Opera Index Honors Stage Director Tito Capobianco & Presents Opera Recital of 2016 Award Winners

Joseph Gasperec, Jane Shaulis & Tito Capobianco. Photo by Judy Pantano

On the evening of Sunday, January 15th, at the JW Marriott Essex House on Central Park South in New York City, Opera Index hosted a tribute to internationally acclaimed stage designer Tito Capobianco and also presented an operatic recital of the 2016 Opera Index Award winners.

Jane Shaulis, a much-loved mezzo from the Metropolitan Opera is the President of Opera Index and made the introductory remarks. She was happy to report that over $50,000 was given in varying scholarships in 2016 and proudly introduced the awardees.

Sandra Hamaoui sang “Ah! Je veux vivre” from Romeo and Juliette. She and Gounod are perfect together. Her generous soprano flows freely and evenly from upper to lower register and was full of adolescent enthusiasm. Ms. Hamaoui’s beguiling coloratura was symbolic of Juliette’s awakening. The exuberance of her presentation and some powerful outbursts at the finale, made for a joyful Juliette with a newly minted inner core of love and strength.

Michael Fennelly, Sava Vemic, Sandra Hamaoui, Angela Vallone, Jane Shaulis, Jakub Orlinski, Cody Quattlebaum & Andre Courville. Photo by Judy Pantano.

Cody Quattlebaum used his seamless resonant bass-baritone in “Se vuol ballare” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. He brought with him a vibrant quality, penetrating sound and impish interpretation that evoked memories of the great basso s of the past. We need good bass-baritones today and Mr. Quattlebaum brings us hope aplenty!

Jakub Orlinski, countertenor will help fill the void left by Russell Oberlin, the pioneer countertenor who just passed away. Mr. Orlinski sang “Furibondo spira il vento” from Partenope by Handel. His adroit “handeling” (no pun) of the scales, roulades, ascents and descents of this roller coaster selection showed mastery. His clear diction and surprisingly effortless low notes were a marvel. Can Orlinski “Handel” it? The answer is- very well indeed!

Benefactors Cesare Santeramo, Janet Stovin, Doris Keeley, Joseph Gasperec & Karl Michaelis. Photo by Judy Pantano.

Andre Courville, bass-baritone entertained us with a rarity,”Air du tambour major” from Le Caid by Ambroise Thomas. This aria, full of pomp, strutting and soldierly pride, has audiences foot stomping to its rhythm. It’s the “Over there” of its day and Mr. Courville sang it with resonance, power, relish, good humor and into the dining area where he serenaded a few ladies at table, including my wife Judy. Courville’s fioritura and cadenzas rivaled the 1812 Overture in their contagious joy.

Angela Vallone sang “Azael, Azael” from L’enfant Prodigue by Claude Debussy. Ms. Vallone, winner of the Arthur E. Walters Memorial Award evokes memories of the great Mary Garden (1874-1967), a Scottish-American soprano who sang a very exotic repertory as well as the usual fare. Ms. Vallone possesses a truly beautiful soprano and can float a high note like an angel on a cloud. As the legendary soprano Licia Albanese always advised, to let each word sing. Ms. Vallone paints word pictures and with a slight inflection, can break your heart. This is a talent that will require careful nurturing so that the world can see and hear what we witnessed. She will shine and bring us the light we seek in both opera and song.

Barbara Meister-Bender & Rafael Sanchez. Photo by Judy Pantano

Sava Vemic, basso, has won the top awards from the Premier Lissner Charitable Fund Award and Opera Index. He sang “Il lacerato Spirito” from Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra. Vemic recently made his Metropolitan Opera debut as the High Priest in Verdi’s Nabucco. His singing of this magnificent aria plumbed the hallowed depths with noble phrasing, great emotion, caressing tone and a burnished heavenly “Prego Maria, per me.” His declamatory singing at the beginning was riveting and his inspired singing throughout was exemplary. Tall, handsome and debonair in manner, truly Cesare Siepi reborn!

