New York Metro Vocal Arts Ensemble
by Ronald Sklar
“Opera is the one art form that combines them all,” says José Alejandro Guzman, guest conductor for the New York Metro Vocal Arts Ensemble (NYMVAE). “If you like dance, singing, ballet, plays or orchestras — scenery or costumes — comedy or drama or melodrama — everything old and new — there is no other art form that one-hundred per cent takes it all in. That’s why there is something for everybody, and there is an opera for everybody.”
And that’s why NYMVAE, in its fifth year, is excited about its upcoming staging of the Mozart opera, The Magic Flute. The non-profit organization is committed to bringing opera (and other under-appreciated art forms such as cabaret), to those who otherwise may not have a positive first exposure – or any exposure at all – to these long-standing pillars of entertainment and culture.
Since its inception in 2000, NYMVAE has performed everywhere from local theatres, area community centers and nursing homes to schools to low-income housing. As well, the group has created performing opportunities for over 65 singers, and opened up a world of possibility to children who may themselves realize their own passion for performing. In fact, The Magic Flute has traditionally been the opera to which children are first introduced to this most unique art form.
More than just an opera company, NYMVAE (Time Out New York called their acronym “unwieldy”) has a full plate of performances in a variety of genres (check their website listed at the bottom of this article for other offerings and schedules.).
Here, some members of NYMVAE gather to discuss the challenges and rewards of their mission, how their grassroots efforts are helping to nurture new audiences and why their passion drives them to keep the dream going in the face of some very real obstacles.
How did you all first get together?
Leonora McClernan (Co-Founder): We were initially a bunch of eager, passionate young singers who wanted to do “good” with our voices. We wanted to be able to give back to our community and create opportunities for our fellow singers in our singer community. We started out very small, doing primarily community-focused events and public performances and outreach programs.
Jennifer E. Learned (director): NYMVAE has a two-fold commitment. Half of it is to bring in audiences to opera and get out to the communities. But the other half of it is that we need to help hone the future opera singers; companies like [ours] are where they get their footing.
What are the challenges of mounting a production such as this?
Elizabeth Falk (Executive Director): It is difficult because we run on a very small budget of under $30,000 a year with an entirely volunteer staff. With that, we put together two full productions, two concert series and a cabaret. We cut corners by having only a five-person orchestra. We can’t afford much larger than that. Our singers, unfortunately, are only paid an honorarium. It’s nothing huge, but we try to give back to them.
However, the positive side to our constraints is we are still able to create a more intimate sound. This goes with our mission very well. We want to bring music to people. We don’t want to make it a foreign substance. Being able to have these small venues with a small orchestra make [our productions] very approachable.
McClernan: People coming to an opera for the first time say, “I always thought it was something distant and elevated and not something accessible to me, and here, I am in a small room and I can feel the vibrations of the voice, I can feel these things very palpably.”
How do you approach the average, rock-and-roll young person about investigating and/or appreciating opera?
Learned: That is actually a big part of our mission. There are some academics that feel that opera is becoming what they call a “museum art,” which means that our audiences are dwindling. If you take the average entertainment viewer, you have a lot of people who are ready to go to a rock concert, and a lot of people who are happy to go to musical theater. Then you take a small cross-section of those entertainment-prone people who will go to opera. And they will go to the Met Opera – they will go to New York City Opera because they are well known.
What we are doing is taking a subset of that group who are going out to the small not-for-profits, the lower-budgeted productions. It’s hard to get the audience in. There is always a following for off-Broadway, because people go [there] and they expect to see some new work. However, there hasn’t been an opera recently produced that catches the general public’s notice. It isn’t like people are constantly looking for new operas.
McClernan: One thing that we have done to make opera more accessible is to do translation. [The Magic Flute] was translated from German into English; the adaptation we’re using is by Jennifer Learned, our director. When we do productions in a foreign language, we always have an English version of the libretto for the audience.
We also try to pick operas that make sense in a contemporary setting or to a contemporary audience, although I think that most operas do, depending on how you read them.
What are the challenges that you face regarding costuming?
