Opera New Jersey goes downashore

Spacious Paramount Theatre, in Springsteen country, dates to the late '20s and has seen a lot of opera.
Spacious Paramount Theatre, in Springsteen country, dates to the late '20s and has seen a lot of opera.
Posted: July 15, 2012

ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Opera is hardly a component of most seaside resorts, but it has been one for this Shore town in the past — and it will be again.

This month, Opera New Jersey expands its two-production season from Princeton's McCarter Theater to Asbury Park's larger Paramount Theatre in a move that won't even be a stretch: Any stage facilities needed for HMS Pinafore on July 27 and Il Trovatore on July 29 already are here — though they often date back to the building's late-1920s construction. (Trailers will be parked in back so chorus members can have dressing rooms, and bassists will have to devise an alternative route to the narrow below-stage passages that lead to the orchestra pit. Minor challenges.)

"Just to look out at a beautiful space like this makes you want to perform," says Il Trovatore stage director Stephanie Sundine, taking note of the Poseidon imagery carved into the woodwork. "I can't wait to tell the cast about it."

"Coming to Asbury Park is indeed a strategic move for the company," says general director Richard Russell. "It allows us to expand summer activities and our patron base. There are people we can serve here that we wouldn't serve in Princeton. It's an hour's drive. A different train line."

The situation may be more promising than even they realize. Russell is relatively new to the area and is mainly going on secondhand recommendations and the low-risk factor of bringing in productions that he's already mounting. Cautiously, he projects audiences of 900 per performance in the 1,600-seat house on the Asbury Park boardwalk. The theater's ghosts — there are eyewitness accounts — may have a good giggle over that.

Musically speaking, Asbury Park isn't just Bruce Springsteen country, even if the rocker's romanticized vision of the seaside boardwalk on Greetings From Asbury Park did codify the town's iconography as a pleasantly funky workingman's resort. At nearby Monmouth University, opera simulcasts are continually packed. Down the beach at Ocean Grove, the New Jersey State Opera has annual performances of the Verdi Requiem, this year's (Aug. 16) featuring major Metropolitan Opera stars such as tenor Marcello Giordani, as well as Opera New Jersey's Trovatore star mezzo-soprano, Margaret Mezzacappa. The area is dotted with affluent Italian populations that have opera in their genes. The revival of Asbury Park has been led by the gay community, another target audience for opera.

"From my standpoint, this is just great," said Tom Gilmour, director of economic development. "We're very much about promoting music here. It's the driver of economy. We have branded Asbury Park as a city where music lives. We have a deep jazz history. And when Opera New Jersey reached out to us, I immediately encouraged them to consider doing something this summer as a test."

Also encouraging was the Paramount Theatre's management, the Madison Marquette company, with financial terms that were quite inviting, though nobody wants to talk numbers. And, though all older venues have them, the company isn't exactly eager to discuss the Paramount's quirks either, starting with paranormal activity. In 2007, a bling-loving ghost reportedly snatched an earring off a patron and sent it flying. The basement floods after storms — though waves so far have never reached the orchestra pit. "We're so used to it; it's really no big deal. We just pump out the water. It really doesn't do any damage," says Amanda DiRobella, a spokeswoman for Madison Marquette.

Acoustics can be unpredictable in auditoriums that also host movies and concerts, and that have been extensively renovated, but the Paramount's sound is ... paramount. "You can just whisper on that stage and be heard in the back row," says Brett Colby, who has sung opera roles there.

Yes, roles, in fully staged productions. Though Ocean Grove mostly has a history of hosting concerts by star singers, Asbury Park was home to a bona fide, no-frills, underpublicized company for more than 50 years, the Metro Lyric Opera. Virtually a one-woman operation, it was founded and run by Era Tognoli, an operatic soprano and impresaria known among her friends as "the Madame." Two or three productions each summer were led by conductor/composer Anton Coppola (uncle of film director Francis Ford Coppola), who knew the operas so well he never needed a score. Both he and Tognoli continued working, despite illness and injury, into their early 90s — he is 95; she died last year at 92.

It's here that opera begins to make sense in the grander scheme of Asbury Park.

"It was like walking back in time, more of a 19th-century idea of entertainment,and one that fit in with the old-time vibe of the boardwalk," said Bradley Bambarger, who reviewed Metro Lyric performances for the Newark Star-Ledger before performances ceased two years ago, due to Tognoli's illness. "The costumes looked like they were pulled out of a carnival trunk. The makeup was very heavy. [The production] seemed to get done by the skin of its teeth. And sometimes it was wonderful — if you modified your expectations. It was festive. People dressed for it."

Box office snafus were rampant, and forget about surtitles. But at the final curtain, "the Madame" proudly strode onstage, handing out checks to the singers during curtain calls.

And that was only mild eccentricity compared to Metro Lyric's behind-the-scenes culture. The costumes didn't come from a trunk, says Colby, but from Tognoli's basement in a nearby Victorian mansion, where her kitchen had been converted to a rehearsal studio.

Not that food wasn't a priority. Rehearsals always started with a high-carb meal, ending with mandatory espresso (to aid concentration) that she poured herself, even though in later years she was so shaky that singers learned to move their cups to her rhythm.

"These two little old Italian people were just amazing — very inspiring to work for," recalls Colby, who is now development director at the Arc of Monmouth, a service organization for the autistic.

Now, the only physical evidence of the opera's ever having been there is a single Madame Butterfly poster — an elegant image of a weeping geisha — that hangs in a room at the head of an endless backstage corridor. Nobody knows how old it is.

"When Madame Tognoli died, the history of the company went with her," says Russell. "There is no mailing list." She kept track of her patrons not on a computer file, but on a now-lost handwritten list.

Russell wants to be part of the community, not just an occasional visitor, and acknowledges having had "very productive" conversations about working with Jason Tramm, music director of the nearby Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association and artistic director of the New Jersey State Opera.

In the current season, Russell is bringing a different kind of opera to Asbury Park. While Opera New Jersey is like Metro Lyric in populating its cast with up-and-coming singers, its productions will arrive well furbished — Pinafore with one truckload of scenery, Trovatore with two — and in a high state of polish thanks to previous performances in Princeton.

But even with its good acoustics, the Paramount Theatre gives the young singers a greater space to fill than Princeton's McCarter, and for an audience that's likely to be used to robust singing.

Trovatore conductor Victor DeRenzi isn't worried in the slightest: "They're all dramatic singers. They'll fill this theater well!"

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

Opera   Opera New Jersey in Asbury Park    HMS Pinafore, 7:30 p.m. July 27; Il Trovatore, 3 p.m. July 29. At the Paramount Theatre, 1300 Ocean Blvd. Tickets: $20-$110. www.operanj.org or 609-799-7700.

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