When New Yorkers want to see singing puppets, polygamists and tango dancers, they know where to go:
To the chic and edgy Gotham Chamber Opera, celebrating its 10th anniversary by bringing back the first opera it presented, Mozart’s “Il Sogno di Scipione” (Scipio’s Dream).
Opening April 11 in a production by the always inventive Christopher Alden, “Scipione” concerns a Roman general who must choose between two high-singing goddesses, Fortune and Constancy.
Neal Goren, the company’s founder, conductor and artistic force, seems to enjoy the protection of both deities. Gotham is New York’s favorite small opera company.
Now is the time to grow, what with the New York City Opera gasping for life and the Metropolitan hogging the spotlight.
I talked with Goren, 53, over breakfast at the Galaxy diner in Hell’s Kitchen before he headed off to a rehearsal.
Tarmy: So tell me more about “Scipio.”
Goren: It used to be a straightforward toga opera, but we modernized it. In our production, Scipio wakes up and finds himself in bed between two women who just happen to be goddesses. We have gorgeous singers, so it works well.
Tarmy: Why isn’t the opera staged more frequently?
Goren: The vocal demands are unbelievably difficult. I remember speaking to a well-known soprano about singing in it. She said “Oh no, I couldn’t even think about doing that piece. I have much too much to lose.”
So I knew that I would have to get young people who wanted to prove themselves. And I did.
Tarmy: Has the music scene in New York changed since you started the company?
Goren: People are always hungry for great art and interesting theater, and I think there’s even more of that now than there was a decade ago. I consistently see some amazing things at the Metropolitan Opera.
They’re trying to expand their vision, not just produce interior decorator-style sets. Like their new production of “La Traviata,” a lot of people hated it but I thought it was very interesting. It was minimal, and required the singers be actors.
Tarmy: What about your own vision for Gotham?
Goren: Success has forced us to be nimble and to look in new directions. But as we increase the “cool” factor in our operas, we’ve also been increasing the production values.
Tarmy: Which means more fundraising.
Goren: I have to consider market forces, costs and what else is on the cultural landscape. Oftentimes, operas need a hook to get people in -- doing Haydn in the Hayden planetarium, for instance. But the hook has to serve the piece instead of just being some idea.
Tarmy: Staging Haydn’s opera about life on the moon in a planetarium called the Hayden. That was brilliant.
Have productions like that made it easier for you to fundraise?
Goren: It’s as difficult as it was at the beginning because when we started the company it was before the stock market went south.
In those days, we’d have fundraisers and a token donation among a certain class of people would be a $1,000. When the stock market crashed in 2008, a token donation became $100, even $50.
I don’t think things have gotten back to their pre-recession levels, and many people are more conservative with their philanthropy. They want to be sure that the production will be a success, and I can’t blame them. The question is just, “what does success look like?” It’s hard to say.
Tarmy: What is your operating budget?
Goren: This year it’s around $1.4 million. We did our first production for something like $60,000. We don’t have an endowment yet, so we have to raise money each year for every show.
Tarmy: Right now, you play different venues. Can’t you get your own theater?
Goren: Wouldn’t that be great? We’d love to build a space, but that takes major money because there isn’t a theater in the 700-seat range that’s perfect for opera in New York.
I’d like us to be bigger, but not that much bigger. Maybe four productions a season, tops.
Tarmy: Where do you see Gotham in 10 years?
Goren: I’d like it to be an absolute fixture in New York, and maybe even have a Gotham West company out in California.
We have these wonderful productions and wonderful casts, why not let as many people see them as possible?
“Il Sogno di Scipione” runs April 11-21 at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater, John Jay College, New York. Information: +1- 212-868-4460; http://www.gothamchamberopera.org.
(James Tarmy is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)