It would be easy to walk right past the Amato Opera and never even know it. The plain white brick building on Manhattan's scruffy Bowery Street offers little to catch the eye.
There is no fountain or plaza to mark the opera's home, and certainly no chic operagoers in sleek tuxedos or glittering dresses crowding outside. Just a plain stretch of gritty sidewalk and the usual eclectic mix of eccentric East Villagers passing by.
But to miss the Amato would be to fail to discover one of New York City's hidden treasures. Although it is hard to say which is the greater part of the treasure: the Opera itself, or the couple that have been running it for the past half century.
"Oh, hug her, hug her, hug her!" Tony Amato calls out to the singers rehearsing "The Magic Flute" on the stage of his pint-sized opera house. Mr. Amato caresses his own diminutive frame, running his hands down his ribs and convincingly feigning a look of ecstasy. "And don't rush the slow notes. Did you hear yourself do that? You want to make it nice, more legato, more smooth."
His wife, Sally, watches the rehearsal from the audience, still enjoying the show after all these decades. "Whatever Tony does, it has to be something he loves," she explains. "I understand that. I can't see doing something unless you love it."
A lack of love has never been a problem at the Amato. In fact, love is the only possible explanation for the force that has kept the music playing at this miniature opera house over the years.
Only 109 attendees can be jammed into the tiny auditorium. The orchestra pit is so small that violinists are prohibited for fear that their elbows would ram the other musicians. On any given night one of the production's leads is apt to be an insurance salesman or textbook publisher moonlighting as an opera singer.
During intermission the performers crowd into the nine-foot backstage, which doubles as a dressing room, while volunteers sell homemade cookies to the audience.
A springboard to the Met
But despite the yawning chasm that separates the homey charms of the Amato from the glamour of much of the rest of the opera world, there is no question about the significance of the little company. Few other New York institutions have done as much to promote the love of the opera. And few other institutions have ever offered - without charge - as much practical aid to young singers.
It has been estimated that more than 10,000 singers have performed at the Amato. Many have been fledgling performers fresh out of music school but without stage experience. Several dozen over the years have made the leap from the stage of the Amato to major roles at New York's Metropolitan Opera or City Opera.
Noted tenor George Shirley went on to an illustrious career with the Met but recently told an interviewer that the most exciting event of his professional life was his debut on the stage of the Amato in 1961.
More recently, Craig Siriani, who moved from Amato to City Opera, was quoted as saying that in every production in which he appeared on the enormous Lincoln Center stage, he used something he'd learned from Amato.
"Tony is so passionate," says Julie Nelson, a soprano who recently sang in the Amato's "Magic Flute." "He gets up there on the stage with you and shows you how to move, how to feel. He gets you to understand the ideas, the motivation, the impetus."
"There is no one else who does dramatic direction the way Tony does," agrees Karen Hamilton, who's been singing at the Amato since 1986. "He helps you to understand motivation as you've never understood it before. And what he tells you, it sticks with you. People ... spend thousands of dollars trying to learn these things. They should just come here."
Dramatic direction is really the reason Amato got into the field. The son of a music-loving Italian immigrant, Amato left his family's restaurant and butcher business to become an opera singer. But rather than lead roles, Tony took comprimario, or character parts, in most productions. That was when he became aware that few opera companies bothered to teach the basics of acting or to bring out the full dramatic potential of the opera's characters.
"I realized how much the opera lacked in those years," he says. "I wanted to do something about that."
So in 1948 Tony and Sally Amato - who met performing as Apache Indians in a summer-stock production in Millburn, N.J. - opened the Amato Opera. The little company first occupied a church basement and then a movie theater. Finally, in 1964, Amato bought a five-story abandoned warehouse for $22,000 and with $80,000 in renovations turned it into an opera house.
Grand opera on a shoestring
The Amatos like to brag that theirs is the only self-supporting opera house in the world. (Most American and European houses are subsidized at least in part by government funding.) But in this case, independence has come at a price.
For many years the Amatos took no salary and poured earnings from teaching and other activities into the company. The singers are not paid for their performances. For nine years, in another location to avoid union regulations, they charged no admission for the productions. Today, the admission price is $23. The Metropolitan Opera, on the other hand, charges anywhere from $26 to $225.
Many present-day Amato devotees find the building to be part of the opera's special charm. Ms. Nelson says that as a singer she appreciates the education she's received just from wandering through the theater's upper floors, where costumes and props are kept. In large opera houses, she explains, singers feel remote from the physical aspects of the production. "But at the Amato they have everything there," she says.
Nelson also loves the family feeling of the Amato experience. "Sally is there at every rehearsal," Nelson says. "She's like the house mom." And Muffin, the couple's little terrier, stands on the stage to watch the rehearsal.
Once upon a time the Amato used to specialize in offbeat productions of rarely performed operas, especially those by Verdi, Tony's favorite composer. But today, as a concession to commercial considerations, the company stays mostly within the mainstream repertoire.
"If he could, Tony would do unusual ones all the time," Sally says. "But the popular ones, they sell." For the last two years all the company's productions have sold out. "We still do the occasional premire or revival," Tony says. "But that's mostly to get the critics down here."
The critics have been kind to the Amato. While recognizing the limits within which the company works, many have marveled over the magic produced on the tiny stage, with especial kudos to Richard Cerrullo, the set designer who works miracles in the narrow space and within the confines of the company's $150,000 annual operating budget.
Keeping it in the family
The Amatos' fondest hope is that Mr. Cerrullo, along with their niece and nephew, will eventually run the company. That's one reason they've been more concerned about finances lately: They recognize their successors will need salaries.
But in the meantime, Tony and Sally keep doing what they're good at and what they love best: running the Amato.
"I get great satisfaction from seeing my ideas come to life," says Tony, explaining why he's in no hurry to retire.