The splendid accompanist to the singers was the terrific and talented piano virtuoso Michael Fennelly.

Jane Shaulis returned to give the Distinguished Achievement Award to Tito Capobianco, who is acclaimed for his ingenious and versatile treatment of repertory classics, “from Baroque to Romantic, verismo and contemporary opera.” Mr. Capbianco was born in Argentina and his years with New York City Opera (NYCO) included Donizetti’s Three Queens with Beverly Sills, Lucia di LammermoorGiulio Cesare and Boito’s Mefistofele. We shared a mutual friend in the late great NYCO basso Don Yule, my Brooklyn (Prospect Heights) neighbor as well.

Stephen De Maio & Murray Rosenthal. Photo by Judy Pantano

Jane Shaulis spoke glowingly of Tito Capobianco’s assistance to her as a novice at NYCO and warmly of their friendly and fruitful collaborations. Mr. Capobianco, gave a witty and gracious acceptance speech and said “listen, watch and learn,” his advice to beginners and received a standing ovation.

We spoke with Tito Capobianco and his charming guest Barbara Sandonato who was a prima ballerina at New York City Ballet (NYCB) in the halcyon days of George Balanchine and who now heads the Barbara Sandonato School of Ballet in Philadelphia. I mentioned the legendary Italian lyric tenor Tito Schipa (Vivere) (1888-1965) who sang many Spanish songs and often visited Argentina. Mr. Capobianco said that his parents so admired the art of Tito Schipa that after seeing Schipa sing at a concert in Buenos Aires shortly before Capobianco’s birth, they broke tradition and named him Tito instead of after his familial grandfather. Like Pope Francis, the Capobianco family originated in Italy then migrated to Argentina. I too, have family members in Buenos Aires.

Barbara Sandonato & Tito Capobianco. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was wonderful to see Armenian-American Met soprano Lucine Amara, Lebanese legendary Met mezzo Rosalind Elias, the indomitable dramatic Met soprano Elinor Ross, Met legend and Kennedy Center awardee Martina Arroyo, Elaine Malbin, soprano at NYCO and NBC TV opera pioneer, the great Met Opera basso Eric Owens, a former Opera Index awardee, fresh from his triumph in L’Amour de loin at the family table of Janet Stovin (Vice President of Opera Index), soprano Barbara Meister-Bender lent her glamorous presence (Career Bridges), along with Rafael Sanchez, handbag designer, patron presenter Dr. Robert Campbell and tenor troubadour Cesare Santeramo, author Luna Kaufman, Bill Ronayne, President of the Mario Lanza Foundation (located in Brooklyn) were in attendance as was Met tenor and television actor Anthony Laciura, a fellow Sicilian.

At our table was our gracious host Stephen De Maio, President of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, patron presenter Karl Michaelis, Michael Fornabaio Vice President and Treasurer, Gloria Gari from the Giulio Gari Foundation, Maestro Eve Queler from Opera Orchestra of New York, Joyce Greenberg, competition assistant to several foundations and Met opera basso Sava Vemic, a Gerda Lissner awardee.

Sopranos Lucine Amara & Elaine Malbin. Photo by Judy Pantano

It was such fun to spend some time with Opera Index Treasurer Murray Rosenthal and composer and Vice President Philip Hagemann. We greeted Joy B. Ferro, who is now the Artistic Director of the vocal program of her late husband Daniel on Madison Avenue. We introduced two gentlemen whose hobbies were clocks, (horologists) John Metcalfe from the Opera Index Board of Directors and Gary Dietrich who is the Metropolitan Opera Stage Manager and both were friends of NYCO bass Don Yule who was also a clock maven. Mrs. Dietrich is Opera Index Board member Laura Alley and is on the staff of Mannes College. We also chatted with Mara Waldman, pianist musicologist, Doris Keeley, patron and presenter, Meche Kroop, patron and reviewer, opera manager Ken Benson, Edna Greenwich, Founder and Director of Opera Exposures with Dwight Owsley, Board member and the ebullient Cavaliere Edward Jackson, poet, who is the unofficial Mayor of Italian Bensonhurst!

