Opera Oggi NY is one of many community opera companies in NYC that perform in churches, basements, parks, and even living rooms. In lieu of placing an announcement in the Times, performance bills are posted on bulletin boards in laundromats and corner coffee shops, or duct-taped on streetlamps.
These pint-sized troupes serve as vital career springboards for newly-graduated vocal students, semi-professionals, and singers in town for auditions at better known companies. They also offer affordable opera performances to local neighborhoods, and sometimes perform non-standard operas that the bigger companies rarely, if at all, perform.
Last weekend, Opera Oggi presented a charming production of Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at the Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn. While this holiday favorite is hardly obscure - the Met production of this holiday classic is currently delighting audiences with its opulent scenery, magical costumes, and peerless orchestra - the opportunity to see this opera in an intimate setting was something special.
Towards the end of my lunch conversation with organist Paul Jacobs, he invited me to his weekly organ class, which takes place every Thursday from 11-1 in Juillard's Paul Recital Hall. (The classes are open to the public.) From the back, I watched as several of Paul’s students performed freshly prepared works, often from memory. Each of them spoke beforehand about what they were going to play, offering some background and insight into the work. Some of the playing was a bit rough around the edges, but given that most of these students weren't even of drinking age, it was still impressive as hell.
At the end, Paul led a group discussion centered on the Bach Organ Marathon at St. Peter’s Church. After sharing some reflections on the concert itself, he asked what everyone thought of a feature about the event written by Paul Elie for The New Yorker. Almost without exception, the students tore into it with a combination of searing intelligence and youthful indiscretion. Jacobs was diplomatic, careful not to scold or contradict them.
“Those are excellent points,” he said. “But, you must admit it's impressive that The New Yorker chose to write anything at all about the organ.”
"This is my 12th year now at Juilliard," Jacobs continued. "The standard has never been higher." (Case in point: Jacobs announced Michael Hey had just been appointed the new Assistant Organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and last year, Benjamin Sheen was named assistant organist at St. Thomas Church). "You’ve always been so supportive of each other, and you need to continue to be so. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t dwell on the negative: if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Sounds like something I might say. The rest of my conversation with Jacobs below.
Paul Jacobs Performing at St. Peter's Church (courtesy of The New Yorker)
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, some two dozen organists convened on St. Peter's Church on Lexington Ave. to perform a marathon concert of Bach's complete organ music, some 18 hours in all. Hosted by WQXR as part of their Bachstock festival, the event generated significant interest, with 16,000 tuning into the live webstream, in addition to the 1,000+ who turned up in person.
The man primarily responsible for putting together this mammoth event, Juillard's Paul Jacobs, is no stranger to Bach's music. In 2000, at the age of 23, he performed three complete cycles of Bach's organ music by himself, including one 18 hour stretch in Pittsburgh. And, he did it frommemory. After witnessing one of Jacobs' more recent Bach performances, Alex Ross said simply: "It was an obliterating performance by one of the major musicians of our time."
I've seen Jacobs, 37, perform on several occasions, most recently when he rededicated the Kuhn organ at Alice Tully Hall with Bach's Clavier-Ubung III. But, I'd never had the chance to meet Jacobs in person before last week, when we sat down to lunch near Lincoln Center. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from someone of such prodigious ability, but Jacobs was warm and effusive, and offered so many incisive, articulate insights on everything from the organ's place in classical music, to the role of art in contemporary society, I've decided to divide our conversation into two parts. Part One is below.