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A Love Affair with Opera - Interview with Tony Amato

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HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT YOU AND YOUR WIFE WERE MEANT FOR EACH OTHER?

TONY AMATO: My wife and I met in a musical comedy at the Papermill Playhouse. We were in the chorus together, and on the first day of rehearsal I accidentally touched her back a bit with my foot. She glared at me and thought I was an awful Italian. But the same day the choreographer was staging a scene in the Vagabond King and he chose Sally and me because we were so Latin. In this scene I had to throw her to the floor every day, every routine. So, naturally I was very concerned about her when I threw her to the floor, and after the routine, I would always ask her [if she was alright] and comfort her. And then I started taking her home at night from Jersey across the river. And I met her family and I realized she was a hardworking girl, working in the shirt factory with her mother just to earn enough money for singing lessons. She loved to sing. And when I introduced her to opera by singing a scene, some arias from "Lucia," she became just enchanted with the music. I think that did it, her love for music, her warmth, her home growing family. All these things, I knew she was the one to be my mate. And naturally behind my mind I always had the idea to start an opera company. I think I made terrific choice.

WHAT WERE YOUR GOALS OR REASONS FOR STARTING THE OPERA AND HOW IN THE BEGINNING DID YOU AND YOUR WIFE WORK TOGETHER ON THE OPERA? WAS THERE TENSION? DID YOU EACH HAVE CERTAIN ROLES?

TONY: I had mainly two or three reasons for starting the opera. One of the main reasons was to find a platform for the young American artist to perform in opera, on the stage with full scenery, full chorus, lighting, in a good production. There were very little opportunities for this when we started this company. There were almost no opportunities at all. At the time we're talking about between 1946 and 1956. We started the company in 1948, and it is now 54 years old. About two years before we started the company, I had an opera workshop one summer because my friends always said, "Tony, you're so good on stage, start an opera shop. Let's do scenes of operas." And so it happened that summer that the America Theater Wing Professional Training Program was about to start. Which meant that the veterans coming back from the war -- World War II -- had an opportunity to study dance, opera, ballet, and drama. And so, I was accepted on their staff as the opera director. I started teaching all these ex-veterans and I had so much talent to work with, I said to Sally, "we gotta start a company," and we did. In 1948 we put it together legally, and, of course Sally at that time, she loved to sing, so she became my leading lady in the opera company. But, at the same time she worked so hard on making the costumes, doing the light cues, the publicity. She wore really about five different hats as my partner in the company. She always used to say, "Tony, you have five or six different hats, director of music, staging, and so forth." But, she did just as many jobs and had just as many responsibilities for the company. I just couldn't have achieved what we have done if I didn't have a Sally next to me like that, so cooperative in everything we did. And I always was surprised when I thought of certain ventures I wanted to do and she says, "I don't encourage you Tony, but I know you're gonna do it."

WHAT ARE SOME HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SHOWS YOU'VE DONE OVER 50 YEARS? WHICH DO YOU REMEMBER THE MOST, OR LOVE THE MOST?

TONY: We've done many premieres at the Amato Opera, especially early premieres of Verdi. Verdi is my favorite composer; naturally, Mozart is right there with him. But, I think one of the biggest musical achievements we did was when we tackled the American stage premiere of Boito's "Nerone." That was a very large undertaking. One critic for the New York magazine the NEW YORKER said in his reviews, "The spectacle Amato has created on this miniature stage, it would take the Metropolitan at least two thousand people on their stage." That was not only a great spectacle, but it used music I wasn't accustomed to, turn of the century music, and a different style. But, I felt I achieved it. I made a great advancement for music when I did the Boito. Of course, that gave me more confidence and courage to do more different things. We did quite a few. Three operas of Gomez -- Antonio Gomez a Brazilian composer, rarely heard in America. We did three of his premieres. A typical Verdi composer, not too well known in America.

ARE THERE ANY PERFORMERS WHO GOT THEIR START AT THE AMATO OPERA AND WHO'VE GONE ON TO GREAT FAME IN THE OPERA WORLD?

