My opera friends know who Tony Amato was. My rock friends might not, but I can assure you that almost all of them know there was a little tiny opera house next to CBGBs. My comrade in song, Liz Hastings, gave this eulogy at his funeral. I asked her permission to publish it here, as I thought it would be not only a great tribute to the maestro, but also a window for my fellow rockers into that little opera world next door.
Eulogy Delivered at Tony’s Funeral
I’m Liz Hastings. Of the sixty plus years that the Amato Opera existed, I sort of fall in the middle generation. From 1973 to 1986 I played the piano, and eventually, conducted at Tony’s. Yes, that’s what we called it; Tony’s. It was Tony’s opera company. “What’s coming up?” “Oh, I have a Bohème at Tony’s.”
While many people predate me there, I’m quite sure there were people in that last show in 2009 who hadn’t been born yet when I played my last show.
I auditioned for Tony, straight out of college. I wasn’t particularly an “opera person”, but Lois Dunton – I swear only later did she become “Lois Ann” – said that Tony Amato was always looking for pianists.
I called to see if I could audition. “Amato Opera”, a voice said. Certain that I was speaking to a woman, I asked if I could speak to Mr. Amato. A hearty laugh followed. “I’m Mr. Amato. Call me Tony.”
He must have liked me, because he didn’t make me sight-read the Ballatella, a piece, he later confided, he would throw at pianists if he wanted to get rid of them. I got off easy…Voi che sapete.
He only used piano and organ in those days. New pianists were not entrusted with playing the piano scores until they had played for a semester or two of his classes.
Oh, the classes…
You guys that came later on…you have no idea what you missed. He would do eight weeks of classes of three operas – Monday would be Rigoletto, Tuesday would be Faust, and Wednesday would be Magic Flute. I remember that Cav and Pag were particularly daunting for me, and after those classes, Tony would take me upstairs and give me a little glass of something with an Italian name that made me feel better and got rid of my Verismo jitters.
Once the classes were up and running, different people would be called upon to get up and do different scenes from week to week, but at the first class, everybody sang. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard eight Lucias sing through the Mad Scene, all at the same time.
I did my first everything there. It would have been a wonderful experience just to play through all those scores with a cast of singers each week, but to be the recipient of Tony’s knowledge while doing so was an extraordinary privilege. To this day I have colleagues in the business who were never really exposed to all that stuff that comes in between the arias; you know…the opera.
He knew all there was to know about opera and gave of his knowledge with generosity and unflagging enthusiasm. He rehearsed the music, dictated the staging, taught sword fighting (something about a couple of figure eights and a final thrust). He knew about the musical style, the period, the history, the original sources; name it.
He showed the tenor how to wipe Mimi’s face so it wouldn’t get a laugh…
The contract scene in Lucia – Enrico is commanding her to write; “Scrivi” – the Lucias are over-eager to sing “La mia condan…” – “Uh! Uh! It’s a LONG name!”…(writing “L-U-C-I-A D-I L-A-M-M-E-R-M-O-O-R” in the air)
Butterfly – Now the minute the baby comes out on stage I make sure he’s facing upstage.
Azucena’s hair pulling was never more convincing than when Tony demonstrated.
Butterfly’s entrance never had as much delicacy, as when he did it.
Years later I would call him up with questions; “Tony, tell me again why it’s midnight in Ballo but the clock only strikes 6 times”…
He always insisted he had no sense of humor, and in fact he never “got” jokes, but comedy – now that was another matter. Does anyone remember his Alfred in Fledermaus, and of course his waiter in Bohème? (That’s not even a real character!) I know that there must have been other people on stage but I really didn’t notice.
One of the first shows I played there was Fledermaus. After the rehearsal Tony said “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I didn’t understand why a rehearsal was needed the next night. I thought things had gone rather well. Well, the next night we took it from the top with a WHOLE ‘NOTHER CAST.
And that’s when I realized what made Tony different from other people who put on opera. I got it. I had learned the secret handshake.
Tony liked to make you better. If you got really, really good, maybe even famous, well that was fine, but wasn’t really the point.
Tony was proud and happy to provide an environment that fostered triumphs of all sizes. Could anyone’s life be devoted to anything more important and enriching?
Making operas affordable for families and making the stories understandable to children was of enormous importance to Tony. He did the Operas in Brief at Town Hall, and took shows into schools before “outreach” had come into the lexicon. And of course, the intimate theater on the Bowery was the ideal place for children (or even grownups) to experience their first opera.
Tony and Sally had no children, but did have an extended family…
They are a wide-ranging tribe and wear their name proudly, like a medal.
