Now in its 19th year, Boheme Opera Company is modifying its course. Known for Italian and French opera productions, the company shifts gears by presenting Leonard Bernstein’s admired Broadway classic “Westside Story.” Following a triumphant Broadway run, which began in 1957, the musical went on to success as a movie in 1961 starring Natalie Wood as Maria.
Boheme’s performances of “West Side Story” take place Saturday, April 12 at 2 p.m. and Sunday, April 13 at 3 p.m. in Patriots Theater at Trenton’s War Memorial. Accounting for its first scheduling of two matinee performances, and no evening performances, Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme’s founder and artistic director, in a telephone interview from his Trenton home, says, “We’re taking a chance. It’s an experiment. We would like to get families out.” Pucciatti will conduct for this production.
Spreading its net, additionally, the company has invited 100 high school students from five counties to its Thursday dress rehearsal. “We want the younger generation to see what we’re doing,” Pucciatti says.
“If we’re going to branch out, Broadway is the place to look,” he says. “Everybody knows the story as ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ When you say ‘West Side Story,’ you get a reaction. It’s the ‘La Boheme’ of American musicals.”
The plot transfers Shakespeare’s tragedy to Manhattan’s upper west side and focuses on two feuding street gangs, the white Jets, and the Puerto Rican Sharks. Jet member Tony falls in love with Maria, the sister of a Shark. Violence, death, and remorse follow.
“‘West Side Story’ is really an American opera,” Pucciatti says. “Nothing captures all of the American idioms better than ‘West Side Story.’ ‘West Side Story’ is what makes American musical theater the great art form that it is.” Performed and re-performed, the work has been repeatedly recorded. Composer Bernstein himself conducted a memorable 1984 recording with operatic stars Kiri Te Kanawa and Jose Carreras.
“Four brilliant men came together to create the Broadway show,” Pucciatti says. “The music is by Leonard Bernstein and the choreography is by Jerome Robbins. Stephen Sondheim did the lyrics, and the book is by Arthur Laurents.
Signalling Boheme Opera’s shift towards Broadway, Pucciatti, has entrusted the direction of the production to choreographer Graham Lustig, who has worked previously on Boheme Opera’s choreography. For “West Side Story,” Lustig is responsible both for stage direction and for choreography.
Born in London, Lustig studied at the Royal Ballet School. He has been a member of the Dutch National Ballet and Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, where he contributed both performances and choreography. In June, 1999, he became artistic director of the American Repertory Ballet and ARB’s Princeton Ballet School.
“By the contractual license, we have to keep the spirit of Robbins’ choreography,” Pucciatti says. “Graham Lustig melds his style with what Robbins did. He created moves where you can see the Robbins flavor. It was a tough job, but it looks wonderful.”
Appearing in the Boheme production is a cast of 35. Yolibet Varela, originally from Puerto Rico, plays Maria, and Cameron Smith of Caldwell, New Jersey, plays Tony. “The casting of ‘West Side Story’ involves a different age group from opera,” Pucciatti says. “Opera has more mature singers. Their ages range from the late 20s to the early 40s. In ‘West Side Story’ not one singer is over 30. I feel like a father.
“The non-singing characters are over 40. They represent the establishment. They have no idea how to deal with the kids. It mirrors life today.
“The establishment doesn’t know what to do about new immigrants. It was the same problem in the 1950s, and now, 50 years later. That’s why ‘West Side Story’ is not an old story. It’s a recurring story that raises questions of assimilation and biculturalism. Tony, the child of an older, Italian immigrant, falls in love with Maria, the child of newer immigrants from Puerto Rico.”
Pucciatti says Lustig “is playing it very close to the original show of the 1950s. He’s trying to capture the feeling of first-generation white European immigrants towards new immigrants coming in. They totally misunderstand the newcomers, and have the feeling that their turf is being invaded. The new immigrants fight back. Really, nobody owns the turf. You can see how the seeds of hatred grew over the years. The older immigrants don’t understand the new immigration; they become angry and frustrated. If they took some time out, and got to know the newcomers, they would find that they have lots in common.”
The two gangs refuse to acknowledge what they share, Pucciatti says. “What these two gangs have in common is their hatred of the police. They unite against the establishment. Every time the police try to break up the fighting, all the boys, whether they’re Sharks or Jets, band together to give them a hard time. They don’t realize that they’re banding together.”
Pucciatti, 54, was born in Trenton in 1953. He contrasts the horizons of music study in college today with his own undergraduate experiences. “Most colleges now have a major in musical theater,” he says. “When I went to college you did opera on your own, as an activity, not as part of the curriculum. It was the same with jazz. I remember once, when I was playing jazz in college, a faculty member opened the door, and told me to stop.”
Pianist, conductor, and composer, Pucciatti has been a career music teacher for the Trenton Board of Education for almost 30 years. He has worked at all levels in the choral and instrumental departments of schools in the district. Now in charge of the orchestra at Trenton Central High School, he has provided the ensemble with his own arrangements of classical works and excerpts from musical theater.
With his wife, pianist Sandra Milstein Pucciatti, Pucciatti founded the Boheme Opera Company. A gathering of opera lovers, the company met originally in private houses. It has now become the resident opera company of the 1800-seat Trenton War Memorial.
Pucciatti is proud of the New Jersey roots of Boheme Opera Company. “A few folks come from New York and Philadelphia. But the orchestra is New Jersey Local 62 in Trenton. The core of our choristers comes from New Jersey. We’re not running out of state. We have a strong, local production staff who believes in what we do.
“Some people on their way to the top of the ladder have made a visit to Boheme Opera,” Pucciatti says, referring to artists who have moved on to the Metropolitan Opera and other distinguished theatrical outlets. “We’re a beacon for the young, and for promising artists who need to try something out before they move on to New York. There are not enough opportunities, even for established singers, to do principal roles in New York.
“Good, solid American singers don’t always get the break they need. It’s especially tough for minorities. Boheme is an equal opportunity company. Anybody who walks through the door gets an equal chance, whether they’re Asian-, African-, or Hispanic- Americans. If you can cut the role, you’re in.”
As the company has thrived, Boheme Opera has sought community involvement. From the start, it has reached out to senior communities, and other gated communities. Its high school apprenticeship program, initiated through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has enabled more than 150 high school students to work with the company. Many of them have gone on to careers in theater or opera.
Over the years, the age of opera followers has decreased, Pucciatti says. “Our audiences are getting younger. Also, the number of high school students asking to join the chorus has increased in the last five years,” Pucciatti says. “In our first four or five years the chorus was well over 30. In the last six years at least 60 percent of the chorus is under 30. Now I leave eight spots open in the chorus for highschoolers. The idea of singing opera is not as taboo among young people as it was 20 or 30 years ago.”
Most importantly, as the age of opera performers decreases, their versatility grows. The cast that Graham Lustig directs in “Westside Story” has to meet physical, as well as musical demands. They must be able to dance, and to move well, in addition to being able to sing. It is easy to foresee a growing role for choreography in Boheme Opera’s future, if one considers this year’s season and the company’s plans for next year.
No longer will Boheme stay committed solely to Italian and French opera. “We’re thinking of operetta for next year,” Pucciatti says. “We want to put on Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado,” along with “Madam Butterfly.”
West Side Story, Saturday, April 12, 2 p.m., and Sunday, April 13, 3 p.m. Boheme Opera, Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton. Fully-staged performance directed and choreographed by Graham Lustig of the American Repertory Ballet. Pre-curtain talk at 12:45 p.m. on Saturday, and 1:45 p.m. on Sunday. $28 to $73. 609-581-7200.