Odds are, whenever anyone thinks of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida,” the first thing that springs to mind is the “Triumphal March.” Since the opera’s premiere — in Cairo on Christmas Eve, 1871 — the march has been heard seemingly everywhere, from football games to Mardi Gras. It’s often played at graduation ceremonies, especially in Latin America, and was one of the inspirations for the Philippine national anthem.
The march is emblematic of 19th-century grand opera, an opportunity for spectacle, ballet, and choral singing on an epic scale, as the people of Egypt welcome home the hero Radames following his victory over the Ethiopians. Yet, Joseph Pucciatti insists, this bombastic showstopper — suitably full of praise for Isis, Pharaoh, and the Egyptian army — is not really characteristic of the entire opera.
“It is one of the bigger shows,” he concedes. “I think the melodies are grand. But in many ways ‘Aida’ is very intimate. Everyone remembers the Grand March, but there are three characters in the whole third act. The third and fourth acts are very intimate.”
Still, audiences can expect plenty of choristers and dancers, as Boheme Opera NJ celebrates its 30th anniversary with two performances of “Aida” at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Main Stage Theater on Friday, April 5, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 7, at 3 p.m. Joseph Pucciatti, Boheme Opera’s artistic director, will conduct.
The cast will include many talented singers eager to test their mettle against this Verdi warhorse. In fact, soprano Marsha Thompson, who will sing the title role, is the only one in the cast who has already done so.
“Almost everyone is performing their role for the first time,” says Sandra Milstein-Pucciatti, Pucciatti’s wife, who acts as Boheme Opera’s managing director. “This is all fresh. It’s very exciting.”
In common with a great many operas, “Aida” is a tale of forbidden love. “It’s kind of a Romeo and Juliet story, when you think about it,” Joseph says. “An Egyptian general falls in love with an Ethiopian princess. That’s the enemy! You don’t fall in love with the enemy. They’re two young lovers who are in opposite camps.”
Also featured will be Metropolitan Opera tenor Todd Wilander as Radames; contralto Alison Bolshoi as Amneris, Pharaoh’s daughter, also in love with Radames; baritone Kenneth Oberton as Amonasro, King of Ethiopia and Aida’s father; and bass Martin Hargrove as Ramphis, a high priest.
The stage direction will be by Eve Summer. Members of the Princeton Youth Ballet will be choreographed by Risa Kaplowitz. The opera will be presented in Italian with supertitles. Pre-curtain talks will take place one hour before the performances.
Boheme Opera was founded by the Pucciattis as a musician’s guild in 1981, back when the company operated out of a parking lot at Trenton’s St. Joachim’s Church (today part of Our Lady of the Angels Parish). Its inaugural main stage season took place in 1989.
The couple recalls their first production, an outdoor staging of “I Pagliacci,” which they presented with a skeleton crew. The venture received the endorsement of city and church, which together contributed enough seats for 500 people. 1,000 showed up.
“We had a small chorus, my brother played three instruments, and I played the piano,” Sandra recalls. “That was the orchestra.” Nobody got paid.
“It was 98 degrees. When you’re that young, you’re crazy. You’ll do anything,” Joseph says. “We painted the backdrop in my father’s back yard in Chambersburg. We needed a space 20 or 30 feet long. We went out and bought this tarp, and we sat there. I picked out this picture from Italy, and we painted it. We didn’t know what we were doing, and the paint bled through, and my father wound up with this big Italian scene on his driveway.”
There was definitely a learning curve. This again became apparent at show time, when the backdrop, which they had secured against some scaffolding, began to billow like a sail. Disaster was narrowly averted when Sandra’s uncle took out a pocket knife and began cutting little holes in the tarp so that the air could pass through.
Soon the company graduated to rentals, importing sets and costumes from businesses in New York. One of them had acquired cast-off material from La Scala Milan, one of the world’s most historic and storied opera houses.
“These were sets from 1918, 1920,” Joseph says. “Caruso probably sang in front of these sets. We carried all of those backdrops in a van. One day a chorister came up to me and said, ‘I have Pavarotti’s costume. I’m actually going to be acting in Pavarotti’s costume!’ Pavarotti’s name was written in the back. This guy was like five feet off the ground.”
