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A Love Affair with Opera - About the Amato Opera

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A Video transcript:

CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND. HOW DID YOU BECOME INTERESTED IN MAKING DOCUMENTARIES?

STEPHEN IVES: Well, I was sort of born into public television, actually. My father worked at WGBH in Boston, so I as a kid, would run around the station and get interested in what was going on, so filmmaking was sort of in my blood from early on. I did a lot of theater in college you know, small productions that were actually not that dissimilar from that of Amato Opera, kinda of holding things together with pieces of string and masking tape. I just was drawn to the form, it seemed like an interesting way to combine the theatrical experiences I'd had in college with this kind of broader audience, this larger way of reaching people and I got interested in Ken Burns' work. His earlier films really had an impact on me and I sort of sought him out and told him what I wanted to do work like he was doing. And I made a film with David McCoullough, a historian and writer who went on to become the host of the American Experience Series on PBS. He was a shaping experience for me. When Ken found out that I worked for David McCullough, it sort of piqued his interest because not a lot of people had worked with David at that point. He'd been the narrator of Ken's early films, "Brooklyn Bridge", "Statue of Liberty", films like that. So, there was this strange convergence of the planets and somehow Ken and I got together and hit it off and that began a ten-year collaboration that the two of us had. That's one of the reasons that I got interested in the Amato Opera because I'd done historical filmmaking for a decade and I was interested in stories with people who were very much alive and had something to say about life today. That's one of the reasons I started looking around for something like that. I live on Bond street in Manhattan and the Amato Opera is basically on my block. I kept wondering about this little place with this funny little white façade, and this tiny door, and this strange mural on the outside, and one day I just went to a show and I was just utterly captivated by the world that I found inside. It's like one of those great NY moments where you open a door, and you're in this strange gray city, and you don't know what you're about to find, and suddenly there's this incredible, vibrant, totally unexpected life and façade. I saw it and just said, "this needs to captured, somehow on film." That was kind of incoherent. I can sum up my background in a sentence, or two - much shorter if you like. That was the kind of long and rambling answer that drives people crazy, Yeah, I know, here I am doing what I tell people not to do.

DID YOU CHOOSE THE AMATO OPERA AS A SUBJECT BECAUSE IT GAVE YOU THE OPPORTUNITY TO EXPLORE LARGER ISSUES?

IVES: Yeah. I chose the Amato Opera because it was a story that spoke to me on a purely personal level about the creative process. You know, so often it seems in this day and age we do things for money, we do things for fame, we hope, or we think, and that seems to drive our entire culture. What I found with Tony and Sally Amato is that they did what they did out of sheer love for their work and for each other. I couldn't resist trying to make that a focus of the film. It's not a particularly complex story in the sense that it's just this remarkable couple of octogenarians baking meatballs and ziti, you know for people who are singing arias. But underneath it all I think it is a story about a very, kind of sophisticated way of living, which is letting art be the driving force in your life.

WHAT CHOICES DID YOU AS A PRODUCER HAVE TO MAKE IN DECIDING HOW TO BEST FRAME THE STORY OF THE AMATO OPERA?

IVES: As a Producer figuring out how you're going to frame a story, how you're gonna structure a story is always one of the central challenges that you have, especially at the outset. One of the things that I love about cinema verité films, or observational films, as they're called today, which is what the Amato is, is there is a great element of surprise. I finally decided after ten years of wanting to do a film about the Amato, that the moment had come, because it was their fiftieth anniversary season. I thought to myself, "there's a chance something dramatic will happen at the end of that season that will give the film some wonderful conclusion." I had no idea that it would be Tony singing to Sally at the Plaza Hotel. I couldn't have dreamed of something that wonderful. But, I had a hunch that it would work, and so yes, in that way I simply hoped that the fiftieth anniversary season would become a natural organizing device for the film. And it worked out that way. There were a lot of choices involved. There were five complete operas done in repertory that season and we couldn't possibly do all of them. So, we had to sort of focus in on one production more than the others, which was "Rigoletto" which was a new production they were doing. So, you make your subtle, or not so subtle, your small, or large decisions and hope for the best. Often that's the way films organically evolve, and that's sometimes the way great surprises happen that turn out to be, you know, wonderful and you never would have expected them.

HAS YOUR STORYTELLING PERSPECTIVE CHANGED SINCE YOU STARTED MAKING DOCUMENTARIES?

