By Terry Trucco
“I’ve always thought it was a ridiculous name for a prison. Sing Sing. I mean, it sounds more like it should be an opera house or something.” — Holly Golightly
And the Gershwin Hotel? It sounds like there should be music playing or something. Maybe even opera.
For two nights this week, May 29 and 31, that’s precisely what happens — though it’s strains of George Friedrich Handel’s ALMIRA, Königin von Castilien, not Porgy & Bess, filling the sprawling red and orange lobby of this laid-back, art-filled hotel in the East 20s.
The Gershwin lobby, one of city’s most congenial (slouchy sofas, high drama decor, no one hounding you to buy drinks or be on your way), doubles as a performance space, attracting a clever line-up of new music, early music, jazz, poetry readings and opera. The latter comes courtesy of operamission, a plucky, three-year-old pick-up company that stages operas new and old and sometimes manages to trump the Met.
Its full-length performances of ALMIRA, Königin von Castilien, which translates as Almira, Queen of Castile, are the first in North America for Handel’s first opera, written in 1704 when he was just 19. The opera’s three-night run – it made its lobby debut on May 26 – marks operamission’s 13th appearance at the Gershwin and 15th opera (they’ve also played Fort Green in Brooklyn and Bryant Park).
We caught up with operamission founder Jennifer Peterson, who will conduct the opera – a cast of 8 singers, 15 musicians, two dancers and a chorus — from her harpsichord.
How did you come to stage operamission’s productions at the Gershwin? Had you stayed at the hotel?
I’m on Twitter a lot and noticed the name Gershwin Hotel go by when new music concerts were mentioned. The hardest part of producing classical music is finding a venue. I figured if the Gershwin staged new music they might do opera. I was also attracted because of the name Gershwin.
What’s the toughest part of putting on an opera in a hotel lobby?
It’s not like the Met where you have a schedule, a place to rehearse and an orchestra pit. Occasionally we’ve had to change the performance schedule because the space gets double booked. And we can’t rehearse in the lobby because it’s a public space. An emergency room doctor I know who is also a singer let us use his apartment to rehearse ALMIRA.
Seeing an opera in a hotel lobby seating 80 to 100 people means you don’t need opera glasses.
You get to see the singers up close, which is very different from going to the Met. You really feel the music. It’s visceral. It affects you physically and emotionally because you’re so close to the singers.
How are the Gershwin acoustics?
They’re amazingly good for opera. The first thing we did there was a Handel opera concert. Baroque instruments are much gentler than modern instruments, and the room had a really good sound. But when we did La Boheme, which is the opposite with a 39-piece orchestra, the sound was still fine.
You’ve got some big-gun opera talent playing the Gershwin.
That’s one of the great things about being in New York. I wanted certain singers for this opera. One of my leading tenors Keith Jameson just finished at the Met in Billy Budd. I’ve been waiting to work with him for five years, so I worked around his availability.
What about the musicians?
We’re using what was in the original orchestra in Hamburg – baroque violins, violas, cellos, double bass, oboes, bassoons and recorders. Baroque instruments sound mellower. Instead of steel strings they have gut strings. The bows are shaped differently, too. They look more like bow-and-arrow bows. The instruments don’t sustain as much tension, so the music is a lot more expressive and intimate. Julliard is training people now in these instruments, so we have a mix of students and professionals.
ALMIRA is believed to be a fictionalized portrayal of the betrothal of Queen Isabella I of Castile to Ferdinand II of Aragon. How do you transform a big orange and red room with contemporary art on the walls into the court of 15th-century Spain?
There’s a raised stage with a big column, and we’ve created an additional staging area, so the director stages different scenes in different area. We use the furniture that’s in the lobby, and we have props. We don’t have sets, but you can tell from the music where the scene is set. The recorders sound like birds so you think, oh, we’re outside now.
What about costumes?
We’ve set it in the 15th century, but we’re not dressing period. It’s modern dress but not a specific fashion era. One character wears a military uniform to show he’s a commander in the army, for example.
Handel’s first opera is a big deal. Why hasn’t it been performed in North America before now?
I don’t know. I think it’s because it’s so hard. You take one look at the soprano roles, and you laugh. They look impossible on the page. But the first time I worked with Nell Snaidas, who sings the royal princess Edilia, she sang some really high stuff. I asked her to sight read Edilia, and it was gorgeous. That’s when I got the idea of doing this opera.
Are the men’s roles challenging, too?
Basically, the soprano roles are too high, and a tenor role is too low. So I decided to go with a baritone instead and began working with Michael Weyandt on the role back in October.
It sounds like serendipity plays a big part in putting together an opera.
If you’re a producer you look at this opera and think, how am I going to pay for it? The chorus is just on stage for the queen’s coronation at the beginning, like a cameo. There’s also lot of dancing, which could be another reason it’s not performed very often. But I had singers I knew from when I was in the City Opera chorus e-mailing me saying I’m obsessed with Handel opera. Can I be in it? So people volunteered to be in the chorus. And a singer had a friend in Boston who knows baroque dance so we have two dancers doing at least 10 dances like sarabandes and gavottes throughout the opera.
Who comes to your operas at the Gershwin?
That’s one of the things I love. The audience is all these people you don’t know. When you go to new music concerts it’s all the same people. It’s the same with early music concerts. But at the Gershwin it’s a big, different crowd. It’s not just our friends.
Performances at 7:30 pm May 29 and 31. Tickets $40 ($30 students/seniors) available from Brown Paper Tickets. The Gershwin Hotel, 7 East 27th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues. 212 545-8000.