The Bronx Opera: A Conversation with Michael Spierman

The Bronx Opera has a unique mission. Every year since 1967 it has presented operatic productions as “fully integrated works of musical theater” in English at affordable ticket prices, changing the perception of some that opera is inaccessible due to language barriers and high pricing. Founder, artistic director, and conductor Michael Spierman has significantly broadened opera-going audiences in the Bronx and beyond, working closely with his son, Benjamin, the company’s general director who also enjoys a national career as a stage director. Recently, Michael spoke to me about the importance of singing in English, the impact of his opera company on audiences and on the reputation of the Bronx, his vision of inclusiveness and diversity, and more. 

A Bronx Opera production of “The Rivals” by Kirke Mechem. Photo by Maureen Klein.

The Bronx Opera is the second oldest continually-presenting opera company in New York City, and the only one that does its productions in English. What is the reasoning behind singing all the operas in translation?

When you do a production in English, the audience is more dramatically as well as more musically involved in the drama. So if a singer sings something funny or sad, the audience will immediately laugh or cry. Otherwise, they will wait to read the subtitles or supertitles, which, even in the best of circumstances, cannot absolutely conform to exactly what is happening on the stage. And people are not looking at the stage when they’re reading the supertitles so they cannot observe the body language of the individual singer, a very important element to the show. In addition, the composer is reacting to the words through harmony and melody. When the audience immediately understands the words without needing a translation, the entire drama is a different experience. 

Do you find that it creates a more immediate communication with the audience?

Yes. Like on Broadway, for example. You know, if they ever had to have subtitles on Broadway, you would not see the large number of audiences that they get. 

Portrait of Michael Spierman. Photo by Kenneth Jackman.

But for most of the operas that are composed with and around the particular language of the libretto, wouldn’t you think that singing them in English translation alters the transmission of the entire musical and dramatic experience?

This is a problem, and a danger. So what you need are excellent translators who know both the original language and the language of translation. What you are describing is a very detailed and important artistic issue: that of translation. It is also true that language has idioms. For example, take an originally English-language opera like Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. If you did it in German, how would you translate “It ain’t necessarily so” to a similar effect? You would lose the sense of the vernacular. The translator has to understand that, no matter what language they’re translating from.

What about the singing itself? Many opera singers find Italian easier to sing in than English. Does that present a challenge?

Yes, some languages, such as Italian, are a bit easier to sing in. When you have an English-speaking singer, there is much more care required in the articulation of the words, since in real life we tend to gloss over the words in English in casual conversation. We emphasize the articulation in rehearsals. But these are not obstacles that should prevent singing opera in English. They’re simply challenges that one must face and overcome in order to have the English language available to the audience. To give you an example, there was a lady who came with her husband to see one of our operas at Lehman College, and she remarked to me that she didn’t like opera but was there for her husband. Then, all of a sudden, I kept seeing her: she came to five more productions in a row, sometimes even without her husband. Finally, I had to talk to her and told her: “I’m very happy you are here, but puzzled because you told me that you didn’t like opera.” She looked at me and said: “Michael, I hate opera, but what you do is not opera!” Of course, what she had to say was that, for her, this was like a magnificent Broadway show with wonderful singing.

So, would you say that, through the English language, you’re trying to create a bridge between Broadway and opera in terms of audience appeal and increase in mainstream popularity?

Yes! One other point is that, when you travel to countries like Germany, outside of the major opera companies, you’ll find that many of the companies in Germany will do all the operas in German. We have a problem in the United States in that we are perhaps not overly confident in our English language heritage, and therefore we need to do this in a foreign language. Some composers are aware of this. For example, if you look at the title page of  Francis Poulenc’s great opera The Dialogues of the Carmelites, it says that this opera should be done in the language of the country where it’s being performed. 

Here is one interesting point of history according to a friend of mine, the late John Gutman who was one of Rudolf Bing’s assistants at the Met and a translator of opera libretti into English: during the Second World War, when they did Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at the Met, they did it in English because they did not want anything in the German language during that time. John said that during the comedic moments of the opera, the audience laughed hysterically. When, after the war, the text went back to German, those same meanings of the words that had caused laughter in English were now met with silence as though they were something solemn, because they couldn’t understand them. He said that you don’t need a better example to show why we should also do operas in English. And we are the only company in New York that does them only in English.  

