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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Obituary: Anthony Amato (1920-2011)

Founder of the Amato Opera dies at 91.
Anthony Amato (left) in a 1948 staging of Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
Photo from the Amato archives © 1948 Amato Opera Company.

Anthony Amato, the founder of the Amato Opera Company, an East Village institution that provided opportunities for many young singers in its 50-year career, died today. He was 91.

For half a century, Mr. Amato and his wife, Sally, were key players in the New York opera community, staging great works by Rossini, Verdi, Puccini and others on a shoe-string budget. Their home was the tiny Amato Opera House, located at 319 Bowery right next to the site of the rock club CBGB. 

The Amato Opera opened in 1948 with a hasty production of Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Our Lady of Pompeii Church in the West Village. There was no scenic artist, so the sets were hastily improvised. In the following week, they followed with the famous double bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. 

Over the next decade, the tiny opera troupe moved around the city, before settling at 319 Bowery in 1964. Once settled, Mr. Amato developed a great reputation for dependable repertory and the occasional rarity. They also staged several important New York premieres, including Nerone, the unfinished second opera by composer Arrigo Boito.

The shoebox opera house on the Bowery was a fertile ground for young singers, some of whom went on to international careers. It was also a place to see opera for less than the glitzy Lincoln Center houses, performed with a minimal orchestra, often on a shoe-string budget. Costume changes were done on the fly, often in the gas station lot next to the stage door.

Sally Amato was a frequent player upon its stage, singing the title role in Tosca under the name Serafina Bellantoni. She also acted as ticket taker, lighting designer, costumier and publicity officer. died in 2000. However, the opera company soldiered on until Mr. Amato announced its closing in January of 2009. Its last performance was Le Nozze di Figaro on May 31, 2009.

Since the closure of the Amato Opera, its place in New York's culture as the working man's opera company has been taken by smaller theaters: the Amore Opera (run by former Amato singers and board members) and the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, which mounts budget black-box productions of works like Anna Bolena and Ariadne auf Naxos. Another small company, Opera Manhattan, recently announced a holiday production of Hansel & Gretel in direct, inadvertent competition with the big-budget staging mounted at the Met. 

Mr. Amato is gone, but, like Mozart's Commendatore, his presence lingers. 

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