Running a family business is a tricky proposition. Running an opera company might be even harder. Combining the two into one requires some form of genius.
That has been the accomplishment of Michael Spierman, who set out on a dream alongside other colleagues to salvage operatic culture in the Bronx. The fruit of that dream, the Bronx Opera flourished and is now entering its 50th season with its usual two production per season. This season sees the company take on two different perspectives of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windor,” one by Giuseppe Verdi and the other by Ralph Vaughn Williams.
What makes the company’s story all the more compelling is that it is spearheaded now by Spierman and his son Ben, who is also a stage director. The younger Spierman has taken on greater responsibilities over the years in an association that the two treasure and seek to continue into the future.
In anticipation of Opening Night this Saturday Jan. 14, OperaWire spoke with the Spierman duo about working together as well as the past, present and future of the Bronx Opera as it turns 50.
OperaWire: Let’s just go a bit into how you guys decided on taking this particular professional path.
Ben Spierman: I was always around the theatre as a kid, and so I got to see each component of every production from the inside. I did a lot of different things – backstage, stage management, box office, choral singing, principal singing – but ultimately, directing appealed the most. Having a conceptual overview, being part of everything, helping people give their best performance, creating an atmosphere in which everyone can do their best work…all of that appealed to me and drove me to do what I do.
Michael Spierman: I think that the decision to follow any artistic path is an inherent rather than a reasoned one. There is often little financial or prestige rewards to be had in our areas but these considerations are minor compared to the sacred calling that is this life’s work.
OW: Both of you ended up in the world of opera, but one of you, Ben, is a director and the other, Michael, is a conductor. What is the dynamic between the two of you when you take on a production and what are the particular challenges of collaborating together?
Ben: The dynamic has gotten better and better as the years have progressed. When I started directing, I think Dad was worried that people would think that I was given then for strictly nepotistic reasons. But the more I worked, and the more I started working elsewhere, the less that worry existed. That worry has been gone for years now, and, for the most part, collaborating with my dad is one of the most enjoyable things I do. And technically, I think Dad paces shows perfectly, with timing that makes a lot of sense to me.
Michael: Ben is an excellent stage director who always tries to let the work out for the audience to experience without getting in its way with superfluous directorial tricks. I feel the same way about its musical components so we have little fundamental disagreement on the ends. Of course there is the occasional and normal conflict between the dramatic and musical areas but these are compromised quite easily after negotiation.
OW: Michael, this is now the 50th anniversary of the company. Looking back, can you tell me the major challenges that you had to overcome at that very beginning, what you learned and how overcoming them have helped you keep this company going strong for 50 years?
Michael: We never were concerned with the company’s longevity at its inception in 1967. A group of us were experimenting with this art form to learn what would occur if an opera was carefully prepared (many outside of the big companies were not in those days and a number are still not today) and whether their presentation in English (another rarity in those days and still not very common today here) would help to clarify the relationship between music and its text for the audience. We have still not had definitive answers to these questions but our audiences seem to appreciate our productions and our service to our community seems to be meaningful to so many. It is true that the demographics have changed in the past half century but if one is sensitive to this and works to adjust to it, the audiences will come.
OW: Over these past 50 years, what have been the high points? And the low points that you have learned from?
Ben: Well, I was born about a year after our first performance, so that’s kind of a high point for me. The low points have been mostly administrative. The frustrations of fundraising. Trying to find messages that resonate and can help us get the money to survive. Getting the word out to people, and having them come to see our performances in an increasingly saturated market. Also, being snowed out of our Manhattan Regina performances really, really depressed all of us. [As for] High points, I think that our recent collaborations with the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center and Riverdale YM-YWHA Senior Center have been incredible high points. It’s one thing to do performances, but it’s really quite another to use the talent of our artists to help teach people to use their own abilities to bring joy to themselves and others. As exciting as the performances can be, that brings a thrill that is hard to describe.