Not all of the legends were experienced vicariously. Joseph recalls receiving support from some very big names over the years, including the American bass Jerome Hines, who took a special interest in the company. Licia Albanese once insisted on singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a performance, even though the orchestra hadn’t prepared.
“My brother has perfect pitch, and he called out the key, and everybody just started playing,” Sandra says.
The company moved its main stage productions to the Trenton War Memorial, where Boheme Opera settled in for a number of years. They were displaced from 1994 to 1999 as the Memorial underwent renovations. During that time performances took place at Trenton’s Villa Victoria Academy. Then it was back to the War Memorial.
As a cost efficiency measure, the company moved again to its current venue, TCNJ’s 800-seat Kendall Hall, in 2010. Sandra points out that the 1,700-seat War Memorial was really too big for their purposes anyway. The Italian opera houses tend to be small. “In Europe the so-called provincial theaters are not larger than 400 or 500 seats,” she says.
The Pucciattis seem satisfied with Kendall Hall’s size, sightlines, and acoustics. The organization has taken a further step into the 21st century by employing digital projections, which are more efficient and often more effective at creating an immersive atmosphere worthy of the music. Designer J. Matthew Root has been a regular collaborator.
In addition to its fully staged productions, Boheme also presents concert performances of opera and engages in year-round community outreach programs.
Now in their mid-60s, neither Joseph nor Sandra betrays any inclinations to slow down. When presented with the idea of legacy, Joseph says, “I’m always looking for someone who wants to come in and assist. But it’s hard to find the right person. Opera encompasses all of the arts. It’s an expensive medium. But we plan to stick around a little longer.”
He also points out that there is a board. “It’s not just ‘Joe and Sandy’s company,’” he says. That may be the case, but a great deal of the preparation takes place in Joe and Sandy’s home, which is located in Hamilton Township.
Joseph, a lifelong Trentonian, was born in Chambersburg. He has taught music in Trenton schools for more than 40 years. Though he remembers listening to opera with his grandfather as a boy, it was as a jazz pianist that he sustained himself through college. “I wasn’t going to cook hamburgers,” he says, “so I had my own band.”
Sandra studied music at what is now the Esther Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University. She is justifiably proud to claim the legendary violinist Nathan Milstein as a distant relative. The couple met in the music department of Trenton State College, while Sandra was working toward a graduate degree.
Sandra points out that everyone thinks Boheme Opera was named for “La Boheme,” the opera by Giacomo Puccini. In fact, it was named for Puccini’s Club La Boheme, a roadside shed the composer and some of his artist friends repurposed as a place to drink and play cards at the time Puccini was at work on his enduring masterpiece.
The choice reflects the company’s unquestionably bohemian roots. The organization was born of dreams and nurtured on love, as it followed a meandering path from salons held in the Pucciatti’s front parlor, to recitals given at Mill House Playhouse, to dinner opera presented at Roman Hall, to its inaugural main stage production performed at Trenton Central High School.
“We pounded the pavements,” Joseph says. “We knocked on doors throughout Chambersburg. $10, $5, $15, a handful of change. I don’t think we raised more than $700, $800. That was the start of it. We planned out the whole opera on the kitchen table.”
The oft-repeated legend is that Verdi composed “Aida” to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. In reality, he wrote it for the opening of Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House, the oldest opera house in Africa, itself built to celebrate the opening of the canal. Both the opera house and the opera were commissioned by Isma’il Pasha —Isma’il the Magnificent.
However, because of the Franco-Prussian War, it proved impossible to get the sets and costumes out of Paris, so Verdi’s “Rigoletto” had to be revived in its place. The all-wooden opera house was consumed by fire in 1971, leaving Cairo without a suitable operatic venue until the opening of the Cairo Opera House in 1988. A concrete parking garage now stands on the site of the old opera house on what is still called Opera Square.
History has a way of being so… operatic.
“‘Aida’ ranks up there with probably Verdi’s three most popular operas,” Joseph says. “There’s not one weak melody in the entire piece. This is a statement for us. I can’t think of a better work to celebrate our 30th anniversary.”
Aida, Boheme Opera of New Jersey, Kendall Main Stage Theater, The College of New Jersey, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. Friday, April 5, 8 p.m., Sunday, April 7, 3 p.m. Pre-curtain talks one hour before performances. $15 to $70. 609-771-2775 or www.bohemeopera.com.