Two weeks before the presentation of central New Jersey-based Boheme Opera’s “Don Pasquale” at the College of New Jersey, managing director Sandra Milstein-Pucciatti (Milstein for clarity) is busy preparing an application to the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Hunkered down at her home office, she calculates the estimated expenses and revenues for the next three years.
“It’s an extremely helpful source of funding,” she says, “and the application helps us put everything in perspective. It deals with so many components of the operation such as mission, programming, budgeting, audience building, marketing, and how many people you reach. It’s an involved process, but beyond the funding it helps us to know where our weaknesses and strengths are and to build on both.”
It is also an unglamorous task, but one that helps to bring the most colorful and dramatic of art forms to the stage. But Milstein is used to it. After all, as the manager for the company she co-founded with her husband, company artistic director and conductor Joseph Pucciatti, she has been doing it or something similar for 24 years.
Milstein says that while the world in which they started the company nearly a quarter of a century ago has changed and brought new challenges, their goal and presence in the region has been constant.
“Our mission has always been the same,” she says. “The biggest component of our mission is to give the opportunity for young people to experience opera, for young performers to perform, and for audiences to enjoy. Opportunity has been our common thread.”
The current era, despite its challenges, is also providing an opportunity. “Opera is reinventing itself, so this is giving us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves,” she says.
That reinvention includes their 2011 move to the College of New Jersey, new associations, and new ideas.
“At (the College of New Jersey) there are some capabilities that we didn’t have before. For example, during our production of ‘The Magic Flute’ we discovered the college had a special screen that we could project digital images on and that the audience loved. It’s a domino effect: one thing leads to another thing. Changing the main stage location was an opportunity to sell our company and organize internally,” says Milstein.
The company was a regular presence at the 1,800-seat War Memorial Building in Trenton, a location that Milstein found both challenging and beautiful.
“Opera requires set up and rehearsal before performance. It requires so many things that the average renter does not use. Given the number of components that we have to deal with, it expands the budget. We also had to use their crew, which was union. The size of the theater, the image of Trenton, and cost were all factors. We have not abandoned the idea of returning to the War Memorial. When the economy improves we would love to. The space is gorgeous, and we like working in it. But you have to be realistic about what you can do, your capacity. It’s important when you pick a venue for opera,” she says, speaking more as a manager than the musician she is.
While she says the move to the College of New Jersey was new, her telling of past connections there actually marks a return. It’s where the company co-founders met and started a life with each other and opera.
It was 1975, and the institution was known as Trenton State College. Sandra Milstein arrived from Temple University to pursue a graduate degree in music performance. Joseph Pucciatti was finishing his senior year. They both studied piano. She played classical, he jazz. Her focus was to continue performing professionally, his to get a teaching degree yet continue to play and conduct. She was from the Jewish community of South Philadelphia, he an Italian-Catholic from the Chambersburg section of Trenton. She had grown up with her bakery owner father’s love for opera, while jazz was the norm in his school custodian-run household. “We came from opposite worlds,” she says.
Their matchmaker was Giacomo Puccini, the Italian composer of the 1896 opera “La Boheme,” a name connected to colorful free-spirited artists and the company they were to found.
Milstein says that during one of his music classes, her husband-to-be was assigned to listen to an opera. “So he goes to the library, takes the first recording he can find, and pops on ‘Turandot,’” the romantically powerful final opera by Puccini. “And he’s blown away,” she says. “This is the starting point for him. To appreciate the music you have to be touched by it in some facet. That’s what attracts audiences. But we have to make those opportunities happen.”
Before they could make opportunities for others, they would need to build a bridge between their two worlds. The result was a continuation of their individual career paths but with some merging. He became interested in Judaism and converted. She came to stay in the Trenton area. And they both let opera seep into their lives through intensive playing and studying the music with other professionals in and out of the region.
“I don’t really know when we realized that we needed to test the water to see if there was an interest in an opera production. We started a guild and had a five-year capital concert series at the Mill Hill Theater. But it started to morph.”
Then in 1982, says Milstein, “We did something crazy. We did an outdoor production of the opera ‘Pagliacci’ at the Feast of Lights,” referring to the annual Italian festival in the heart of Chambersburg section of Trenton. “(The sponsoring church) had some pretty artsy priests, and they thought it was good to bring attention to Italian culture. This was so theatrical, we did it outside. We asked the city to bring in seating for about 400 to 500, but 1,100 people showed up. It was amazing. We knew then that it was time to go the next step.”
That was followed over the next few years with small opera presentations in the old Roman Hall restaurant in Chambersburg and a presentation at the Bristol Riverside Theater, “An Evening at La Scala.”
“In 1989 we took the plunge and started performing operas at Trenton Central High School. We did two seasons there before we went to the War Memorial.” The company has continued presenting productions and involving both emerging and accomplished artists. Participating artists listed on their website are Princeton-born baritone Mark Delavan (credits including Metropolitan and New York City operas), internationally known soprano Paula Delligatti (Opera National de Paris-Bastille and Royal Opera in London), Allan Glassman (Metropolitan and Dallas operas), and others. Metropolitan Opera stars Jerome Hinds and Roberta Peters appeared as guests at special events.
Married for 35 years with a 26-year-old daughter and a home in Hamilton, Milstein and Pucciatti continue creating opera as well as continuing their careers. Pucciatti has more than 30 years in the Trenton Public School System, 21 of them as a music teacher at Trenton Central High School. Milstein teaches piano to advanced students and performs as a piano accompanist. They have a shared synagogue position at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, where for 32 years the couple has supervised the choir at services, festivals, holiday presentations, and special events. Coincidentally Joseph also serves as choir director for Our Lady of the Angels Parish in Trenton.
Of this combination of religious practices, Milstein says, “I was accepted immediately into the Catholic family. There is a strong sense of family. On my side, it was bit more awkward. They had different feelings about inter-religious marriages. My parents were slow in accepting, but when it happened it was amazing. My dad ended up becoming one of our strongest board members and such an advocate. It was something how it all developed. He wasn’t sure about Joe when I was dating him, but he became his biggest fan.”
Dealing with the board and other management duties takes most of Milstein’s days as the company prepares for the upcoming shows and its 25th anniversary. Today, as she reviews the company’s facts and financial figures for the past few years, she is primed to talk about some ongoing problems and some surprising successes.
One main problem is the way the general public views opera. “There is a perception that you have to dress up and it’s elitist. We don’t care what people wear. A person does not have to take a history book or a libretto, except for a general plot. The idea is that opera is entertainment. The beauty comes together in the costumes, performance, music, and design.”
A tool to help combat the perceptual problem came with their change of venue. Milstein says that since they moved to an education venue they have been attracting students and professionals from both TCNJ and Westminster Choir College. Some participate as audience members, but others participate in the chorus. “We’re working on our April production of ‘Faust’ and out of chorus of 30, 18 are in their 20s. We’re looking at a young contingent,” she says.
Additionally the opera company’s presence on a college campus changes the way that people view it, seeing it more as a cultural education resources. “Students are coming to dress rehearsals and families want kids to experience something that they don’t get in school.”
Despite the fact that economy has not been kind to arts organizations in general and that across the nation opera companies are facing new challenges, Milstein has some other successes.
Its involvement with a chamber of commerce that has expanded its focus from being Mercer County to the central New Jersey region, the MIDJersey Chamber, helps the company get the word out to a larger community. The ongoing partnership with the college has given them more tools and new ideas. And a successful recent venture at Grounds For Sculpture has opened the discussion for future events.
Add to the above that board members understand the value of the presence of such a company in the capital city region and are participating in moving it forward shows promise, especially since the company is planning its 25th anniversary next year. It is one that will highlight the bicentennial of the birth of famed opera composer Giuseppe Verdi and be an occasion to bring back many of the performers who started or performed for their many years.
But today, Milstein’s stage is a desk in her home office, where she performs financial reports and conducts the hidden work that will brings the music and voices that can be heard in the upcoming “Don Pasquale,” Italian composer “Faust” in April, and for the years to come.
Don Pasquale, Boheme Opera, Saturday, February 9, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, February 10, 4 p.m.
Faust, Saturday, April 20, 7 p.m. and Sunday, April 21, 4 p.m., Mayo Concert Hall, College of New Jersey, Ewing, $20-$30.
609-771-2775 or www.tcnj.edu/box office.