Where young opera singers get a chance to grow

Opera is often regarded as a glamorous business. But the glittery names actually make up only a small fraction of the performers on stage, and even the greatest stars had to begin somewhere. For 40 years now, Anthony Amato has been giving young singers their first taste of the exhilaration and hard work of the day-to-day world of opera.

Mr. Amato - or Tony, as he is known to friends and fans - is one of the unsung heroes of the art form. In his tiny theater at 319 Bowery - the home of the Amato Opera Theatre for 30 years now - the love of opera is the hallmark of performers and audiences alike. Tenor Neil Shicoff is the most illustrious of the Amato singers who have gone on to important careers: Seventeen alumni have Metropolitan Opera credits, and more than 25 have been included on the roster of the New York City Opera.

The diminutive Amato is a bundle of energy, both in the orchestra pit during performances and in rehearsals. Once in a while, he moves the company uptown to mount a production that uses an orchestra and a larger stage, as was the case this month with the American premi^'ere of Antonio Carlos Gomes's 1889 opera, ``Lo Schiavo'' (``The Slave''). (See accompanying article, Page 22.) But it is his own theater that has become an institution. I asked Amato how the venture came about.

``I come from a musical family,'' he explained. ``My father was a self-taught trombone player, who wrote music in Italy and played in the band. I had five brothers, and he made them all go to music conservatories in Italy. When we came to this country, I was only 7, and he decided I was going to be the businessman in the family.''

While Tony worked as a short-order cook in the family restaurant at age 10 and then as a butcher in the family grocery, music was all around him, because his brothers were all instrumentalists. ``I started studying with my local maestro in New Haven, and when he gave his operas there - about three a season with Metropolitan Opera artists - he made me do all the comprimario [character] roles.''

Illness forced Amato out of the family business and eventually into a career as a comprimario artist. But he realized that there was a need for a greater histrionic awareness in opera; so he became affiliated with the American Professional Theater Wing as an opera director and used his salary to start his own company, first in a church basement, then at an old movie house.

After 10 years, he was offered a warehouse at a reasonable price by an owner who admired the company and wanted it to have a home. It cost $85,000 to transform the structure into a theater with a storage area for sets, and there the company has remained.

Where does Amato, who is stage director, conductor, and coach, get his singers?

``A lot are graduates from universities, who do not have the standard repertoire,'' he explains. ``They come to me to put [their training] into action. The musical backgrounds of these boys and girls is tremendous. They just don't have the standard works [in their repertoire]. ... Of course, we [also] have many business people who have given up aspirations of being singers; so they do this as a hobby.''

It is remarkable to observe what Amato accomplishes on a shoestring budget. He estimates his ``Schiavo'' production cost $32,000 to put on, including theater rental. The sets and costumes are all created at the theater, where his wife, Sally, is chief seamstress.

Though the money is always difficult to raise, Amato's aim is to be able to mount something interesting once a year, and of course, to keep the Amato Opera Theatre functioning as a bastion of practical training.

The 41st Amato Opera Theatre season begins Sept. 24 with ``The Magic Flute.''

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