In a doorman apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, opera performers gather for rehearsal in the home of one of the greats — Lucine Amara, artistic director of New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera.
One singer, recent Westminster Choir College graduate Heather Jones, will be performing in her first production with the company in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. She was thrilled to learn of Amara’s involvement with the company before her audition.
“[It’s exciting] to just be able to work with people like Ms. La Quaif [Amara’s adopted daughter, Evelyn] and Ms. Amara, who are just light years ahead in experience and knowledge,” she said. “They’re not babysitting. They’re treating me, and girls my age, like we’re professionals in the field, which is really nice.”
Formative professional experiences like Jones’ are, in fact, the reason Amara joined the company in the first place. The New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera was founded in Fort Lee in 1989, and the organization asked Amara to take on the role of artistic director in the mid-1990s.
“I felt I should pass on what I had learned to young singers coming up,” Amara said of her decision to join the company. Along with La Quaif, the company’s general manager and director of the upcoming Suor Angelica production, that is what she does.
Amara and La Quaif work with both emerging artists and well-established ones to mount mostly verismo opera productions. Verismo works are Italian operas created from 1890 through the early 1920s that feature more realistic depictions of life (following the Romantic movement), such as Puccini’s La bohéme.
As a mid-size company that frequently offers roles to early-career performers, New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera prides itself on offering coaching as part of the experience of working with them — providing on-the-job training needed for moving on to roles with top-tier opera companies.
“It’s the smaller companies like ours that teach [singers] their motivation, teach them their character,” explained La Quaif. And as teachers, both women have tremendous experience to draw upon — especially Amara.
Now 89 years old, Amara made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1950, subsequently landing 56 roles over the course of 41 seasons including Don Elvira in Don Giovanni, Nedda in Pagliacci, Mimi in La bohéme, and Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly. She traces her love for classical music back far before then.
“I learned to love music in my mother’s womb,” she said. “When she was carrying me, she would go to the movies, and the moment, the background music started, I would start kicking. She had to leave the theater because she said it was so painful.”
Amara began her music training taking violin lessons at age 10. Later, at her cousin’s suggestion, she began voice lessons. Now an experienced singer with a successful career, she has plenty of stories (like being called to go on for a role she was covering at The Met while extremely ill) and plenty of favorite experiences.
“Correlli!” she exclaimed on the subject of favorite people she has worked with.
“He was wonderful, but oh, such a nervous wreck. He’d walk down the hallway coming to the stage and say, ‘Ho paura, ho paura, ho paura’ — I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid… We were doing Tosca, and in the second act when they drag him out and throw him down on the floor, I knelt down next to him, and as I’m kneeling down next to him, he said to me in Italian, ‘Tell me, how is my voice going?’”
It’s the professional wisdom drawn from stories like this that has singers clamoring to work with the company.
“Every once in a while, we’ll get a call saying, ‘The Met wants me to do this role and I’d really like to coach it and do it somewhere else first,’” said La Quaif. “So we’re very fortunate we get some nice names coming in who want to work the role before they perform it at The Met.”
Stacylynn Bennett is one such performer who reached out to the company to prepare for an opportunity. “When I came in for the audition, it was because I wanted the role of Madame Butterfly in Washington, D.C., but I was really nervous about that audition,” she said.
“Both of them [Amara and La Quaif] have done the role,” she explained. “Lucine did it at The Met, Evelyn toured all over…the world singing this role, so between the two of them, they have two lifetimes of Madame Butterflies behind them. They passed that on to me, and I feel so fortunate.” Performing the role with New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera even afforded Bennett the opportunity to wear Amara’s Met costume in the production.
Watching performers like Bennett apply lessons learned with the company as they progress in the world of professional opera gives Amara the most gratification. “That’s what pleases me,” she said.
And with ticket prices that can run around one-sixth of The Met’s, audiences will also be pleased to follow the rising careers of singers they caught first at a New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera production.
Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica and will be performed on a double bill with Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana Sunday, Oct. 20 at 3 p.m. at Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood.