Boheme Opera, the Trenton-based company, reaches its 25th anniversary this season. Artistic director Joseph Pucciatti calls the adventure of that quarter century “a real roller coaster.”
Growing from informal gatherings in the Pucciatti home, Boheme gave its first public performance with Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” in 1989. It has attracted audiences every season since then. Boheme Opera pays its respects to its origins by mounting a new version of “Traviata” for its 2014 season.
Supporting Boheme Opera for a three-hour celebratory event are Hamilton’s Grounds For Sculpture and Classical Network’s WWFM. The “Operathon” takes place on Sunday, January 26, from 3 to 6 p.m. in Grounds For Sculpture’s East Gallery and is to be broadcast live on FM 89.1. Performers associated with Boheme over the years will sing arias and reminisce. Accompanying the vocal performers are pianists Sandra Pucciatti and Douglas Han, using Grounds For Sculpture’s much admired Petrof piano. Admission to the Boheme celebration is free with admission to Grounds For Sculpture.
Helping smooth the way to the future for Boheme Opera, WWFM has organized, as part of the “Operathon,” a fundraising component to benefit the company. Sandy Pucciatti calls the “Operathon” her husband’s “brainchild.” The Boheme press release gives credit for it to both Pucciattis.
Sandra Milstein Pucciatti, Joseph’s wife, is Boheme’s managing director. The couple co-founded the company. Interviewed by telephone, Joe, as he typically does, consults Sandy to check on details.
“Last summer, I thought, ‘what a wonderful legacy Boheme has!” Joe Pucciatti says. “We could bring back people who have sung with us to celebrate our 25th anniversary. They could sing what they already sang in Boheme performances. Really, it would be an ‘ariathon.’”
Just short of 20 singers will participate in the Grounds For Sculpture program. They include artists from the entire journey of Boheme Opera. Expect arias from operas ranging from “Aida” through “Barber of Seville,” “Don Giovanni,” “Faust,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “L’Elisir d’Amore,” “Lucia di Lamermoor,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Magic Flute,” “Rigoletto,” “Susannah,” “Tosca,” “Turandot,” and others.
Programming the “Operathon had several challenges,” Pucciatti says. “Putting people in the right slots had its difficulties. Also, we wanted to avoid things that were too far out. We wanted to make it interesting, and we wanted to highlight our first 25 years. In the end, we decided that it was possible to do a survey of the whole period.”
Once Boheme gets beyond reveling in the past, the company turns its attention to the current season. Boheme’s 2014 “Traviata,” fully staged and new, is set for performances Friday, March 28, and Sunday, March 30, at Kendall Main Stage Theater on the campus of the College of New Jersey in Ewing.
Bass baritone Ed Bogusz, an Operathon participant who sang in Boheme’s first “Traviata,” in 1989, returns to “Traviata” in 2014 to play Doctor Grenville, the doctor who attends the dying Violetta. Says Joe Pucciatti: “He is the bridge between the first production and this.”
Looking back on Boheme’s history, Pucciatti says, “We have met many great singers. They have become friends, and they have come back to Boheme.” He cites Bogusz as an example. “We’ve done 50 productions. Ed has been in 30 of them. He’s sung everything from the leading role in ‘Don Pasquale,’ and other operas, to supporting parts.” Pucciatti responds to my surprise at Bogusz’s staying power by observing, “A singer lasts until he can’t sing anymore.”
Correspondingly, an opera company seems to last until it can’t operate any more. In 2014 both New York City Opera and New Jersey Opera evaporated. “The first thing that gets nailed is the arts when there’s an economic downturn,” Pucciatti says.
Pucciatti attributes the longevity of Boheme Opera to “the tremendous passion of Sandy and me and the board members. We love what we’re doing. We believe in this. It’s something that needs to be done. Someone asked me once why I spend my time on opera and I said, ‘I just have to do it.’
“In the evening I vegetate and look at TV,” he says. “But Sandy is working away 12 to 18 hours a day. That’s passion.”
“We’re smart,” he adds, and then tries to take back the praiseworthy adjective. “We stay within the budget,” he says. “We’re not a rich company. We are a regional company that has done a lot of major repertoire. If we got a big donation, we would be very very careful about how to spend the money. Sandy is very tenacious. She’s always negotiating, renegotiating, and working things out.”
“The bottom line is the dollars. Opera companies are having a hard time. I don’t want to do something that will shut the company down. If you can’t afford it, you can’t do it. It’s like taking that extra bite when you’re on a diet. You have to keep on the straight and narrow.”
With stress endemic among opera companies, opera singers are having a hard time making a living. “We hear 80 singers at auditions,” Pucciatti says. You never know who’s coming through that door. It might be the next Pavarotti.”
