By ELIZA BENT
Welcome to Borough Play, our exclusive series on theatre in Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond.
According to Michael Spierman, artistic director of the Bronx Opera Company, the two biggest obstacles people face when it comes to opera are the high costs and the language barrier. "We remove those obstacles with low ticket prices and productions in English," he says. "It's somewhat surprising that we are the only opera company in New York City doing productions in English."
Spierman notes that operas are often performed in the vernacular of a given country, regardless of a show's country of origin. "In Germany they do La Traviata in German, not Italian," he says. And after 46 years at the Bronx Opera, he's encountered many patrons who connect deeply with the company's English-language mission. "A woman came up to me after La Boheme a few years ago," he recalls. "She said, 'I've been crying through this opera for the last 30 years but now I finally know what I'm crying about.'"
Spierman contends that operas performed in English allow audiences to follow the nuances and details of a story. "You can't watch what's happening onstage when you're reading supertitles," he says. To opera purists who argue for original-language productions, Spierman insists it's not an either or situation: "We have no desire to stamp out opera in a foreign language. We just want to offer an alternative. Why can't a person eat in an elegant French restaurant one day and a diner the next?"
Spierman feels that even the name of his company challenges prejudice. "There are people that think they've figured out the Bronx without having ever been here, and there are people who think they know opera without having ever been to one. So our name is something we've had to overcome. Our company has many functions: to produce opera, to develop talent, and to challenge societal expectations."
The Bronx Opera Company stages two full-fledged productions a year---a winter performance of a lesser-known work and a classic in the spring. "We'll be doing the East Coast premiere of Kirke Mechem's The Rivals this coming winter. We won't need to do any translating since the foreign language Kirke chose to write in was English," Spierman says with a chuckle. Inspired by Richard Brinsley Sheridan's classic comedy of manners, The Rivals depicts a well-heeled young woman who balks at taking part in an arranged marriage. Spierman believes Mechem's music is "quite delightful---and not in any sense of the forbidding modern quality. The harshness that is associated with living composers is not there." (Mechem, a San Francisco-based octogenarian, plans to be in New York City for the show.)
Along with educational programs for children, the company also puts on free concerts throughout the year and often stages performances outside its home borough. (In August, it will present special evenings in the Poconos and New Jersey.) "We do these concerts with excerpts from opera and a few musical theatre numbers all over," Spierman says. "A woman came up to me after a recent concert at a senior center. She talked about her aches and pains and her worries. She said, 'I'm feeling very much my age of 84, but for an hour and a half you made me feel like I was 24. No amount of drugs can do that!' So you see? There it was: the drug of music and singing."
Eliza Bent is a journalist, playwright, and performer living in New York City
Photo of Bronx Opera's spring 2013 production of "La Bohème" by A.G. Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY