The sun was setting earlier than the previous warmer months, blending the bleak Gowanus landscape into the dirty November sky. From the ground, the elevated F train cut Manhattan into two, making the island seem momentarily diminutive. A young man smoking an American Spirit stood outside, leaning against a thick steel door attached to a dilapidated, brick building that had an air of post-industrial abandonment.
Inside, a DIY opera company –comprised primarily of post-graduates – prepared eagerly for the company’s opening night of The Marriage of Figaro, just the second production for the young company, LoftOpera.
Once inside, there was no denying that LoftOpera founders, Dean Buck and Daniel Ellis-Ferris, had proven their DIY approach to the art form, while also pursuing their bold interpretations of classic operas.
The two have created a world where Mozart’s renowned compositional themes and structures are even more unique and comedic – an attribute that no doubt comes from their low-budget aesthetic and the humble community of artists that work alongside the pair.
The company started over a year ago, when fellow friends Buck, also conductor of LoftOpera, and Ellis-Ferris, also producer of LoftOpera, had the idea to start an affordable and accessible opera company. After a performance, the duo both attended at a loft space, Ellis-Ferris half-jokingly approached Buck about using the space for other events, specifically operas. “We had both been talking about how opera didn’t seem to have a place in the scene that we were trying to participate in,” said Ellis-Ferris.
After years of performing and attending shows in Bushwick basements and back bars, their idea of a DIY opera company seemed obvious yet impossible, as neither Buck nor Ellis-Ferris had ever taken on a project of this magnitude. With only a visceral love for the art form and the desire to make it more accessible to the masses, the two started LoftOpera with no funds, no direction and no performers.
In March of 2013 Kirsten Scott, now Artistic Coordinator of LoftOpera, walked into the Julliard bookstore looking for a score, where Buck was working. Scott became instantly interested in the project. “It’s not something you ever hear, so naturally, I
was intrigued,” said Scott. With plans on producing Don Giovanni as their first opera, combined with the fate-like coincidence that Scott had previously done the role of Zerlina the previous year, Buck suggested that she audition for the role with LoftOpera. Scott got the role and decided to become more involved with the company, organizing rehearsals, auditions and joining Buck, Ellis-Ferris, and Laetitia Ruccolo, Music Director, in improving the company. However, it wasn’t until the company received funds from a donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, that the company was able to jump from garage-band opera to professional opera, Ellis-Ferris explained.
In November, the company began their second show, The Marriage of Figaro, housing more than 200 people per night, and they decided to stay in their original loft space, appropriately titled Gowanus Loft. The space not only had an open-concept design but also accurately expressed their visual concepts. Gowanus Loft was filled with intricate flea-market finds: a light-up Virgin Mary in one corner, woven baskets displayed along the ceiling, old books stacked spine against spine, high ceilings supported by long beams and intricate woodwork. The bar served Brooklyn Brewery beer and Acme wine, just two of the many companies that have assisted the company in their startup stage.
LoftOpera is truly the first ever opera- cornucopia, attracting every age group, social status, and familiarity with opera: from a father bringing his daughter to her first opera, to conductors familiar with everything Mozart, to elderly couples and hip Brooklynites listening to opera for the first time. “Well, I read the Wiki synopsis before I came,” confessed Barrie Raik, a first-time opera goer, there for The Marriage of Figaro. “Opera is something that’s a
little difficult to access in the city and this is a wonderful, easy, inexpensive and friendly way to access it.” It is LoftOpera’s simple mission that has created this space where couture, high-ticket sales and opera snobbery have been abandoned well before their inception.
In fact, most people waiting for Figaro to begin, microbrews in hand, forget why they’re here until walking by experienced operanites who utter words like “cadenza” or “libretto,” reminding them that this isn’t a Bushwick party. People migrate through the L-shaped loft, offset by several long benches lined in front of a twenty-piece orchestra, and excitement peaks when they realize that the performance will take place just a foot in front of them – a pivotal aspect in the staging.
It hadn’t been an easy feat; months of preparation had gone into their Mozart productions, Don Giovanni, proving the most challenging. “An incomprehensible amount of things [went wrong],” explained Ellis-Ferris. “Not to mention that none of us knew what we were doing. I had never managed or produced an opera. Dean had never conducted a whole opera. Brianna Maury, [General Manager], had never managed an opera. William Vaughn, [Stage Director of Don Giovanni], had never directed an opera. We were flying completely blind.”
Among other tribulations, the green company didn’t have contracts in place for their first performance, and subsequently had someone quit during tech week. Some cast members had not memorized their lines until the final week before the show and replacements had to be made at the last minute. Their tenor, Paul Han, who replaced their former Don Ottavio, learned and memorized several critical sections of the opera in less than two days before the performance. “There was a moment on the phone with Daniel the Sunday before our performance, four days before opening, when he said ‘Kirsten, are we even going to be able to have this production?’” said Scott. “Obviously, the answer was yes!”
By the time their second show began in November, the company had a better grasp on their project. Without as many business complications, the company was able to devote more time to their DIY ambitions, making their performances wittier and more streamlined. The cast recollects the birth of one of Figaro’s funniest moments, when during a dress rehearsal Scott, unannounced to her co-star, plunged over the edge of a window sill into the night – landing safely – during Aprite, Presto, Aprite, when Cherubino traditionally jumps “out the window” of the count’s palace. “[Scott’s co-star] practically fainted,” said Ellis- Ferris. “She started crying, clutching her heart, looking at me with huge wide eyes that said, ‘What did you do!’” On opening night, the striking moment sent the audience into gasps, as they laughed at the hyperbolic representation of the original scene. It is these breathtaking, emotional flashes that the LoftOpera audience has come to expect.
Now the company begins their third production, La Boheme, their first non- Mozart production, which brought in over 130 auditions – a vast increase from the 40 that auditioned for Figaro. They were even set with the challenge of having to tell people that they couldn’t audition everyone, a humbling moment for the company.
It is this humility that is at the nucleus of LoftOpera, as they haven’t lost sight of their original goals even with some numeric success: they are dedicated to compensating musicians, however little it may be, determined to exploring easy access to the arts and will never lose sight of their DIY methods. “This is an opera in a loft. We have tried to stage and set up our productions very much aware of that,” said Buck. “We don’t want to pretend we’re in a place that we aren’t.”
The company is now beginning to expand their repertoire: commissioning new operas by local composers, creating a touring production and expanding LoftOpera to other cities are all plans Buck would like to see in the company’s future. As for goals, the company remains as humble as their beginnings, “It’s hard to attach a concrete goal to something about which I feel so deeply passionate,” said Buck. “It almost makes it seem as though there is something that we can achieve, and once we achieve it, we’ve done what we’ve set out to do and that’s that, but I feel completely the opposite. This company is about exploration and never being satisfied or feeling as though we’ve ‘done it.’”
LoftOpera’s urban locations are sure to change as they expand, but their core will remain constant: humility, hard work and great opera.