The New York Times
By ANNE MIDGETTE
It’s student opera season in New York, time for the city’s conservatories to mount unusual works in their in-house theaters. The Juilliard Opera Center performs world premieres; the Manhattan School of Music is known for contemporary and recent American opera.
The city’s third and smallest conservatory is often overlooked, and anything but exotic. This weekend Mannes College the New School for Music is presenting “Le Nozze di Figaro,” a repertory staple. The students have no home-turf advantage; with no opera theater of its own, the school rents the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. (The opera will be performed there tonight at 7:30 and tomorrow afternoon at 3.)
But this “Nozze” is going to be well worth hearing, for Mannes can hold its own in the company of its larger colleagues. The school’s 2005 production of “The Magic Flute” had compelling energy and fine young voices. The following year, Mari Moriya, the Queen of the Night, got to reprise the role — at the Metropolitan Opera.
This year’s “Nozze” has some equally promising candidates. One of its two Figaros, Donovan Singletary, is starting at the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious Lindemann program in the fall; the other, Marcelo Guzzo, already has management. The Susannas are Wei Huang, one of the Mimis in Baz Luhrmann’s infamous Broadway production of “La Bohème,” and Sookyung Ahn, who won Mannes’s schoolwide concerto competition last year and already holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard.
“I came to Mannes to work on standard repertory,” Ms. Ahn said during a break in a “Nozze” rehearsal. “A lot at Juilliard is new. I wanted to work on the things I love.”
At Juilliard Ms. Ahn had the benefit of extensive resources and an opera program with four separate levels of training for undergraduates, graduates and preprofessionals. At Mannes there is a single opera program for 30 students at all levels. The schools’ endowments tell the story: Juilliard’s is nearly $750 million; Mannes’s, $7 million.
Mannes’s dean, Joel Lester, offers that figure with some pride. When he took over in 1996, he said, the endowment was less than $200,000. Moreover, the school did not have much of an opera program. Since 1991 its voice department has had an affiliation with Ruth Falcon, renowned as the teacher of Deborah Voigt. But though Mannes’s alumni include Frederica von Stade, in the early ’90s the school’s opera productions focused on early music, easier to stage because of the smaller scale but less able to showcase the kind of singers Ms. Falcon attracted.
Now Mannes, on West 85th Street, has its own opera offices on West 65th Street. At the “Nozze” rehearsal, in a space the size of a large living room, the orchestra’s sound bounced furiously off the walls, while the singers performed with the anxious expressions of people trying to locate themselves in roles they had done with only piano accompaniment.
Balanced on a stool at the center of the din was the conductor Joseph Colaneri, bearded and bright-eyed, exuding a calm focus as he taught the young instrumentalists how to approach opera.
“Don’t be afraid of the silences,” Mr. Colaneri said. “Especially in Mozart, music of the Enlightenment. Think of a Greek temple, with the spaces between the columns.” The orchestra briefly pondered this, and immediately began playing with more light and air.
Mr. Colaneri is on the staff of the Metropolitan Opera, where he will conduct “Il Trittico” again next Saturday. He is also the heart and brain of the Mannes opera program, which he took over, and reinvented, in 1998.
Anyone who knows him only through his Met performances may have missed what is clearly a natural gift for pedagogy. As the rehearsal progressed, the singers’ brows gradually unfurrowed, to be replaced, by the Act II finale, with smiles. Despite flaws, they were clearly grasping the style.
“They are singing Mozart,” said Regina Resnik approvingly. A star mezzo of the 1950s and ’60s, she is now the Mannes opera’s master artist in residence. Every year she comes in for more than a month of intense work on the spring opera, bringing invaluable insights into character development and the mechanics of portraying a role onstage.
“I personally learned a great deal about the Mozart ‘Figaro’ through him,” Ms. Resnik said of Mr. Colaneri — no small praise from someone who has sung the opera many times.
Mr. Colaneri studied organ and choral conducting, but from his infectious enthusiasm and respect for opera, you would think he had been weaned on it. He went about establishing firm foundations for the Mannes program so methodically that he did not mount a full production — it was “La Bohème” — until 2003. His primary concern is to meet students’ needs: to train them in roles they can sing again later in their careers, and to place their interests first in every decision, down to the lack of supertitles.
“That’s an expense that is more geared toward the audience’s reaction, rather than what the students need,” Mr. Colaneri said. “I would rather take whatever amount of money that would be, and put it into more coaching time. Then I tell the students, O.K., no titles, so we better be communicating and telling that story in the most convincing way, so that somebody really could get it.”
His approach could be called old-fashioned. But it is also helping the program attract ever better students, and helping make opera at Mannes so much fun to watch.