STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Edna Greenwich is an unshakable radical on the subject of opera. She believes anyone can and will fall in love with it. It’s just a matter of exposure.By way of proving her point, the longtime West Brighton resident founded Opera Exposures (OE) a multi-borough propaganda-and-performance engine 10 years ago and it has grown bigger every season.
She’s hardly surprised. “Everybody loves opera, they just don’t know it yet.” She and OE will present their biggest on-Island program to date, “Ross, Puccini and Ellington,” a free show later this month in the Music Hall., and an official component of National Opera Week.
The billing requires a little explanation: The “Ross” of the title refers to Elinor Ross, the Florida-born dramatic soprano who was renowned for the beauty and intelligence of her performances in the 1960s and 1970s. Greenwich and Ross have been friends for years.
Of course, Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is in the picture because of his irreplaceable operas — what company anywhere could get by without a “Turandot” or a “Madame Butterfly” an “Il Trittico” or a “La Boheme” but also because Ross sang the big roles in several of them.
She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role in “Turandot.” (A YouTube clip of her performance is a favorite destination these days for opera fans).
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974), seemingly the odd man out insofar as he has no tie to Puccini in particular or to Italian opera in general, belongs on the program simply for his greatness. “Good music is good music,” Greenwich said last week, “whether it’s Duke Ellington or Puccini.”
But Ellington was more complex than jazz, which he liked to call “American music.” As a child, he might easily have slipped into classical mode as a child.
Both parents were pianists and his dad’s favorite keyboard selections were opera arias. Ellington wrote an opera, a jazz-driven piece called “Queenie Pie” that isn’t performed as often as it deserves.
The OE program is part operatic and part jazz and reflects the organization’s interest in young singers the beginning of their careers.
Among them will be soprano Natalie Bergeron, recently accepted into the Evelyn Lear/Thomas Stewart Emerging Wagnerian Artists Program and soprano Alice Waller, recently seen in Handel’s “Messiah” at the Kennedy Center, and tenor Carl Rosenthal, a student of Michael Paul. He has sung roles in “Traviata” “Cramen and “The Magic Flute.”
The program’s other tenor, Ta’u Pupu’a will be familiar to Island audiences. Several years ago he sang the role of Pinkerton in a Staten Island Philharmonic “Madame Butterfly” in the St, George Theater. At the Music Hall, he will sing “Nessun dorma,” the suitor’s show-stopper from “Turandot.”
The 6 foot 5, Tonga-born Pupu’a, an ex-pro football player ( Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens) sustained a serious injury in the mid-1990s and decided to pursue his original dream, professional singing.
Eventually, he won a scholarship to Juilliard. His opera resume has been lengthening rapidly and he recently appeared in Terrence McNally’s “Masterclass” opposite Tyne Daly’s imperious diva at Kennedy Center.
For the Ellington sections of the program, The Chris Gillespie Jazz Quartet, resident in Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel (Tuesdays through Saturdays) will take over.
Dwight Owsley, longtime concierge of the Carlyle and Opera Exposure’s regular MC and narrator, said last week that as unusual as it sounds, the Puccini/Ellington combination is actually perfectly sensible.
“After ‘La Boheme,’ he explained, “Puccini defined how operatic masterpieces of the 20th century would sound…. and only a little later Ellington defined a kind of urbane , suave elegant New York sound, how to use music to cajole and make love, how to slip around….”
The OE program is admission free, with first-come, first-served seating.
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