by Steven Pisano
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.
In this production, directed by Thomas Lawrence Toscano, there was no scenery except for some evergreen wreathing hung on a wall. Costumes were a back-of-the-closet hodge-podge. And the "orchestra" was a sole baby grand piano, played with great emotion by Alessandro Simone. The sparse audience, bundled up from the cold weather, sat attentively in pews.
It couldn’t have been any more homespun. And yet, the production was both refreshing and appealing. Gretel was sung engagingly by Melanie Leinbach, with a bright resourcefulness. She was both lovingly supportive and finger-scolding of her dull-witted brother Hansel: a pants role sung here by Elsa Querón.
After their mother banishes them in a pique of anger, Hansel and Gretel spend the day foraging for strawberries in the woods. But as darkness descends, they realize they are lost and the Sandman, sung soothingly by Clara Lisle, puts sleep in the children’s eyes.
The next morning, the children are awakened by the Dew Fairy (Christine Coogle) and discover a house made of gingerbread, decorated with candies. Still hungry, they begin to eat the treats, when a Witch, unseen, cries out, "Nibbling, nibbling, little mouse! Who's nibbling on my little house?" Daniella Risman was charming and scheming as the Witch, though not a very scary one. Her face brightened with colorful make-up, she flashed her fingernails like talons, making her cannibalistic intentions clear. You could almost hear her stomach grumbling in anticipation.
Kirsti Esch and Alex Adams-Leytes were the self-involved parents, whose parental love rises like cream to the surface when they realize that Hansel and Gretel are endangered by the Witch. Mr. Adams-Leytes, in particular, brought upbeat, can-do energy to the part.
When you make your list of musical New Year’s resolutions for 2015, add this: if there is a community opera company in your neighborhood—and there probably is, just ask around—go see one of their performances this upcoming year. You'll be glad you did.
(All photos by Steven Pisano. More photos here.)