Maestro Meetze runs a relaxed but tight, well-tuned ship. The conductor and company were well prepared, but did not expect a last-minute cancellation from an indisposed tenor. His cover did the rehearsal without missing a beat, attesting to the professionalism of this company.

The singers and orchestra obviously appreciated Meetze’s low-key persona, and loving attention to detail. The young conductor has a keen ear for nuance, and made subtle adjustments that were particularly helpful for the younger singers.

If La Divina is a showcase for artists at the top of their form, Signor Deluso presents a wonderful opportunity for young artists in their 20s and 30s. The piece is based on the Moliere comedy Sgnarelle, and retains much of the sly humor of the play.

Wisconsin native Laurie Seeley sang the role of the tart-tongued maid, Rosine. The young mezzo has been busy establishing a regional career, specializing in French repertoire.

Elizabeth Saunders covered the roles of Rosine in Signor Deluso and Cecily in La Divina. The San Diego-born singer has already established
herself as a recording artist and has been featured on a new project of the complete works of Charles Ives. She was a regional winner of the Met Competition Western Region, and will soon make her Connecticut Opera debut as Lola in “Cavalleria” and La Ciesca in Gianni Schicchi.

Dramatic Soprano Lesley Anne Friend’s reserved, friendly personality is a contrast to her large, opulent instrument. The 23-year-old’s voice has been compared to Golden Age diva Rosa Ponselle, but she is in no hurry to tackle heavy dramatic literature, preferring to let her voice develop as she perfects her technique. She is currently finishing her studies at Montclair State College and applying to graduate programs.

Alissa Rose, singing the ingénue Celie, has spent the last few years in Germany, where she worked in radio choruses and learned the German repertoire. She has recently begun work on her doctorate at the University of Michigan.

The CD, Divas, is available on Albany records. OCB’s artists are blessed to have John Ostendorf as their producer. Ostendorf has enjoyed a successful performing and recording career himself, and lends his singer’s ear to the recording process to ensure the finest sound quality. Ostendorf’s friendship with Ms. Greenawald began 30 years ago, when the two performed at Opera Omaha in Carlisle Floyd’s Bilby’s Doll. He has also worked on various pieces of Pasatieri’s and is delighted to be part of this project.

Ostendorf is a great supporter of American opera, and in recent years has produced commercial recordings for Manhattan School of Music opera productions. Ostendorf and Pasatieri are both so pleased with this collaboration that plans for more recordings of Pasatieri’s operas are already in the works.

A great deal of excitement already surrounds Divas. Who could ask for more than a newly rescored masterpiece, two beloved sopranos, and a bumper crop of young singers on the rise, all in one place? Like many admirers of American opera, I’m looking forward to hearing the finished product of this inspired collaboration.

So, is opera just a fad? With dedicated artists like Maestro Jay Meetze at the helm, opera may have greater staying power than we ever imagined.

Julie S. Halpern is a performer, director, and writer living and working in New York City. She is presently directing Eight Minute Madness at the Turtle Shell Theatre in Manhattan and recently directed Domestic Mastermind for the Samuel French Festival. She is the artistic director of Love Street Theatre.

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