Only the Voices Are Huge

The Gotham Chamber OperaPhoto: Richard Termine

Opera emerged into the public realm 400 years ago in venues that today we would consider minuscule. (Grand opera came much later, in the nineteenth century.) A show in a 200-seat house puts audiences right inside the drama and allows singers to rediscover the subtlety of an arched eyebrow and a murmured aside. Fortunately, New York, with its legions of opera lovers and singers, supports a handful of companies that offer historically accurate environs—and comparably petite ticket prices.

The closest thing New York has to a mini-Met, the Dicapo emulates the big boys in its 204-seat dollhouse theater on the Upper East Side. “We don’t sacrifice an awful lot,” says Michael Capasso, who co-founded the company in 1981 and keeps an eye out for rarities to mix with familiar repertoire. On December 13, Tobias Picker conducts his own adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. In February, Dicapo will stage the U.S. premiere of Sárka, Janácek’s long-buried first opera. 184 E. 76th St.; 212-288-9438.

The granddaddy of New York’s miniature operas, the brainchild of Anthony and Sally Amato turned 60 this year. Having survived gentrification and Sally’s death in 2000, the company still manages to offer all tickets at $35 or less. Audiences sit close enough to feel the high notes in their hair, and young singers get to work with Amato, who has probably led more performances than any other opera conductor in town. Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow opens on December 6. 319 Bowery; 212-228-8200.

Chelsea Opera began in St. Peter’s Church with Puccini’s sacramental standby Suor Angelica, and it returns there on June 4 for its fifth anniversary. Co-founder Lynne Hayden-Findlay says that the company makes a point of drawing on the vast local talent; 300 singers applied to audition for Don Giovanni. She also says that she and her partner are sticklers for performing untranslated work: “If you want to hear it in English, go to Bronx Opera.” St. Peter’s Church, 346 W. 20th St.;

The company, established in 1967, commutes between boroughs, bringing each production to the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College and then either Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse or on Long Island. The repertoire, too, swings between rarities and chestnuts: In January, it’s Bedrich Smetana’s Two Widows; in May, The Magic Flute. 718-365-4209.

The eight-year-old company started in Brooklyn, but now it’s a floating troupe, going wherever there’s a piano and an audience. Often, that’s in someone’s capacious living room, where the audience brings the drinks and a corps of young singers bustles through abbreviated works. The Marriage of Figaro comes in at a scant 100 minutes. “People don’t want to hear all that recitative,” says artistic and music director Jay Meetze. Amahl and the Night Visitors comes next. 212-567-3283.

This excellent group doesn’t shrink grand operas; it performs early or recent works that were born small, which are tough sells for the big companies. (Starting February 18, it’s Haydn’s L’isola disabitata.) “Financially, chamber opera makes no sense whatever,” remarks Gotham’s artistic director Neal Goren, who has the wisdom to ignore his own admonition. 212-868-4460.

The start-up has mounted three productions with all-female casts—the result, says founder Thomas Lawrence Toscano, of the city’s dearth of singing men. “We had an agreement with a baritone for [Massenet’s] Sapho, but he pulled out, so we made all the relationships lesbian,” Toscano says. He hopes to revive his inaugural production—Puccini’s Suor Angelica, featuring a conventful of nuns—in February.

Sing It Loud
One perk of opera in a small house? Soundpower! “When we produced Turandot with 65 onstage, people didn’t feel anything was lacking,” says Dicapo Opera’s Michael Capasso. At the Met, it would take several hundred to fill a hall like that.

Only the Voices Are Huge