How to fit 45 people on one tiny stage and still hit mostly right notes

Four milkmaids are singing gaily. They swing their baskets, bend down, put their heads together, stand up, and some of them look out through the proscenium arch beguilingly. But something's wrong. Anthony Amato, their director, is saying "No. No." They keep singing, moving around the tiny stage and watching him hopefully, trying to work it out. "Stop!" he says, but they don't hear him. Then one of the main singers comes on -- late.

"Aaaah!" he yells, jumping into the middle of the group and stomping his feet furiously.

They stop singing. They look at him with a kind of polite, attentive terror written all over their faces. They were lined up wrong, Amato yells. They got in each other's way. They had been told how to do it. They mutter excuses: They forgot. The main singer was sorry she was late. The stage was too small.

"The stage in the second act has four more inches than last time," Sally Amato yells from the audience.

This is a typical family feud in the life of the mom and pop opera company, the Amato Opera Showcase. Sally and Tony Amato are putting the finishing touches on their production of Puccini's "La Boheme." And if four extra inches of stage doesn't sound like much of an advantage to you, you should see the theater. It is a narrow little brick building on New York's seamy Bowery -- so narrow you'd be hard pressed to park two Volkswagens in front of it. Barely more than 100 people regularly pack into performances, and in the front rows their hair probably blows during the more forceful arias -- arias that are accompanied by piano and wind instruments only, since playing a violin takes up too much elbow room.

"You can't go like this down there," Tony Amato says, making a bowing motion from the orchestra pit. (It's a real pit. They dug it when they moved the stage down to the basement level to have room for a balcony on the first floor, and needed yet a lower level for the conductor, Tony Amato, and his three or four musicians.) This building has been the home of the Amato Opera for 17 of its 34 years of existence, ever since it was moved from its old theater, which has now become the Circle in the Square Theater.

There are other difficulties besides the lack of violins. The sets have to work with the precision of an Origami trick. Wagner is out of the question, naturally. But the Amatos have gotten 45 people onstage at one time.

In "La Boheme," a large, animated chorus belts it out in a cafe scene complete with waitress and tables. They are joined by a wandering toy vendor, who is soon followed by a parade that marches noisily up the aisle. In a breathtaking reversal of the circus trick in which thousands of clowns come out of a tiny car, a total of 35 singing, gesticulating amateurs fit as if by magic onto the miniature stage. (As if that weren't difficult enough, the cast exits into a backstage nine feet long that doubles as a dressing room.)

Justifiably, Tony Amato is known as a master of stagecraft. He has to be in this space, where every move counts. "If an artist can work on this stage, he can work on any stage," says Amato. "You have to be timed. One step out of the way, and you're in trouble."

The Amato Opera is flourishing within its narrow confines. True, it doesn't pay its singers. True, the woman who sells tickets may also turn up in the chorus. And there is the fact that the Amato Opera doesn't even support the Amatos. (During financial crunches, theym sometimes have to support itm with their teaching and special engagement fees. Subscribers to the Amato Opera Circle brings in about $2,000 of the annual $40,000 budget. "They are marvelous , wonderful people," Sally Amato explains. "They just don't happen to be millionaires.")

But who can argue with 34 years of continual operation and good notices in the New York Times, Post, and Village Voice? And who's going to talk back to the likes of Mignon Dunn, a mezzo-soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, who says of Tony Amato, "God love him! I think he's one of the most brilliant men in the theater. I wish everyone would have a chance to work with him." She learned her Italian and French repertoire with the Amatos, and it was at the Amato that she did her first "Carmen." Her first performance at the Met was singing the part of "Amneris [in "Aida"] for someone who conked out." She could only do it because she had already learned the part with Tony.

Tony Amato's biggest fans are the singers who work with him. The Amato Opera is a showcase, a place where young singers can get some experience and exposure.The uncertain but earnest fellow you see squeezed into the chorus in the Amato's "La Boheme" may be the Caruso of the next generation.