Pucciatti’s father, Vince, a first generation American, was the head custodian at Washington School in Trenton. “It was the cleanest school!” Pucciatti says. “He had the idea that a job worth doing is worth doing right. My father was a hustler. He had two or three jobs at a time.”
“He insisted that we do something after school. We all had piano lessons. My brother Lenny is a jazz drummer. I stayed with piano and went into conducting. My sister Lisa took lessons for two or three years. But my brother and I are the musicians. My mother, Jean, was a housewife, and then took a job as a lunchroom aide.”
Born in 1953, Pucciatti graduated from Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey. A career music teacher for the Trenton Board of Education, he has worked at all levels in the choral and instrumental departments of various schools in the district. He currently teaches at Trenton Central High School. He is convinced that participating in orchestra helps students “perform better in everything they do. In orchestra they watch out for rhythm, melody, and dynamics. They become aware of details and develop their cognitive skills and perceptions.”
The Pucciattis have been involved as a couple, not only in Boheme Opera, but also in the Congregation Beth Chaim Choir of Princeton Junction. Joe directs the ensemble; Sandy is the pianist.
Sandy holds a summa cum laude bachelor’s degree from Temple University School of Music and a summa cum laude master’s degree from Trenton State College. She maintains a private piano studio.
She describes her father as “very musical.” He played first trumpet in the U.S. Army band, and also played violin. “My mother,” she says, “was a great supporter and encourager. She was not a typical stage mother, but stayed in the background” while Sandy performed extensively.
Besides being a co-founder of Boheme Opera Sandy was the company’s principal rehearsal pianist from the beginning. “I’m thoroughly amazed at the way she can sight-read,” says husband Joe. “Some piano reductions of operatic scores are tricky. You might need 25 fingers to play them.” Douglas Han joined Boheme as a rehearsal pianist in 2011.
In its 25 years Boheme Opera has appeared at more than a half dozen venues. The first “Traviata” in 1989 was presented in Bristol, Pennsylvania, and at Trenton High School. “The Trenton High School auditorium was a mini-War Memorial,” Pucciatti says. “The acoustics were fabulous.”
Trenton’s War Memorial Theater itself became Boheme Opera’s next home. Pucciatti estimates that the company performed there for at least 15 years. Opened in 1932, the auditorium seats more than 1,800. The facility was closed for extensive renovation and restoration from 1994 to 1999. During that five-year period Boheme Opera performed at Villa Victoria, a private Catholic school in Ewing. Pucciatti calls the years at Villa Victoria “a blessing in disguise.”
“We honed our craft there,” he says. “We experimented and worked things through.” Boheme left Villa Victoria and returned to the War Memorial after completion of the renovation. When rising costs at the War Memorial threatened Boheme’s frugality, the company moved to the College of New Jersey, where it is now entering its fourth season.
At TCNJ Boheme has performed in the Mayo Concert Hall in the college’s Music Building. Mayo seats 300. “Performing at Mayo was very intimate,” Pucciatti says. “The audience was almost on top of you. I like that intimacy. People attending were able to see the facial expressions of performers.”
Boheme’s home now is the Kendall Theater at TCNJ, which seats 830. “Kendall is small enough for the audiences to read the faces of performers,” Pucciatti says.
Looking back on the Boheme roller coaster, Pucciatti singles out 2007 as “a crazy year.” That season the company did a semi-staged version of “La Traviata” in three locations: Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium in Alexander Hall, the Marasco Center for the Performing Arts in Monroe, and Trenton’s War Memorial. (Incidentally, Lorraine Ernest, who plays Violetta in the 2014 “Traviata,” sang the role also in 2007.) “We also did our first Broadway show that year — ‘West Side Story.’” Pucciatti calls the Bernstein musical “a jukebox opera.” Understating the problems, he merely says “Logistics are difficult when you’re in different locations.”
Who knows if Pucciatti’s plans for the future will lead to other crazy years? “We’re definitely going to hit Puccini in the next years,” he says. “We’re trying to bring opera into the 21st century with virtual sets and updating the period of operas while still satisfying mature audience members.”
“We want to be different and better,” Pucciatti says. “We’re always looking for another meaning in an opera. When you find one, it gives you a feeling of discovery. My fifth ‘Traviata’ is coming up in March. Gosh, I’m learning! You keep rediscovering the music of the greats all the time. Their music is always new and fresh.”
Reunion Operathon, Boheme Opera, Grounds For Sculpture, Sculptors Way, Hamilton. Sunday, January 26, 3 to 6 p.m. Free with admission to Grounds for Sculpture, $8 to $12, and on radio station WWFM, 89.1 FM.
La Traviata, Boheme Opera, Kendall Theater, the College of New Jersey, Ewing. Friday, March 28, 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 30, 3 p.m. $30 to $50.www.tcnj.edu/boxoffice www.bohemeopera.com, 609-581-9551.