The catacombs under Green-Wood Cemetery. A soup kitchen in Chelsea. Madame Tussauds in Times Square. The West Side Community Garden. These are just a few of the locales, some famous, some obscure, that On Site Opera has turned into pop-up opera houses. Since 2012, the resourceful outfit has mounted classic titles and new operas in the most unexpected—but thematically resonant—spots. Now, for a production of Benjamin Britten’s gothic 1954 opera, The Turn of the Screw (October 25–27), director (and On Site Opera cofounder) Eric Einhorn and his crew are taking over the bucolic Wave Hill in the northwest Bronx, changing people’s ideas of opera as a stuffy and inaccessible art form into something experiential and exciting.
We talked to Einhorn about scouting locations, acoustics, and the future of opera in New York City.
What Should We Do: How did you settle on Wave Hill as the site for The Turn of the Screw?
Eric Einhorn: Happily, there’s no shortage of big, old, creepy houses around Riverdale and the Bronx. We checked out a few but nothing fit, until we explored Wave Hill. The incredible grounds there allow us to take audiences on a journey, from a sweeping overlook of the Hudson River and then following the Governess [who is troubled by the weird behavior of her two young wards] on her journey into and through two rooms, where mysterious things await her.
WSWD: How did you get into opera? Did you grow up listening to it?
Einhorn: I’m a product of a great public school [system] in Holmdel, New Jersey. I had great music teachers. My mother likes classical music; she played the flute when she was in school. And that turned into a love of opera, which I was introduced to through the movie Amadeus. I had a music teacher who played that for us one day. It transformed my life.
WSWD: It made you want to direct opera?
Einhorn: Well, I had been involved in theater as a kid, and to know that opera was out there and [that] music can tell stories like this was quite profound for me. So that turned into voice lessons in high school and deciding that I wanted to pursue a career in performing opera. I went to school to be an opera singer, but I found directing along the way and realized that that was the path I wanted to pursue. Having been a singer, I’m able to use those skills and tools to connect with the material and also with performers.
WSWD: It’s often assumed, right or wrong, that acting in opera can be broad or even amateurish compared to the singing. How are acting challenges different in opera the way you’re doing it—in a more intimate setting?
Einhorn: I think performance practice in opera is getting much better. There’s a much higher expectation for better acting, whereas 50 years ago, the expectation was different. Back then it was really about the spectacle and the music-making, but now audiences want something very different. They want all of their entertainment to feel the same. So watching a movie, a play, a musical, or an opera—the acting styles all need to be on par with one another. With On Site Opera, there’s not that safety of being onstage away from your audience. Every acting choice is seen.
Now that I have permanent “scouting goggles” on, I look at the city in a very different way.
WSWD: How do you handle acoustics in spaces that weren’t necessarily designed for opera?
Einhorn: We start venue shopping and do a lot of research. We visit multiple places and do acoustic tests; we’ve rejected venues because visually they might be great, but then we get there and the acoustics are terrible. For example, one of the places we looked at for The Turn of the Screw was this wonderful old Victorian in Staten Island. We went and checked it out, and it was sufficiently creepy. But the acoustics were a little dead, and the geography was a concern. Even if we could pick it up and move it to the middle of Manhattan, there were issues that made it impossible to use.
WSWD: Who is On Site Opera’s audience?
Einhorn: We have a great mixture. We’ve developed a wonderfully devoted and loyal patron base that helps us sell out our shows almost immediately. And because we partner with various venues, we are able to tap into their audiences. Also when word about our production gets out, it can be less about what the opera is but where it is. The fact that an opera is happening in a townhouse or an opera is happening in a historic synagogue—what would get the new audience member to us is not, “Oh, I want to go see that opera.” It’s “Oh, that sounds like a really interesting experience.” And once they’re in the room and they see what it’s all about, then you have a fan for life.
WSWD: New York’s opera scene is basically the Metropolitan Opera and then a lot of smaller companies. The resurrected New York City Opera is around, but who knows for how long. Do you foresee the city getting an intermediary-size institution?
Einhorn: I don’t know if that’s what New York wants. As artists we can try to fill artistic needs as we see them arising, but if audiences aren’t responding, then you have to accept the current trends. And what seems to be happening right now, which is really exciting for us, is that the indie opera scene is flourishing.
WSWD: What are your favorite things to do and see in New York?
Einhorn: Exploring New York with my kids. I live in northern New Jersey, so I’m enjoying the process of introducing them to the city the way I was, which was with my parents. My wife and I take them to museums and shows. Also, because I run a site-specific opera, I just like to walk around. Now that I have permanent “scouting goggles” on, I look at the city in a very different way.