JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, an opera company takes its final bow. Ray Suarez has our story.
RAY SUAREZ: For 61 seasons, singers have taken to the tiny stage at the Amato opera company in lower Manhattan, delighting audiences with a surprisingly big sound and an even bigger passion for the music.
But all of that is about to come to an end. Earlier this year, 88-year-old Tony Amato announced he’s ready to retire and close the institution that bears his name.
TONY AMATO, founder, Amato Opera: I want to thank all you wonderful patrons, because it was you who made this company possible all these years. Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: Amato, a son of an Italian grocer, was raised with both a keen business sense and a love of singing opera. At the end of the World War II, he realized he couldn’t make it financially by performing, but he could by teaching. So he and his young bride, Sally, established a place where his students could get exposure before a live audience.
TONY AMATO: I was lucky enough to always get many singers, talented singers who were willing to sing and learn under my direction.
RAY SUAREZ: They needed an audience. They needed a place to sing. You needed singers.
TONY AMATO: And the public needed a place where they could see opera at a reasonable price. And we gave them this opportunity.
RAY SUAREZ: Tony directed and conducted; Sally sowed costumes, paid the bills, and often took to the stage herself. Originally, they passed a hat for donations. Later, they charged $4 a seat, the price a young reporter named Suarez paid to see his first opera and write a profile of the company 31 years ago.
When Italian immigrant Tony Amato brought his young company to the Bowery in the early ’60s, it was known around the world as New York’s skid row. When the Amato opera closes its doors at the end of may, it will leave a Bowery that’s home to hipster nightlife, multimillion-dollar apartments, and chic boutiques.
But while the neighborhood has become trendy, Amato has taken great pains not to update the operas much.
TONY AMATO: I have not been the kind of director who works on gimmicks. I work on the script and what the music tells me. I try to stay with the composer.
And some people might say, “Oh, he’s an old-fashioned director.” Uh-uh. You could create all your life if you stick to the original book and script. You could keep on creating beautiful things.
We separate most of our 15th century together or 18th century.
Opportunities for aspiring singers
RAY SUAREZ: Amato took me through his crowded costume closet on the fifth floor, where he can point out the remnants of every production.
TONY AMATO: "Magic Flute," all together. "Falstaff," all together.
RAY SUAREZ: Amato's company has a repertory of 60 different operas, but usually stages the old favorites. It does so with a unique system for rehearsals and performances.
TONY AMATO: OK, payroll coming up. Payroll.
RAY SUAREZ: Each principal is paid just $10. And the cast of singers changes every night, allowing many more people access to the stage.
TONY AMATO: Payroll.
RAY SUAREZ: That makes it tough for the costumer, who has to make the same dress fit singers whether they're a size 20 or a size zero.
But it's been a good launching pad for aspiring young singers to take on roles they couldn't get anywhere else, singers like Eric Kronchke, who began his professional operatic career here.
ERIK KRONCKE, opera singer: What a great thing, especially for someone who's building a career and starting a career and then getting going. It's just -- it's invaluable, because you don't get -- like in Europe, you have a chance to work at a smaller house, do lots of roles many times, and move up, and progressively move up to other things. In the United States, we don't have that.
RAY SUAREZ: We don't have triple-A ball for opera?
ERIK KRONCKE: Exactly. There isn't. This is the closest you're going to get.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard Hobson now sometimes sings at the Metropolitan Opera of New York, but he says it was the training he got at the Amato that prepared him for roles he's now sung all over the world.
RICHARD HOBSON, opera singer: Once you put it on the stage with someone like Tony, who is really a genius, you feel comfortable enough to take it out on the road to another regional or major opera company, because Tony's Italian, of course, is exemplary, his style is exemplary, and you just feel like when you leave here that you know the show very, very well.
Accommodating the performers
RAY SUAREZ: The Amato is also beloved for giving serious amateur singers a place to perform, singers like lawyer Ross Solomon and psychiatrist Peter Heiman.
PETER HEIMAN, psychiatrist/opera singer: Well, I'm not sure if -- is amateur the right word?
ROSS SOLOMON, lawyer/opera singer: I've never considered myself an amateur. I study, as Peter does. We work very hard at what we do. It's true we don't earn our living from this work, but that's the culture that we live in. In the United States, classical music is not -- doesn't have the financial benefits that singing rock music might have.
RAY SUAREZ: To accommodate everyone's other jobs, performers must learn the music on their own.
TONY AMATO: When it's time to leave, go on the steps to the pit.
RAY SUAREZ: There's just one rehearsal per show, and even that lacks all of the players.
PETER HEIMAN: The one hard part can be that the rehearsal is usually without the chorus. And then, all of a sudden, you come into the performance, and there are 20 other people there, and you have to get from A to B, but you didn't know that there were all those people in the way to get there. That can be a little bit daunting, but...
RAY SUAREZ: There are many challenges to performing big operas in such a confined space. The orchestra pit is so small there's only room for a few instruments. And operating on a shoestring budget means things don't always go as planned.
At this recent performance of "La boheme," the curtain wouldn't open at the beginning of Act III, so Amato, who's still very much involved in all aspects of the show, took to the stage to remedy the situation.
TONY AMATO: We start the act all over. One of the ropes broke. It happens.
RAY SUAREZ: But Amato says it's that intimacy that makes the experience so special for the audience.
TONY AMATO: The audience gets into the play, sees all the facial expressions, and also sees all the errors and mistakes you make. So that's my -- I feel like my secret to the opera company: good theater, intimate theater, and spontaneous, young singers who want to perform with energy, warmth and love.
RAY SUAREZ: The Amato opera company will take its final bow on May 29th with Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro."
The building, bought for $22,000, has sold for $3.7 million, money Tony Amato plans to use for scholarships to continue what he's done since the 1940s, support the training of young singers and conductors.