By Nino Pantano
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The evening of Jan. 30 was a special one at the DiMenna Performing Arts Center, located at 450 West 37th St. in Manhattan. It was founded by Italian-American financier and philanthropist Joseph DiMenna and opened in 2011.
“Little Opera,” a documentary film, directed by Louis Wallecan and produced by Bel Air Media and France Television, is about four Italian-American families: the Coppolas, Marianis, Amatos and Alagnas, all who migrated from southern Italy and brought their love of music and opera to these shores.
Renowned Sicilian French Metropolitan Opera (Met) tenor Roberto Alagna, in the film, eloquently describes an uncle who settled in “Little Italy” and with the use of family photographs describes how opera and music kept the family afloat in the struggle for acceptance. Scenes of Roberto Alagna as Canio made vivid visceral impact.
The late Anthony Amato described his long career as founder and impresario of the Amato Opera. He was seen with his beloved wife Sally in their miniature opera house in the Bowery.
Anton Coppola, now 96 and present in the audience, spoke of his illustrious career as a conductor and the filming of “Cavalleria Rusticana” for “The Godfather.”
The impact of Enrico Caruso on the Italian immigrants was generously explored with film clips and old phonograph recordings. Caruso’s recordings of “Vesti la Giubba” and "Core’ ngrato” gave one goosebumps.
Michael Capasso of the Di Capo Opera spoke eloquently of Caruso and how his generosity, bonhomie and largesse made him the celebrity of the day.
Tenor Luigi Boccia, was also included in the film and his comments added to this historic tapestry of how opera permeated the lives of so many immigrants as a beacon of pride and hope.
After the film, Boccia, who was compared to the great tenor Beniamino Gigli by the legendary soprano Licia Albanese, sang "Santa Lucia Luntana" and “Dicitencello Vuie,” two Gigli favorites. Met conductor Dan Saunders was his excellent accompanist. Later on, Boccia sang two Caruso favorites, a deeply moving "Core’ ngrato" and Tosti’s “Ideale” with ardent grace and nuance.
Midge Woolsey, WQXR mid-day radio host, was the hostess and moderator. Ms. Woolsey announced that she was retiring from WQXR but that new musical ventures were on the horizon.
A “roundtable” discussion followed, featuring Maestro Vincent La Selva, founder and artistic director of the New York Grand Opera; F. Paul Driscoll, editor in Chief of Opera News, who asked about Caruso’s death (in 1921 at age 48 of a lung abscess); Thaddeus Strassberger, opera director; Louis Wallecan, director of the film “Little Opera” and Ms. Woolsey. Maestro La Selva recalled being fascinated by the melody of “Stride la Vampa” in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” when he was 8 or 9 years old and playing it repeatedly on his trumpet.
One of the strong points of the film was how Al Capone and the mob tried to use opera as a respectable step up the ladder. The Mafia, or as it was known in those days, the “Black Hand,” tried at one point to shake down Caruso. Police Lt. Joseph Petrosino foiled their attempt, an incident that was included in the film “Pay or Die” with Ernest Borgnine in the 1950s.
I mentioned that in 1910, only a block or two from our house on Columbia and Van Brunt streets in Brooklyn, Caruso’s valet Martino was sent with a bag of money to meet two thugs who tried to threaten Caruso. They were caught. I also mentioned Cafiero’s Restaurant on President Street off Columbia Street, closed for many years, whose owner “Sharkey,” then a teenager, was given a ticket to hear Caruso in “Pagliacci” by a customer who liked the way he served tables. "Sharkey" talked of Caruso even into his nineties. He never forgot that golden voice.
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