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Innovation in Place

On Site Opera creates opera in unexpected settings.
By Joanne Sydney Lessner

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Mozart’s Finta Giardiniera at West Side Community Garden, 2017
© Fay Fox
“We live or die by choosing the right piece in the right space.”  —McDonald
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Paisiello’s Barbiere at the Fabbri Mansion in Manhattan
© Fay Fox
Innovation in Place Miss Havisham sm 917
Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night at the Harmonie Club
© David Andrako

IMAGINE WATCHING Mozart’s Finta Giardiniera while inhaling the heady scent of spring flowers in the West Side Community Garden. Or ducking dinosaur bones at the American Museum of Natural History with the young heroine of John Musto’s Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt. Or seeing Poe’s guilt-ridden murderer in Gregg Kallor’s Tell-Tale Heart unravel before your eyes in the vaulted crypt of the Church of the Intercession. Unique, immersive experiences such as these are On Site Opera’s specialty. Rather than installing scenery to create a traditional experience in a nontraditional setting, the company capitalizes on a space’s unique features and matches an appropriate work to it.

General and artistic director Eric Einhorn recalls the company’s inaugural production in 2012—Shostakovich’s fifteen-minute miniature The Tale of the Silly Baby Mouse, at the Bronx Zoo. “We shared a little outdoor amphitheater with a bunch of other performances, and I would stand onstage before we started and say, ‘Hello! In about fifteen minutes we’re going to do an opera here,’ and whoosh—everybody goes away. Everybody. And then we started, and it was like the pied piper. There were these colorful puppets, big backpacks on the singers, and everybody came back. We had maybe 400 people a performance.”

In addition to the above, On Site Opera has mounted Gershwin’s one-act Blue Monday, which Einhorn describes as a Prohibition-era Pagliacci, at Harlem’s Cotton Club; Rameau’s Pygmalion at Madame Tussaud’s; and a double bill of Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night and Berlioz’s Mort de Cléopâtre, complete with snake and handler, at the Harmonie Club.

“Repertoire choice becomes obviously a very slender tightrope, and that doesn’t mean only doing small things,” says musical director Geoffrey McDonald. “You can also scale big pieces down, or you can, if you’re crazy enough, try to do really big stuff in a big space. Everything is possible. It’s sort of daunting and liberating at the same time. We’ll live or die by choosing the right piece in the right space.” 

Their most ambitious undertaking to date, the “Figaro Project,” featuring lesser-known settings of the Beaumarchais plays, was inspired by a chance visit to the ornate Fabbri Mansion on East 95th Street in 2011, before there even was a company. “I went to this house, and I walked in and said, this is Barber of Seville. But there was no company. There was nothing in place,” says Einhorn. He returned in 2015, offering Paisiello’s Barbiere di Siviglia, then brought Marcos Portugal’s Nozze di Figaro to 632 on Hudson, an extravagantly renovated townhouse. The audience followed the action from kitchen to boudoir to atrium and was served port and petits fours as wedding guests. “We always try to figure out how to work in some kind of food and drink,” says Einhorn. “Whenever possible, there’s alcohol.” 

During an improvised preshow, the Count ruminated in his study and, rather unexpectedly, the Countess sat in her bath, inviting visitors to perch on the edge of the tub and chat. “I was convinced that was going to be the end of the company,” Einhorn says. “But people loved it. I was shocked. It was great to see people’s positive response, and to have empowered the singers to step out of their comfort zone and interact like that.” 

Spaces that are not designed for theatrics pose logistical and acoustical challenges. “You never have a pit, you never have good sightlines,” Einhorn says. “We were in the atrium where the orchestra was in the balcony. There was a twenty-minute stretch where Geoff had no real contact with the singers, and he was following whatever he could hear them do.” 

With seating for only fifty, Figaro became a hot ticket. “All five performances sold out in three hours. That’s the closest I’m ever going to be to feeling like a rock star.” Einhorn laughs, then grows serious. “But we learned from the business side, we can’t ever go that small again.” The company staged the final installment of The Figaro Project, the U.S. premiere of Milhaud’s Mère Coupable, at the Garage, an eighteenth-century piano factory converted by designer Kenneth Cole into a large industrial-style exhibition space. “Twenty-five years later, the Almaviva family is in ruins,” Einhorn explains. “I wanted the feeling of a rich family that’s lost everything but couldn’t possibly move into a one-bedroom apartment—like the wealthy family that still lives on Park Avenue, but there’s no furniture.”

Einhorn considers On Site Opera’s model transferable to other cities. “We’re working to package these things in a way that, while they’re designed for very specific places in New York, we can say, ‘If you have a jazz club in your city, you can do the Gershwin, and here are the costumes.’” In fact, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt is a coproduction with Pittsburgh Opera and Chicago’s Lyric Opera, while Atlanta Opera presented La Finta Giardiniera at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. 

Bringing opera into three-dimensional, real-world spaces sometimes results in life imitating art. “632 on Hudson booked two weddings because of Figaro,” Einhorn says. “That’s been a really incredible unintended byproduct of doing this. We’ve introduced New Yorkers to their own city.” spacer

Joanne Sydney Lessner is a playwright, novelist, singer and regular contributor to OPERA NEWS.

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