Your company recently released a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests: “Opera—and all arts—should be part of what brings us all to the table together to ensure that everyone has a seat. We pledge to continue to support artists of color in our casting and hiring. We also pledge to lend our support to organizations who fight locally and nationally for racial justice.” Can you elaborate on this statement and your mission?

Opera as an art form encompasses all of the other art forms. Looking at it, for example, we ask how could we have an opera without an orchestra or without singers or without scenery? We need this wonderful combination of all the elements. How can you have a great nation when you undervalue any part of the population? We support the Black Lives Matter movement very enthusiastically because we have, as everyone else, seen how in many cases people downgrade lives of individuals based on the color of their skin, and that is just an incomprehensible injustice that needs to be addressed and corrected. Opera as an art form that needs and embraces diversity can serve as an example of what we have to do in real life. 

 Michael Spierman and his son, Benjamin, speaking to an audience of 400 Bronx school children at Bronx Opera’s children’s matinee of “Cinderella” in the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College. Photo by Halley Gilbert.

In its 53 years of existence, what has the company meant for the Bronx and its communities?

The Bronx has had a rather uneven reputation over these years. People who were not familiar with it did not have a favorable opinion of it, but they usually didn’t get to see the bright side of the borough; they tended to look at the negatives. So the opera company serves as advertisement when we perform in Manhattan, at Hofstra in Long Island, in Westchester, in the Catskills. I often have people come up to me and say “I didn’t know you had this in the Bronx,” and then they start noticing the positive aspects of the borough, which are numerous! It’s like going down the street and observing some beautiful flowers outside a house; not many people take the time to think that in order for those flowers to be so beautiful and flourish, there has to be fertile soil underneath. People observe the flowers but they don’t think about the soil. In the case of The Bronx Opera, we have the opposite. They think that the opera company is the fertile soil, and therefore, with this fertile soil in the Bronx, some beautiful flowers have to grow.

What can you tell us about your Bronx audiences?

In over fifty years the demographics have changed. At the beginning, the audiences were primarily senior citizens and middle-aged people who had been first by education exposed to some of the classical art forms. To a large degree, this exposure doesn’t exist anymore on a wide scale. So with a few singers, I go into the schools, and we talk to the kids about our upcoming opera. The kids come to a special morning performance of parts of the opera with piano, and then we invite them with their parents to see one of the full productions. For Co-op City we run a bus to bring them to us. Before the performance, I give them a backstage tour where they see the scenery and meet members of the orchestra who play some melodies for them. Then they experience the entire opera and they’re never the same after that. All of this has resulted in wonderful experiences. A couple of years ago one fourth-grader wrote me a little letter that said: “I used to think opera sucked! Not anymore!” When they become adults, some of these kids tell me how they remember it all. Some of them and even some of their teachers who are long retired drive long distances to still see our operas. 

Michael Spierman with Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Photo by Benjamin Spierman.

What are your future plans for the opera company, and what are you doing in the meantime to support it and keep it fresh in the public’s mind? 

We had begun to rehearse Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, a wonderful opera with gorgeous music. As everything else, this ground to a halt because of this horrible virus. When things get back to some degree of normalcy, our plan would be to do this production. In the meantime, we’re coming up with a plan to share fragments of The Bartered Bride through technology. We still do some presentations for seniors online by some of our teaching artists. We don’t know if we’ll be able to do our annual Handel’s Messiah but BronxNet cable network will use last year’s telecast and we’ll have the 23 speakers record their speeches; we do this every year with 23 different speakers representing the entire Bronx. We have everyone, from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Lehman College President and honor students. 

Any special message for your audience?

Just that love is a two-way street, a beautiful two-way street. It exists even if one is apart. We love people even when we’re not able to see them for a while. We love our audiences and they love us. So even if we’re not together at this time, that does not mean that the love diminishes or disappears. It is always there.

 ~ Learn more about The Bronx Opera

Top photo: Michael with his son, Benjamin Spierman, after receiving a proclamation from Jeffrey Dinowitz, member of the NY State Assembly. Photo by Hannah Spierman.

About Maria-Cristina Necula (45 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and three poetry collections. Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Discover more about her work at www.mariacristinanecula.com.