Ira Siff, the honoree at the kickoff party for this year’s New York Opera Fest, held April 29 at the National Opera Center, is a true embodiment of New York’s opera scene. He is a lifelong New Yorker who, starting as a Met standee in the 1960s, has witnessed nearly six decades of the city’s operatic history. Known nationally as the commentator on the Met’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts, Siff is also an esteemed voice teacher and director. Locally, though, he is probably most celebrated for the drag troupe La Gran Scena Opera Co., which between 1981 and 2002 offered uproarious versions of opera’s great arias and scenes. Siff was not only Gran Scena’s founder; he was also, under the guise of the “traumatic soprano” Vera Galupe-Borszkh, its prima donna.
Gran Scena is a spiritual forbear of the independent opera organizations that participated in the Opera Fest, consisting of two months of performances by over 30 of the city’s small companies. Siff notes that the city of his youth had its own, notably flavorful small companies — like Vincent LaSelva’s Bel Canto Opera, presenting rarities in the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, and Anthony Amato’s Amato Opera, staging standard-repertory works on a postage-stamp-size stage in its own tiny jewel box of a theater on the Bowery. “These were passionate people who didn’t have a big budget, but had a great deal of knowledge about style,” Siff says. “The results were sometimes haphazard, sometimes divine and sometimes a bit of both.” The La Puma Opera Workshop was in a realm of its own, attracting a camp following through its catch-as-catch-can production values and the antics of its elderly diva, Olive Middleton. “The guy who sang Siegmund had sung Nemorino earlier in the week,” Siff says of a La Puma Die Walküre. “The Valkyries had the score scotch-taped to their shields.”
New York’s current indie opera scene, Siff observes, is notably different. “‘Indie’ didn’t even exist as a word back then!” he says. While the independent companies of the past (Gran Scena included) catered to dyed-in-the-wool aficionados, today’s small New York companies, he observes, are drawing new audiences to the art form. “I enjoyed Heartbeat Opera’s Don Giovanni,” he says. “It had some cuts that I would question, but the people in the audience, who may not have known the piece as well as I do, didn’t question them at all. It was a whole public that I’d never seen at the Met — people who are really glad to go to smaller productions.”
Opera Fest, funded through the support of the Howard Gilman Foundation, is an initiative of the New York Opera Alliance, a consortium that works in partnership with OPERA America to support the visibility and viability of the city’s independent opera companies.