A surprising number of Amato alumni are swelling the ranks of the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera; others have gone to small companies in Europe. When they finally do arrive, they have Amato to thank, not just for a chance to work, but for what they learned from him about acting.

That's what Mignon Dunn and New York City Opera baritone Chester Ludgin appreciate most about their years with Amato. Some opera productions Ludgin is in give "a minimum of rehearsal time because of the budget." Left to his own devices to flesh out a character, "my mind automatically conjures up specific pieces of [stage] business from Tony. . . . I have total recall [of the staging ] because there was so much logic in how he directed and because he often took the individual into consideration," giving him or her motions that were sensible for them as well as for the characters they were playing.

This is part of Anthony Amato's crusade. When, as a young Italian immigrant growing up in New Haven, Conn., he first decided singing was his career, he toured with opera companies and musical comedies. What he noticed was a lack of theatrics.

"It was bad," he recalls. "Now TV has brought up the standards. [Televised operas] got the audiences involved." A short, muscular man with black hair and eyebrows that telegraph vitality as he bustles around the theater, he makes his remarks brief and he pants a bit as he talks. He is preparing for rehearsal, sweeping up between the seats and ripping up some sheets ("Getting the prop department in order," he explains).

His productions offer plenty of drama. In such a small space a parade has quite an impact, and the audience applauded with delight when the soldiers marched through their midst, the snare drum only a few feet away from them, during "La Boheme." A snowfall brought a similar reaction, even if a few people did cover their ears as some of the high notes came out as screams.

Amato, a tenor, leaves the singing to voice teachers. Production, he feels, is just as important in a singer's education. "There's no place to sing opera under good conditions," he says. "If you don't belong to the New York City Opera, you're not going to get good direction and a full production." The Amato's large repertoire -- about 60 operas -- also helps singers in the professional world. Amato likes to research old scores, and tries to do one new production every year, often reviving rare 19th-century works. A young singer with the Amato, he feels, benefits from this variety, and gets "good experience, good direction, and good training. At smaller places when people say they're doing a production, there's no lighting, no sets, and people rent their own costumes."

During the interview the phone is ringing constantly, and Sally Amato yells down to ask about available seats. At this moment, as if to illustrate the fullness of Amato productions, I overhear her call out to an assistant, "Well, if her hair is in there, maybe her costume is, too."

Larger companies are unapproachable by unknowns. And singers who have finally made it into the Met and the New York City Opera say that one is expected to know the acting and motivation of roles before arriving at that exalted level. Everyone I talked to said they had no idea where to get such knowledge besides working with Tony. Regional opera companies, growing around the country, are some help. There were more small companies in Europe after the war, Mr. Amato says, "but now it's getting just as tough."

"This snow looks dirty," says Sally, who is about Tony's size and who bristles with as much, if not more, energy. I leave them pondering their confetti.

Later that night, Anthony Amato is telling Doris Cappadona that Mimi, whose part she is singing, should embrace her lover, Rodolfo, at the end of a certain aria. "You gotta finalize it," he insists, taking Walter MacNiel in his arms and looking up at him imploringly, and then out to where the audience will be sitting. "Blum, head to the front; blum, head to the side," he sings to the tune of the aria. "Like this, Walter dear. Look, Doris darling," he looks over his shoulder at Doris to make sure she sees where Walter's hands are.Like the endearments, the hugs are completely unaffectionate. This is business.

Walter and Doris have already donated their voices and their memories to "La Boheme." This is the hard part. They now have to act, and moving around convincingly in the few available inches is hard to do while singing Italian and hitting all the right notes. In fact, Mrs. Cappadona (who, despite her name, is German and likes to sing lieder when she isn't helping her husband with his insurance business) says she was near tears that night. "He's very good, usually. He knows just how far he can go without hurting people. He keeps a balance," she says, and he yells loudest at those who can take it.

