Opera is often regarded as a leisure activity for the wealthy – entertainment exclusive to high society. But, like the city where it resides, Tri-Cities Opera has always been a bit different. It was founded in 1949 as an entertainment option intended for its burgeoning, blue-collar community. And despite its status as a historic home for operatic performance, it’s maintained a progressive edge and mission rooted in community.
More than 70 years ago, TCO was founded as a workshop for singers being trained in the art form. It still is, standing as the longest-running such program in the country as well as the longest-running opera company in upstate New York. Early performances were as traditional and grandiose as you might expect. But, today’s opera is different.
“In our more recent history we’ve gone more into this new realm of ‘opera for everyone,’” General Director John Rozzoni said. “Opera is an art form that is alive and well. There’s a lot of good, wonderful stuff happening and so we want our company to reflect the future opera and not just the past.”
“So, we really focus on honoring our history, but also envisioning a future for opera that is much more inclusive and open to a wide variety of people,” he said. “We’re presenting different titles by new composers, we did the world’s first live virtual reality opera and we’ve done a lot of co-producing with opera companies from around the country.”
New performances cover contemporary topics or touch on pop culture or even child-friendly operas based on folklore.
“Anything you can think of, there are operas being written about it,” Rozzoni said. “Saying you don’t like opera to me is like saying you don’t like movies. There are so many different kinds, there are so many different ways that people are expressing musically through the human voice and the operatic artform that I truly believe every person could find an opera that they would absolutely love.”
To create that more inclusive environment, TCO tries to get the crowd involved using tactics like “Choose Your Own Adventure” audience participation or even pairing beer with performance. An educational outreach tour seeks to pique the interest of students at area schools.
“What we’re really trying to do is let people know that there’s a place for them here and we’re creating gateway productions, gateway events that allow people to step in our doors and feel comfortable and open up a whole world of experiential fun,” said Rozzoni, who started with TCO as a singer before crossing over to the administrative side in various capacities.
TCO has a business side as well, namely in the way of set and costume rental provided to all parts of the country. Their collection is incredibly vast with carefully curated costumes, props and disassembled sets that occupy seemingly endless square footage of storage space. In fact, even the “behind the scenes” is not what you’d expect as there are massive production areas akin to an industrial warehouse, complete with workshops, forklifts and trucks. It all helps sustain TCO and keeps it serving up enriching entertainment to the community and out-of-town visitors alike.
“The greatest hope is that you have a good time. Opera first and foremost is actually entertainment,” Rozzoni said. “It’s not about tradition or glorious singing, it’s about seeing something that speaks to you whether it is funny, whether it is tragic, it’s about telling deeply human stories in a relatable way.
“I really think that as a company, our duty, especially in this community and this market, is to change people’s minds about opera,” he said. “Everything we do is oriented that way, to say ‘This is for you.’”
So, put aside what you may think about opera as an elite pastime from a different time. Come on into TCO, have a seat and enjoy the experience of a great performance that, like Greater Binghamton, is a little bit different.