Michael: When a child writes that “I thought opera sucked, no more” it is about as high as one can get. If a person who calls him/herself a follower of the arts states, after many decades, that “I never knew there was an opera company in The Bronx,” it is about as low [as it can get]. But both of the above present challenges that never decrease in urgency.
OW: What has been your most memorable moment with this company whether it be any particular production, performance, collaborator that sticks with you?
Ben: For me, “La gazza ladra,” “The Poisoned Kiss” and “Die Drei Pintos” have been the high points. They are all brilliant works by incredible composers (in the case of “Pintos,” a work that’s written by two composers who never met), but they aren’t seen here in the US very often. This “Sir John in Love” is also going to be a high point, especially since it was the show that marked my first appearance on stage (when I was 8). In terms of collaborators, there are a few people I’ve gotten to direct at BxO and then regionally. That’s always fun, and a point of pride.
Michael: The success of many of our participants in the field (more than fifty at the Metropolitan Opera, countless others throughout our country and in Europe) is a continuing joy as is their attributing their growing careers in part to their formative experiences while with our company. There have been so many memorable productions that it is impossible to single a few of them out for special praise. It always seems that the most immediate work being prepared is my very favorite one and I guess it should always be that way.
OW: Turning our attention to the present and immediate future, the company is performing two versions of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Where did the idea to program these two works together come from? How do they complement one another?
Ben: Well, taking a story from one genre (in this case a spoken comedy) and turning it into a work in another genre (opera) requires the “re-creators” to make choices based on how they want to tell the story. The story of Falstaff and the wives is at the heart of both works, but to see how Verdi/Boito’s choices differed from those of RVW fascinates me, and I think fascinates all of us. And, in addition, both works are terrific, which adds to the attraction. In terms of why we chose them, it’s a combination of our own nerdiness, our love for both of these works, and the fact that we can economize a bit on scenery. It tracks with our consistent record or artistic integrity mated with responsible budgeting.
Michael: When two special artists look at the same source, their insights will vary with their own special temperament and experience. This is certainly true of these two totally different views of this Shakespeare original. We felt it would be fascinating for our audiences to sense this during the course of one season, in this case our 50th anniversary one.
OW: Ben, how do you approach the two operas differently as a director. What are themes that you will be exploring in both and what are themes that are particular to each work in your opinion?
Ben: I’m not actually directing the Verdi, though I’ll be part of casting it. I’ll say that I think that the RVW “Sir John” is more of a romantic than the Verdi “Sir John”. I think he gets into the romance of what he is doing more than the character Boito and Verdi created. They both have that incredible sense of humor, which is what I think draws us to Old Jack generation after generation.
OW: Looking forward, any particular opera that you want to produce with this company that has yet to see its stage?
Ben: I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you. I’ll just say that I think there are many modern American operas (that is, written since 1960) that aren’t performed in NYC. I’d love to see us present them.
Michael: We always restrict our production choices to ones within our scope. As that scope is an ever-evolving concept based on finances and other considerations, it is impossible to answer this question with specificity. Of course there are many works (‘Turandot,’ ‘Otello,’ ‘Peter Grimes,’ etc., etc.) that we would love to mount but these are abstract concepts until our scope will permit them to evolve into reality from the fantasies from which dreams are made.
OW: What new paths are you looking to chart with the company? What do you believe that opera companies need to do to attract younger audiences?
Ben: In terms of paths, I’d love to commission work, perhaps from NYC composers, perhaps on NYC related themes, the “Hamilton” of operas, I suppose. I’d love to involve our alums more. I’d love do more of that modern American rep I mentioned above. I’d definitely love to see us increase our social media presence. I’m very proud of how much we are a community organization; I’d like to increase our work in our neighborhoods, too…Make it so there are more people who hear “Bronx Opera” and think of people working with them, with their kids, their parents, etc.
OW: How do you challenge the misinformed stereotypical perspective that mainstream has about the art form?
Ben: You can’t force people to change their minds, but if you can get them in the room (the theatre, a classroom, a community room, whatever) you can show them that the people who do opera are just like them. People relate to people, not to “art forms”, not to abstracts. Get them in the room, and clichés explode.