It may be harder for the leads because almost everyone in the house knows the leads' parts. As Doris Cappadona began an aria, there was a warbly echo. Sally Amato and several other women in the cast sang along from where they sat in the audience, their coats, scarves, hats, and shopping bags draped over the seats around them. Everyone, it seemed, had sung or was going to sing "Mimi." There are 13 Mimis for this run of "La Boheme," and that's as it should be. It's also unusual. Even in universities, said one of the cast, a few people usually get all the leads. In the Amato, things are a bit more democratic.

"They're not all good singers," baritone John Robert Dunlop said, an Amato graduate and a veteran of the Met and European operas. But that's not the point , he added. "Over the years, a family attitude has prevailed there. Any prima donnas that show up are sent on their way. You go to Tony's being objective. I used to make wigs there." He said he felt sorry for young singers who went to a performance, balked at off notes, and didn't work with Amato. "Certainly he could have perfect performances, but then he'd lose the thing he started with: give the good to the most."

Mr. Dunlop holds Amato's work in such high esteem that between finishing a "Rigoletto" tour with Sherril Milne and joining the Met, he did a few performances with Tony to brush up his repertoire. "When you work with Amato, you are at the Met!"

Doris Cappadona also likes the family feeling at the Amato. "It's friendly, there's no competition, and everyone is very cooperative," she told me, tearlessly, on the phone. "It's a nice atmosphere because the Amatos have been able to hold things together that way." And because of the regulars.

While many singers use the Amato Opera as a starting point, to others it's something different. "Some people have stayed here 10 or 15 years," Sally Amato told me as she sorted costumes in the theater's attic, a long, narrow room lit by one window. Rows of dresses, coats, and petticoats hung in shadowy folds from the ceiling like large bats. "When Lucy's done with work, she comes over here. It's a second home. . . ."

"There are about half a dozen of us," Lucy Weed says, "who wear about eight hats apiece." She has a 15-year tenure at the Amato, and is now production manager. This means, she says, "I make sure that every singer makes his or her entrance from the right spot, to the right music, carrying and wearing what they're supposed to be carrying and wearing." She has hastily covered up safety pins in costumes, held onto the coattails of tenors charging onstage too early, and once, pretending to sell balloons to crowd members, calmly made it to the opposite side of the stage to hook up a flat that had been left down, in response to Anthony Amato's urgent gesticulations from the conductor's box.

She also makes costumes and "pitches in." One of the little chores she did to help them out was translating "Crispino e la Comare," by Luigi and Federico Ricci, a little- produced 1850 opera, into English. The New York Times proclaimed it a gem. She even planted a small joke in her translation. During the scene where "La Comare," the fairy godmother, is showing the protagonist some lamps lit for various departed souls, she shows him one for "a singer who wanted to be an impresario." The Weed translation reads "a tenor who produces opera on the Bowery."

She takes great delight in all her tasks. "It's such glorious fun, that's what we're there for," she says with such operatically good spirits that she made me want to drop by and sweep up some night after a performance. "For major principals, we have to be particularly alert to try and support them through. We're there to back 'em up." She remembers giving a helpful shove to Neil Shicoff, now at the Met, so he would face the right way in his Amato "Carmen."

For her and for Bernard Goldberg, short-order cook and tenor, the kind of fulfillment they are looking for is not all artistic, and it's right there at the Amato.

"You really do it for the love," said Mr. Goldberg, who played the toy vendor , adding that after 13 years of Bowery opera, "The Amatos are like my parents. That's how much I love them.c

And so, year after year, they and others come back to sing, sew costumes, hand out programs, and be yelled and stomped at by someone who really cares where they stand and which direction they face. The ones who don't come back remember. On grander stages, Amato's precise and pungent direction comes back to them: "First phrase, we caress our props. Second phrase, we start walking without knowing it. Third phrase, we keep walking and look up like two dum- dums."

And they remember the encouragement, the enthusiasm, and the love. "He's a rare person. Probably to the end of my career, I always in the back of my mind will have the kind of inspiration he represents," says Chester Ludgin. "I don't see the guy very often, but that doesn't mean he's out of my thoughts."

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