IVES: In a way… My storytelling perspective hasn't changed dramatically in the ten years or so that I've been making documentaries. I am drawn to human stories. I'm drawn to stories with great emotion. I'm drawn to stories that are complicated, stories that are full of lightness and darkness, failure and success, because that's what life is. I find that everything in this television environment we live in is so superficial these days that embracing contradiction, ambiguity is ultimately much more enriching than shying away from those stories, or those issues. Tony and Sally Amato aren't a particularly controversial subject, in a sense that's a slight departure for me. Something like "The West", "The Conquest of the American West" which I spent 5 years making for PBS, I mean that's one of the darkest stories I know. But, I like to find elements of stories that simply reveal our common humanity. And that's what I think the Amato film does, better than I could have imagined.

HOW LONG DID THIS PROJECT TAKE TO SHOOT AND EDIT AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MAKE IT A PBS PROGRAM?

IVES: Well, all my work, with very few exceptions, has been for Public Television. I believe in PBS. I think it's one of the only places where you can get true creative freedom to make the films you want to make. I had a little money from PBS to make the project - to get started at least, to start shooting. It took about four years to make. The actual season that we filmed was only nine months. We kept running out of money, which small projects like this always do - big projects run out of money too. We just kept scraping it along, writing grants, and when we'd get a little money we'd go back to work for six months, and then we'd run out of money, and stop again, then fundraise for it again. And you know, that's a horribly frustrating way to work, as every independent filmmaker will tell you. But, there's something also that's kind of quite effective about it, which is that it gives you perspective. You come back to a cut that you thought was just what you wanted, that you left four months ago, and you look at it and say "what is this crap?" You totally rearrange it, and rework it, and that distance, that sense of perspective you've gained can often make a tremendous difference to the final product. So, yeah, it took four years and yeah it was in fits and starts. But, ultimately it came out exactly the way I wanted. My great, one great, deep sadness is that my film wasn't finished before Sally Amato passed away. I heard that she had suddenly taken a turn for the worse because I knew she'd been ill, but she'd been doing better. And I rushed a fine cut of the film over to her, but she never saw it.

HOW MANY PEOPLE DO YOU USE WHEN FILMING? I MEAN, DID YOU HAVE A RECORDIST AND...?

IVES: Yeah, in this case we had no money. So, my crew is usually four or five people total. I believe in the smallest possible crew the project demands. But, in this case I had to do most of sound myself because we simply couldn't afford to bring in a sound man. But, I was blessed with two tremendous cinematographers, Buddy Squires and Gary Steele and two great soundmen, John Zecca and Mark Mandler who did fill in whenever I could afford them, or they were free. And they were the core group of production and two wonderful assistant camera people Liz Dorr and Anthony Savini as well. But, in this case it was fun because, one the things that's fun about filmmaking, especially if you make these little labor of love projects that have virtually no budget, pay you virtually nothing in the long run, is that you can take risks that you might be hesitant take with a couple million dollar project. So, I did the sound, and I learned a lot about what it's like to do sound. I did it badly a lot of the time. But, luckily I had a good mixer and a good sound editor that covered up most of egregious gaffs. It is difficult to do both things at once. It's difficult to do direct and do sound at the same time and that's one thing that I really learned. Sound is this sort of Zen thing, whereas directing is all about trying to figure out whether you should be burning all that expensive film, right now, or not.

DID THE STORY OF TONY AND SALLY AMATO'S LIFE INSPIRE YOU IN ANY WAY EITHER PERSONALLY OR, PROFESSIONALLY?

IVES: Tony and Sally Amato are the two most inspiring people I think I've almost ever met. They bring to their life and their work, a passion, a love, and a deep abiding respect for the creative process that I think is utterly infectious and completely inspiring to be around. They made me and my crew feel good to be alive. We looked forward to every day we got a chance to go and film next to them. They bring so much love to what they do that you just can't help but be somehow ennobled by their presence. I have said that they make me feel young at heart and unafraid of growing old and that's about as beautiful a compliment as I think I can pay to anybody.

WHAT DO YOU AS A PRODUCER WANT THE AUDIENCE TO COME AWAY WITH AFTER WATCHING YOUR FILM?

IVES: I hope the audience comes away from "Amato: A Love Affair With Opera" with an appreciation for the fact that everywhere in this country, people are doing beautiful things, creative things, and inspiring things.
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