TONY: Yes, we've had quite a few. I wouldn't call them stars, because in the Amato Opera there are no stars. The opera is the star that we perform. But, there are many of us who advanced to the leading opera companies of the world, some in the Metropolitan. I could mention George Shirley, I could mention Mignon Dunn, I could mention Delores Smady, Chester Ludgin, and hundreds of ex-Amatos who are now in the ensemble of the Metropolitan, the City Opera, and all over the world. One thing they always write to me is, Tony without your outline of the opera that you gave us, the experience of working under a conductor, we never could achieve what we've done in our careers. This is always so gratifying to me.

TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE WORK INVOLVED IN PREPARING FOR A PRODUCTION. HOW MANY PEOPLE DOES IT TAKE TO BUILD THE SETS, SET THE LIGHTS, AND CREATE THE COSTUMES?

TONY: This is a very small theater, small productions. But, everything is in a miniature way of almost a complete Metropolitan production. We have full sets. I believe a lot in presenting grand opera with authenticity in the traditional way. And accenting always the good acting, good stage presence. We could not achieve what we do in our full productions if we didn't have many volunteers to help us in every department. For example, right now you hear a little hammering upstairs. They are preparing dressing rooms for my chorus to make them a little more comfortable. In a big production there are up to forty singers in a chorus. In a small theater like this, that's a lot of people. Our lighting people, or our costuming, that used to be the weakest department to get people to help. Now it's in very good hands and that is because of people being in the trade so many years. People know about us, they want to help the company, and I've noticed that ever since I lost my dear wife, more volunteers have come in to help, so that we can continue this work. In every department, I would say we have a total of over twenty to twenty-five volunteers who give us many hours in every department of the theater.

HOW MANY YEARS WERE YOU AND SALLY MARRIED, WHEN DID SHE PASS AWAY, AND HOW ARE YOU CONTINUING THE OPERA WITHOUT HER? IS THERE ANY ONE PERSON WHO HAS STEPPED IN AND IS FILLING MANY ROLES TO HELP YOU?

TONY: It's been now a year and three months since I've lost my dear Sally, and we were married fifty-five years. We had a wonderful life. We never had any intentions of stopping our work, always going ahead and planning the next opera. What I've been doing the past two years now is trying to build up a staff that eventually will continue the opera company. My niece Irene, who is a very talented young lady, she's beginning to direct some shows. She does all Mrs. Amato's work in the advertisement, and in preparing the costumes. Then there's a young man Richard, our scenic and costume designer. He's been with me over twenty-five years, and his sets have been raved about by all the critics in New York. I say to him, "Richard you should be with a big opera company." "No, I want to stay with Amato," he says. So, he and my niece Irene will eventually take over the theater, as they're doing a lot of work right now, so this company can continue for many, many more years.

CAN YOU GIVE OUR READERS A VISION OF COMMUNITY THEATER'S VALUE TO OPERA, AND EXPLAIN HOW IT HAS FULFILLED THAT POTENTIAL?

TONY: As you know, this company operates continuously, let's say about 35 weeks a year. We give an average of three operas a weekend, sometimes even four when we have a children's show. One of the main things this company does besides introducing new artists, young artists, is to supply the general public a place where they can see opera at a reasonable price and to acquaint them with the arts. That is two more reasons why this company is very important. I do hope some day there will be more companies like this. The more the better, but there are small companies, but they don't last long because they lack the nucleus of the hard work it takes to continue.

WHAT WOULD YOU MOST LIKE PEOPLE TO GET FROM COMMUNITY THEATER AND FROM THE AMATO OPERA?

TONY: This company supplies many values to the community. As I mentioned, the opportunity to see opera at reasonable prices, to present young artists, and what I like to have the people remember most. What they remember most about the opera company is that when they come to the theater, they feel the warmth of a family, the intimacy of the opera, which no other theater, I think, could supply them with. We've had the luck to have a very small theater and keep it small because small is beautiful. Small opera that is grand, but small, but grand.

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