Great women have long been associated with Fort Lee and appeared on the stage. While Alice Guy-Blaché, Pearl White, Mary Pickford and Theda Bara all were connected in one way or another in Fort Lee with the motion picture stage, others have been involved on another stage, the operatic stage. In recognition of Women’s History Month, this is a tribute to dramatic soprano Lucine Amara, artistic director of Fort Lee’s New Jersey Association of Verismo Opera.
Before joining Verismo Opera, Amara appeared on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for 41 years. She sang in 882 performances, five opening nights, nine new productions and 57 radio broadcasts. During that time, Amara performed 56 different roles, ranging from Aida to Cio Cio San in Madama Butterfly.
Her lengthy list of career accomplishments include more than 1,000 operatic performances and appearances in 33 opera houses and with 25 symphony orchestras throughout the United States, as well as in 21 countries, including China, Japan, Armenia, and Russia. The Times of London called her "The greatest lyric soprano of our time."
Amara credits several people with helping her along the way.
“Max Rudolph, conductor and assistant manager of the Met, my teacher Stella Eisner Eyn, and patron and patroness, Mr. and Mrs. Levy, helped me financially with gowns, hairdos and finances in general,” she said.
Born Lucine Armaganian on March 1, 1925 in Hartford, Conn., her family moved to the Midwest and eventually settled in San Francisco. Although she had studied the violin, her instrument of choice became her voice.
A dedicated student, Amara attended San Francisco’s Community Music School and studied with vocal teacher Stella Eisner-Eyn. With only one year of vocal training, she was accepted to sing as a contralto in the San Francisco Opera Chorus and made her concert debut in 1946. At the Music Academy of the West, she studied with the great operatic baritone Richard Bonelli.
Her diligence paid off in 1948, when she won first prize in the Atwater-Kent Auditions in Los Angeles. The award provided $2,000 plus an engagement at the Hollywood Bowl with Norman Ormandy conducting the orchestra and a recital at Randall Park in Los Angeles.
While continuing her vocal studies at the University of Southern California and performing as a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony, Amara assumed the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos and that of Lady Billows in Albert Herring in 1949.
Amara debuted with the Metropolitan Opera in 1950 and sang off stage Celestial Voice. Rave reviews poured in from the New York Post, the Daily News, and the Times, among others.
“Only 19 days later, I sang First Lady in Magic Flute," she said. "This was unheard of by a greenhorn. This was with an apprentice contract not a full stage contract.”
She listed some other early achievements.
“The first year I recorded Pagliacci with Richard Tucker; I had never sung it," she said. "Then came The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza in Hollywood.”
Verismo Opera president Giovanni Simone said Amara became a major artist in the opera world.
"She came from very humble beginnings and was able to achieve a lot," he said. "In 1954, she was the first American singer to sing the role of Aida in Italy, the birthplace of opera, at the annual Bathes of Caracalla’s Summer Festival in Rome July and August with a stellar cast … This was a time when there were many excellent singers in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and the competition was brutal.”
He added that Amara was a hard worker, who had a very large following of fans at the Met.
“I remember attending a performance at the Met of Turandot," Simone said. "A singer became sick, and Lucine Amara stepped in for her. From the audience, someone yelled, 'Why don’t you do the first act again?’”
In 1977, at the age of 51, Amara fought the Met with an age discrimination lawsuit. She was successful and returned to the Met stage in 1981 to perform the role of Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera.
According to Verismo Opera’s General Manager, Evelyn La Quaif, after Amara sang the aria Morro, “The audience welcomed her back with a five-minute ovation."
"At the end of the performance, the audience threw confetti and parts of the program to welcome her back," she said.
Since retiring from the Met in 1991, Amara has been anything but idle. In 1993, she performed at a fundraiser for the Verismo Opera, and two years later, she became the company’s artistic director.
Her goal was to help aspiring vocalists.
“I was impressed with the young company and the staff," she said. "I felt this was a great avenue for young, up and coming talent, who really have no place to learn their craft in a very professional setting. We offer them coaching they will never get anywhere in languages, deportment, staging, and most important--a great stage craft. I'm proud to be an integral part of the company.”
Amara remains very active working with up-and-coming artists and teaching master classes around the globe. She offered sage advice to vocalists entering the field.
“Find yourself a great teacher who teaches the importance of a belly breath, low larynx and no smile position for any vowels … Although there really are no sponsors any more, look for someone who would be interested in you as a singer and ask them to help you,” she said.
Together Amara and Verismo Opera have helped a new generation of aspiring opera stars.
"It is a great thrill to know we have been instrumental in getting some young artists to the City Opera and Metropolitan Opera," she said.
Amara listed Richard Hobson, Frank Poretta, Emmanuel di Villarosa, James Valenti and Irina Rindzuner as examples of artists "who started the road to success by performing in Verismo Opera productions.”