Anthony Amato, Impresario of Small Grand Opera, Dies at 91

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Anthony Amato, co-founder of the Amato Opera, died on Tuesday morning at the age of 91. The news was initially posted to Facebook this afternoon by former Amato employee and director of the Amore Opera, Nathan Hull.

For over six decades, the Amato Opera, formed by Amato and his wife Sally Bell Amato, was a fixture on the Bowery and in the East Village arts scene. After its inaugural production of The Barber of Seville in Our Lady of Pompeii Church on the corner of Bleecker and Carmine Streets in 1948, it had stints at the 92nd Street Y, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Washington Irving High School, 159 Bleecker Street and the Town Hall. The company finally settled in a postage-stamp–sized building next to CBGB's in 1964, where it operated continually until it closed in 2009.

Against the posh spaces of City Center and Lincoln Center, the Amato Opera was a feisty diamond in the rough, making grand opera thrive in a theater that seated 107 and contained a mere 20-foot stage. Entrances and exits were often made by running around the building from lobby to stage door entrance and back again and costume changes were known to take place in the theater’s adjacent gas station. It was part of the draw of the company—you couldn’t help but feel a warm, tingly glee in the Momus scene of La bohème, sitting mere inches away from the bohemians, no matter how many times you may have seen the opera in various settings grand and small.

The son of an Amalfi Coast businessman, Amato was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue music as a simple hobby. Amato ultimately achieved both in tandem with Sally, whom he met in a production at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse and married in 1945. "We were in the chorus together and on the first day of rehearsal I accidentally touched her back a bit with my foot," he said of their first meeting in an interview on IMDB.com. "She glared at me and thought I was an awful Italian." In lieu of having children, they gave birth to the Amato Opera in 1948. Tony acted as artistic director and conductor and Sally served in the Jane-of-all-trades position creating costumes, running lights, managing the box office, handling publicity and singing under the name Serafina Bellantoni. The two also made a spaghetti and meatballs that achieved cult status among the Amato singers.

The company earned numerous accolades and citations in its 61 years of operations, including inductions to the City Lore’s Peoples’ Hall of Fame and the Italian Heritage and Cultural Committee. It was also the subject of the PBS Documentary Amato: A Love Affair With Opera. When Sally Amato passed away on August 16, 2000, her funeral was held at the same church in which the Amato Opera held its first production.

In January 2009, Amato announced that the company would give its final bow in May of that year with a production of The Marriage of Figaro. A testament to the mutual love between Amato and his singers, it was also announced at the final performance that many Amato alumni would break off to form the Amore Opera, a company which continues to perform using many of the Amato’s sets and costumes.

The closing of the Amato Opera Company suffered a blemish when Amato’s niece, Irene Frydel Kim, and her husband John Kim—both former employees of the company who were dismissed prior to the closing performances of Figaro—engaged in a lengthy court battle over back wages and fees from the sale of the opera house at 319 Bowery. The house is currently for sale by its new owners with an asking price of $6.95 million. At one point, the Kims were considered to inherit the company from Amato.

Amato details the operatic battle over the opera company in his new memoir, The Smallest Grand Opera in the World (co-written with Amato alumna Rochelle Mancini). Numerous former singers and stagehands from the Amato Opera appeared at the Barnes & Noble on 82nd St. and Broadway just last month to offer up memories of the company. “The Smallest Grand Opera quietly reads like a Horatio Alger-story, replete with a hard-working hero whose dedication and good will enable him to realize his own version of the American dream,” wrote the New York Times’s Jacob Sugarman for the newspaper’s East Village blog on November 18.

Amato’s influence extended far past the East Village, also influencing many of today’s young singers and audience members via the Sally and Anthony Amato Program at the Manhattan School of Music. Those who speak of the director do so with glowing smiles and misty eyes, remembering his towering charisma—a stark contrast to his 5’3” frame—and the evenings they spent crammed into a hole-in-the-wall on the Bowery to hear all-encompassing works.

“What they remember most about the opera company is that when they come to the theater, they feel the warmth of a family, the intimacy of the opera, which no other theater, I think, could supply them with,” Amato once said of the company. “We've had the luck to have a very small theater and keep it small because small is beautiful. Small opera that is grand, but small, but grand.”

Listen to this 2001 profile of the Amato Opera Company on WNYC's The Next Big Thing and please leave your memories of Tony and Sally Amato and the Amato Opera below.

(Host: Dean Olsher; Audio courtesy of NYPR Archives and Preservation)