Meche Kroop, Nino Pantano, Maestro Eve Queler & Philip Hagemann. Photo by Judy Pantano

As we were leaving, as when we entered, it was great to to see Opera Index President Jane Shaulis and her husband Joseph Gasperec, who was a Stage Director and now serves as Executive Director of Opera Index.

We all went into the chill of the night with echoes of young and talented voices that warmed our hearts and will live on in memory!



Amahl and the Night Visitors at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home

Marcello, Nino & Judy Pantano with Composer Gian-Carlo Menotti at BAM-1984

On the afternoon of Sunday, January 8th, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s Christmas opera of Amahl and the Night Visitors was performed at the Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home on York Avenue near East 72nd Street in New York City. The many Christmas decorations from trees to creches that were at the home made one feel the joys and comforts of the season.

The famed Italian composer Gian-Carlo Menotti (1911-2007) was commissioned by NBC TV to write a Christmas opera. Menotti initially could not find a theme for his opera and labored for many months. Finally, one day while visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Menotti chanced to see the Hieronymus Bosch painting of “The Adoration of the Magi.” It recalled his boyhood in Italy when he and his brother would eagerly await the gifts left for them by the Three Kings. Suddenly he knew what his opera would be about. The first showing of Amahl on Christmas Eve 1951 drew over 5 million viewers and the opera became an annual television event on NBC.  Maestro Gian-Carlo Menotti, who also wrote the lyrics, said that even though he was commissioned to write this opera for television, he really meant it to be a stage work. The great conductor and head of the NBC Symphony Arturo Toscanini, tearfully told Menotti after seeing a dress rehearsal, “this is your finest work.” Judy, Marcello and I were privileged to meet Gian-Carlo Menotti at a special performance of Amahl at the Brooklyn Academy of Music circa 1984.

The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

Amahl is a poor crippled boy who lives in a village with his widowed mother. He is always telling her fibs. One night he tells her of a star with a tail in the sky. Suddenly there is a knock on the door and when Amahl opens it, he tells his disbelieving mother that there is a king. She chastises him for telling lies and future knocks show two kings and when his mother opens the door, it is Three Kings and Amahl exclaimed, “and one of them is black.” The Three Kings are looking for a place to rest for the night for they are seeking a child who will be a Savior to the world. The mother sends Amahl to bring the villagers with food and even dance for their royal visitors. The mother, thinking only of her own child and their poverty, attempts to steal some of the Kings’ gold. She is caught by the Paige and Amahl fiercely defends her. The Kings tell her to keep the gold but the mother returns it. Amahl offers his crutch as a gift to the child and at that moment, a miracle occurs and Amahl walks. He asks if he could accompany the Kings on their journey and his mother gives permission. The final scene is of young Amahl, playing his reed (shepherd’s pipe) and joining the Kings as his mother waves goodbye.

The Amahl for this performance was our grandson Luciano Pantano, age 10. His beautiful treble voice was clear and his diction impeccable. His “double takes” on seeing the Three Kings was ingratiating. His acting was very strong, especially in the scene when he walks again. His running down the aisle in glee after the miracle was contagious. His duets with his mother were flawless and his “Don’t Cry, Mother Dear” aria was touching. Amahl (Luciano’s) queries to the deaf King Kaspar about his pet parrot were charming and his curiosity about the Kings having “royal blood” were amusing. When Amahl asked King Kaspar” is there amongst your magic stones, is there one, is there one that can cure a crippled boy?” It fell on deaf ears. This was done quietly and poignantly.

Kathryn Mensendiek portrayed Amahl’s mother. Her singing of “All that Gold” made for rare drama and was sung with Puccinian relish. Ms. Mensendiek’s scenes with her adored son Amahl, both exasperating and poignant were sung in a rich and expressive soprano. Ms. Mensendiek’s operatic voice was tapered beautifully so that it blended perfectly with the youthful sounds of her Amahl.

