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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011 - 04:00 PM

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)

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Comments [12]

Harald from nj

Dear Madame or Sir,
You are using one of my images of Tony Amato on your site.

http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/175546-anthony-amato-impresario-small-grand-opera-dies-91/

Could you please correct the copyright notice accordingly to “© Harald Schrader”
and link the image properly to my flickr site where you most likely found it originally?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/hsr/3555163088/in/set-72157618639961084/

Thank you

Harald Schrader

Sep. 20 2013 12:33 PM
ginger baker from queens

I'd like to thank Dean Olsher for providing such an honest and beloved appraisal of Tony & Co. Tony was SO MUCH MORE than opera. He will be missed.

Jan. 12 2012 02:27 AM
Robin Anne from Brooklyn

I sang with the Amato in a couple of Verdi operas about 5 years ago, and one of the singers said to me " How have you sung and lived in New york al these years and not sung with the Amato?" After singing with Tony, I wondered why too. Tony allowed me to try out roles I wanted to learn that were in my fach. What amazed me most about Tony, aside from his old world charm and his seemingly tireless energy, was that he knew ever word, and note of the operas he staged by heart. That is passion. I don't know how I missed hearing of Tony's death, but I do know that he is missed. I also know that he must be happy to be reunited with his love, Sally. May they both rest in peace.

Dec. 26 2011 08:15 PM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

I too, like Marge, was involved with LaPuma Opera Workshop. In the 60s. Prompted and did small parts. Unfortunately, I am of Italian descent and cannot sing. Great ear, no voice. What fun this was for me. Watched the documentary about the Amato Opera Company. What a lovely couple.

Dec. 20 2011 10:14 AM
John Petrozino from Jackson Heights, NY

I had the honor and privilege of performing under maestro Amato. I joined the company in 2002 and sang in the chorus and several comprimario roles with them until they closed in 2009. I can honestly say there is nothing else out there like it and there probably never will be. I miss it more than words can say and I would not trade my experiences there for a performance at any of the "grander" opera houses in the world. "Small, but oh so grand" was indeed the Amato motto and it was! I also had the honor of attending his funeral this past Friday where we celebrated his life, sending him off with a standing ovation, which he so richly deserves.

Dec. 19 2011 05:28 AM
Beatrice von Roemer

I sang at the Amato Opera for about 40 years - it was a most important part of my life. Tony was a genius - there will never be another one like him. I feel as though I have lost a member of my family.
RIP, Tony.

Dec. 15 2011 10:11 PM
L. Lubin from Ft. Lee, NJ

I am deeply saddened. I was priveleged to perform in Amato productions of Nozze, I due Foscari, and Aida. Yes, Aida on a stage the size of a walk-in closet!
Tony and Sally were extra-ordinary people, their contribution to the world of opera immeasurable, and exceeded only by their love for the art form. Just look at a list of Amato singers who went on to great careers.
It was a wonderful, sometimes whacky world, but a great place to get some stage experience or try out a new role. The support and encouragement we got was worth more than reviews or grants. I'll never forget that year, nor the Amatos.

Dec. 15 2011 04:39 PM
marge kaufman

This was a great institution. The end of live performane that the average could afford. Many years ago, I played clarinet for La Puma Opera Workshop. Whe Madame passed away, so ended a delight for opera lovers.

Dec. 14 2011 05:19 PM
Kim from New York, NY

Mr. Amato did so much for opera and opera singers in NYC. As a young artist myself, I feel that I owe him so much. He will be sorely missed as an impresario, a visionary, but most importantly, as an opera lover.

Dec. 14 2011 02:58 PM

Thanks so much for that, Denise, and apologies for the error. Correction appended.

Dec. 14 2011 07:55 AM
Denise Orr from The Bronx

Just a correction - Because he was not well enough, sadly for all his fans, Tony did not appear at the book signing at Barnes & Noble in November.

Dec. 14 2011 07:32 AM
George Jochnowitz from New York

In 1955, my high school friend Jimmy Brown and I went to see Le Nozze di Figaro--or as Jimmy called it, Figaro's Nose--at 189 Bleecker Street. The performance was in English, and I didn't know the plot. All the surprises worked for me, especially when the Count picked up the blanket covering Cherubino while telling a story of finding Cherubino. Ever since then, the Marriage of Figaro has been my favorite opera.

Dec. 13 2011 06:58 PM

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