Learned: I just solely fell into costuming for the company by accident. We had a director who said, “I kind of want this,” and it was not something you could buy off the shelf. So I knew that I could sew a straight line – let me see what I can do. Over the last couple of seasons, I became much more addicted to sewing the costumes. The problem is, we are limited for resources. We were very lucky to have a huge donation of fabric. And time is a huge challenge. For instance, for me right now, it’s double duty: I’m directing and I’m making the costumes.
When you do a production like this on such a low budget, you have to ride the line between staying within your budget and not having it look like amateur theater. For instance, for Flute, you have to create 22 costumes. It’s not possible for us to create something that would be seen on the Met stage. We just don’t have the time and the resources to do it. So you find ways to modify it. For Flute, I’m mixing modern with idealized pieces. The guys will have jeans. There is a leather coat. You do find ways to make it work.
McClernan: We’re also fortunate in that once we have the costumes, they are in our own collection.
What response do you get from the audiences?
Falk: Extremely positive. [An example is] we had a performance of two very modern pieces, [which took place on a day when we had a huge] snowstorm. We had seventeen people in the audience and they loved it. We’ve had very, very positive feedback from our audience members.
Learned: We have people who say, “Oh, my friend brought me. I have never been to an opera.” But my favorite is when we have the kids in the audience. We did Hansel and Gretel last year, and when we went into the audience and talked with the kids, they were still in that magical world. With Flute, we’re trying to do a massive marketing to younger audiences, because Flute can be so accessible to children.
How are you marketing Flute to younger audiences?
McClernan: We do everything from walking into schools and saying we have a show coming up that we think their students and their families would love to just getting out into the neighborhood and talking it up and speaking to local business people who would be willing to just put out cards or mention it to people when they come in.
Falk: Our pricing is very affordable. It’s five dollars for kids under 12. For students, it’s $10. So it’s the price of a movie ticket or less. So it’s not like you’re taking your kids to something that’s really expensive or really long. It’s only a two-hour opera. For opera, that’s very short.
Learned: We’re also doing two Q&A sessions after the matinees, which are the shows we’re targeting to the kids, to start engaging the kids in what they’re seeing. Kids always want to know how and why.
What do you say to the person who has never experienced opera, or who may be reluctant to sample it or afraid that it may be too highbrow?
Falk: It’s one-stop shopping for a wonderful, intense, exhilarating experience. You have theater, music, poetry, words, all the visual aspects, all of it, all together. The Magic Flute is completely timeless. The music could not be more beautiful. The lyrics are hysterical.
José Guzman (guest conductor): Not everybody likes every opera. There are more operas that I hate than I love, but there are more operas that I don’t know about that I may love when I hear them someday. The Magic Flute is a timeless work of genius written for the common man. Mozart, I think, is the greatest opera composer of all time. This show shows you a genius at the height of his powers, and yet it sounds so simple. This is the opera that makes you sorry that he died so young. Here, he’s going to a place that he has never been before, leaping and flying and soaring like nobody could dream.
Learned: A lot of people think that opera is hoity-toity. But take a look at us. We’re fun people. We’re normal, sane people — yet we’re a little kooky! My record collection ranges from Nine Inch Nails to European pop and stuff. I am not an elitist. There is nothing about opera that is elitist. The people who are involved with opera are approachable and fun.
Guzman: The problem with opera is the perception that it started as an aristocratic, elitist type art form. That went by the board literally centuries ago. In European cities, more cultural institutions — be it museums, symphonies, opera companies – are government jobs. When bringing it here, you have to start from the grass roots.
Learned: When I first came to New York [to be an opera singer], I expected it to be cut throat and back stabbing – everybody out for themselves. But I’ve learned how wonderfully supportive everybody can be, especially at this level. We start talking to each other, getting jobs for each other. I don’t see a lot of people trying to shove me out of the way. It’s a lot of, “gee, let me help you out.” It’s incredibly supportive. I think it’s because we all recognize that what we do is because of passion, because we love it. That unifying passion is what keeps us supporting each other in what we do.
|#1 © 2005. Courtesy of NYMVAE. All rights reserved.|
|#2 © 2005. Courtesy of NYMVAE. All rights reserved.|
|#3 © 2005. Courtesy of NYMVAE. All rights reserved.|
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 22, 2005.