January 30, 2013 | Borough of Manhattan Community College
What happens when you mix the 16th-century Renaissance splendor of Mantua, Italy, with the splashy 1960s decadence of Las Vegas?
Nearly 75 BMCC students now know the answer to that question—found in The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Rigoletto—thanks to a staffer simply picking up the phone.
“Opera is a passion of mine,” says Brian Haller, BMCC Director of Foundation & Corporate Relations.
“I didn’t really discover opera until I was an adult, and I knew that many of our students had never been to Lincoln Center, let alone an opera,” he says.
“So, I called the Met’s education department three or four years ago, to see if they might have tickets for dress rehearsals for any of their productions.”
A generous welcome
Thanks to that call, Noelle Thorn, Director of Audience Development & Outreach for The Metropolitan Opera, “sends me a schedule each year of dress rehearsal performances that are available to us,” Haller says.
“We normally get 30 or 40 tickets, but this year, they gave us 75 tickets. I thought since we were on break, more students might be available to attend.”
He was right.
“Students came from the Women’s Resource Center and Out-in-Two; they were BMCC Foundation Scholars, and from theatre and Italian language classes,” he says.
They not only got free seats to one of the most dramatically innovative opera productions in years, they got great seats.
“We were sitting in the ‘dress circle’ audience area, about midway up, and then Alisa Reich, Noelle’s assistant, found our group and invited us to move down closer, to sit in the orchestra section,” says Haller.
“That put us in the first third of the orchestra; superb orchestra seats, and it was an unbelievably close-up experience. The students were blown away by it. It’s not just that it’s spectacular, it’s theater with the most glorious singing the world has ever experienced.”
New fans meet lifelong fans
Associate Professor Maria Enrico, Chair of BMCC’s Modern Languages department, attended the performance with her Italian class.
“One or two of the students knew opera,” she says, “but most had never been to Lincoln Center, or to the opera. This was a comfortable way to experience something they’d only heard about.”
Enrico, a lifelong opera fan, coached students at Catholic University in Washington DC, who were learning to perform as opera singers, majoring in music and taking Italian.
“My grandparents were great lovers of opera and I grew up with it,” she says. “My grandfather knew all the great operas and played them on his mandolin, and my grandmother sang the arias.”
For those who are less familiar with opera, The Met’s education department provides online summaries of each performance, and an English translation of the libretto is provided through LCD screens on the backs of the theater seats.
Joining the cultural conversation
In director Michael Mayer’s new production of Rigoletto, the character after which the opera is named is not a lowly jester, as Verdi intended, but a much-maligned bartender who finds himself forced to keep a difficult Duke and his mobsters amused, in a riotous Las Vegas setting.
Opera fans across the City are excitedly debating Mayer’s choices in this ambitious production, and now BMCC students are part of that conversation.
“I was amazed by the performance and I liked that it took place in the 1960s, although it would have been nice to see the costumes from the 16th century,” says Studio Art major Stalin Espinal.
“The last act, when the duke arrives at the club and bursts out in song—that was definitely my favorite moment,” he adds. “The seats were great and they gave me a really nice view of what was going on. I am really looking forward to my next opera.”
That’s exactly what Brian Haller wants to hear. The students, he says, “came away knowing that this part of New York is open to them, and now they can attend performances through the Met’s student ticket program.”
Chances are, they will.