Conductor/Piano Accompanist Claudia Dumschat, (Mother) Kathryn Mensendiek, (Paige) Asher Yin (Melchior) Alexis Cordero, (Kaspar) Peter Schmitz
(Balthazar) Charles S. Brown, ( Amahl) Luciano Pantano. Photo by Marcello Pantano

The Three Kings were magically sung by bass Charles S. Brown as Balthazar, baritone Alexis Cordero as Melchior and tenor Peter Schmitz as Kaspar. Their blending voices in “Have you seen a Child” was noble and majestic. Kaspar’s “This is my Box” was sung with humor and aplomb and his jubilant singing of “Lovely, lovely, lovely” was very amusing.

The Paige was Asher Yin who played his slightly villainous part with the proper anger, (Thief, thief) then awe, asking the miracle boy Amahl, “Oh Blessed Child may I touch you?”

The Shepherds song was sung by the full choir of the Church of the Transfiguration dressed in peasant garb. Their singing of “Emily, Emily, Michael, Bartholomew” was contagious and joyful. Our granddaughter Leeza was among this talented and tuneful ensemble.

The shy and then exuberant dancers were Goldie Gareza, Mateo Gareza and Gabriela Perez. The dance was choreographed by Jesse Obremski. The audience clapped in cadence to the rhythm of the music and the dancers.

The costumes by Terri Bush were colorful, regal for the Kings and the peasant outfits were earth toned and rustic. Betty Howe was the Stage Manager and Richard Olson was the Stage Director.

Dancers (Below) Goldie Gareza, Gabriela Perez &
Mateo Gareza. Photo by Judy Pantano

As Music Director and piano accompanist, Dr. Claudia Dumschat, encouraged the chorus and principals to do their very best and truly “inspired by example.” Her manifold contributions were invaluable. Dr. Dumschat is also the organist and Music Director at the Church of the Transfiguration also known as “The Little Church Around the Corner” on East 29th Street off Fifth Avenue, a position she has held since 1999. Next year’s Amahl will be in The Church of the Transfiguration with Orchestra. Claudia Dumschat’s Operation Outreach is just a small part of her obligation to the Church and community. To see her conduct, direct, perform and inspire is a joy and wonder. The many musical programs at the Church fully attest to her genius and the impact she has made. To hear and see the chorus, children and adults is to see a rainbow of nationalities united by music – perhaps the greatest unifying force in the world today! The Church of the Transfiguration with the Empire State building in view from the courtyard is a sacred place. Maestro Claudia Dumschat and company truly fulfill the mission of making “a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

The crowded room of seniors applauded and enjoyed this performance. Among the senior residents of Mary Manning Walsh Nursing Home was Claudia’s mother Lizbeth Dumschat.

This opera which runs about 45 minutes should be seen again on television and in churches, auditoriums and opera houses large and small to remind us of what we seem to be lacking today – sentiment, melody and humanity.

Proud parents Marcello and Tatyana Pantano and Luciano’s 5th grade teacher Mariya Ilizirova from the Bambi School in Brooklyn as well as we grandparents, Judy and myself were among the audience of this wonderful performance. Our granddaughter Leeza, who was one of the peasants brought her friend Svetlana Doronkin‎ to see the performance and she was thrilled. Luciano’s Russian grandparents Nikolay and Lubov Klitsenko who visit frequently, teach bayan and chorus in Omsk, Siberia and Luciano’s dad, our son Marcello, is a drummer in a band. Luciano’s Italian (Sicilian) side had mandolinists, guitarists, pianists and vocals. How can he do otherwise?

I, who was known as “The Boy Caruso from Brooklyn,” at age 13 in 1949, yield the crown to my grandson Luciano, named after the famed tenor, the late Luciano Pavarotti. Luciano Pantano, who also plays the bayan, (Russian accordion) and is studying piano with Claudia Dumschat, appears to be another talented Brooklynite on the cusp of a very promising singing and musical career.