Possibly you remember Bernie Goddammit, or Shaffer Goddammit, Konnie Goddammit, Ricky Goddammit, Sadler Goddammit. I’m pretty sure there was a Boney Goddammit. I myself joined the family when I married Nathan Goddammit. I would like to think that there is another generation of them since my time.
But the mother of them all was…Sally Goddammit. Sally…
Those who were fortunate enough to know Sally were lucky indeed. She and Tony put their blood, sweat and tears into the Amato Opera as equal partners. Married for over 50 years, she and Tony spent almost every waking hour together, be it at work or at home, and they thrived on it. Tony missed her
terribly after her death in 2000 and referred to her always as “my dear Sally”.
His memoirs are imbued with her name and her spirit.
Amato: A Love Affair with Opera.
This remarkable couple inspired a movie about their love, and their dedication to opera. I don’t see anyone rushing out to do the same for James Levine and Peter Gelb.
When I was asked to do this, I looked up the word “eulogy”, and it said, in part, “A speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly” and I realized that I have been eulogizing Tony Amato since 1973.
I searched for the words to describe him; warm, passionate, generous, imaginative, kind, honest. Wouldn’t the Boy Scouts like this? Wait!…That’s it!
Tony was Trustworthy.
Tony had a teaching style that was all his own. He told the truth – “Your French stinks!” He was honest – “Your Italian stinks!” And he kept his promises. – “I’ll give you a part in The Magic Flute. It’s in English”.
Tony was Loyal.
He was loyal to the singers under his watch, and promoted them from within the ranks when he felt they were worthy. They in turn were deeply loyal to him.
Tony was Helpful.
It is now about 30 years ago that I had to learn Tosca in a hurry. I was to be the Music Director for a production with a small opera company. “Tony, I don’t know Tosca”. “Come in at 4 o’clock”, he said. In one amazing hour he gave me tempos, rubato, a little trivia (“La do…” – ask me later) and the staging for the end of Act II in case it ever came in handy. It did. He would of course take no money for the session.
Tony was Friendly. Tony was a friend to all. He was friendly to his singers, to the bums outside, and to the fire department with their surprise inspections.
Tony was Courteous.
He treated everyone with respect, and in turn was adored.
That made him very hard to say no to. Ask anyone who was tempted to try. Tony could charm the pants off the most obstreperous patron, and did just that when the occasion arose.
Tony was Kind.
Tony was Obedient.
He didn’t need to be. He was the boss. He was the director and the
conductor, and they never, ever argued.
Tony was Cheerful.
Tony was Thrifty.
Who else would put instant coffee in the urn? He recycled before it was fashionable. Every schedule was printed on the back of something else. In 1988 we went to see Tony conduct “Lo Schiavo” which he did at Marymount Manhattan College. We commented on the elegance of the theater and then looked into the pit, where we could see tin foil used as shades on the stand lights. He was the master of “jerry rigging”. Nothing got thrown out if it could still be useful…for something. I think he felt the same way about the people in the company.
Tony was Brave.
I can remember more than once when he had to evict some Bowery denizen sleeping by the front of the door. Where others might have been timid he merely did what he needed to do for the sake of his theater.
Tony was Clean.
During my time there I can remember coming in for more than one Saturday rehearsal and finding him cleaning the bathrooms and mopping the floor. Nothing was beneath him if it was something that needed to be done. In a larger sense he was a catalyst in the slow and steady cleaning of the whole neighborhood around the theater.
Tony was Reverent.
Tony revered Mozart; Verdi…He didn’t need gimmicks or updates. What the composer and librettist wrote was quite enough, and worthy of respect.
Tony was Unique.
On Tuesday, I didn’t cry when I heard that he was gone, but I got strangely emotional playing my first coaching of the day, and I realize that he’s still here.
He’s right here in my head, sometimes counting, sometimes singing, maybe muttering something naughty in Neapolitan.
“O il…gentil…pensier…” [Traviata] DEAD VOICE, MIMI, DEAD VOICE [Bohème]
“If I rush you” STEP STEP [Falstaff]
He’s in my musical DNA.
I never thought Tony would die like regular people… I was quite sure he would be on the podium and his last words would be directed to the poor soul who had just missed a light cue – E Master, E Master… Or that against all advice he would be up on the ladder – remember Tony on the ladder, changing light bulbs in the chandelier?…and would take that one heart-stopping step into Valhalla.
But no – underneath the magnetism and magic, he was alarming mortal.
But oh so wonderful, so wise, so warm, so patient, and so generous. We will miss him.
We love you Tony. We will never forget you.
December 16, 2011