A Q&A with Anne Tormela
Of Manhattan Lyric Opera
By Geoff Gehman
Anne Tormela is an equal-opportunity opera singer. The lyric soprano has performed arias in concert halls and hospitals, libraries and nursing homes. She swears that the most animated, honest venue is a subway station.
For 14 years Tormela has been performing and producing popular operas in even more popular settings and formats. The Manhattan native is the lead vocalist and founding artistic director of Manhattan Lyric Opera, which specializes in 90-minute versions of such standards as “La Traviata” and “The Elixir of Love” with listener-friendly supertitles and budget-friendly projected sets. On March 17 she’ll return to the Mauch Chunk Opera House to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and Broadway’s operatic heritage with pianist Renee Guerrero and baritone Nat Chandler, who played Lancelot in a Robert Goulet “Camelot” and the protagonist in a Broadway “Scarlet Pimpernel.” The sensual, extra-sensory program will include “Danny Boy,” “If I Loved You” and two tunes from “The Phantom of the Opera,” all in a place with a fair number of phantoms.
During a recent interview Tormela discussed her psychic connection to “Danny Boy,” her surprise role during a “Die Fledermaus” staged for a billionaire’s surprise party and her ability to quiet loud teens with subway Mozart.
Q: Do you have any memorable memories of Manhattan Lyric Opera’s 2005 debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House? It’s safe to say you premiered supertitles in Jim Thorpe.
A: What I remember are the unbelievable acoustics. Mauch Chunk is so phenomenal—and so under-rated. It was meant for classical vaudeville, which was like opera back in the day. Their singing back then was classical by today’s standards. And here we are, performing songs from “The Phantom of the Opera” in a place where there has to be ghosts.
Most people don’t realize it’s so hard to make good acoustics these days. They keep adding this and subtracting that to get the right mix. Even at the Met they had to add rosewood to the walls.
Q: Do you have a long history with, a deep emotional attachment to, a song on the Mauch Chunk program? For example, did you fall in love with “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy” from listening to your parents’ “South Pacific” LP?
A: I’ve always loved “People Will Say We’re in Love” [from “Oklahoma!”] I’ve always liked “Something Wonderful” [from “The King and I”], although it’s written for a voice lower than mine. They’re classic, golden-age Broadway songs. They call for a full voice and not a characterization, which is what Broadway calls for today. Back then [in the 1940s and ’50s] the training on Broadway was so good; nobody was trained to belt. Gordon MacRae [who starred in the film versions of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel”] was trained just as well as an opera singer, maybe better
Q: Why did you decide to perform “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” from “Finian’s Rainbow” as part of the St. Patrick’s Day part of the concert? While it’s been covered by many well-known musicians—Petula Clark, Barbra Streisand, Sonny Rollins—it’s not nearly as well known as, say, “Danny Boy.”
A: I know it because I saw the movie [of “Finian’s Rainbow”] as a kid. It’s beautifully written and it’s classically legit. The storyline is lovely too, with the narrator wondering about life in a favorite place, if the lad with the “twinklin’ eye” is still waiting by the river.
You know, a lot of people don’t know the story behind “Danny Boy.” At the time it was written  there were so many battles in Ireland. The line “the pipes are calling” meant they were calling you to war. I like to think of the narrator as a grandfather saying to a grandson, “You have to go and I have to stay but I’ll be waiting for you when you return, although I might be dead and if I’m dead find my grave and say an ‘Ave’ for me.”
Sometimes I get teary just thinking about it. My dad was of Scottish heritage and he came from a long line of Scottish family members who had psychic abilities. He passed away just before I got pregnant; we named our son for him. He always told me I had inherited the Scottish thing, the gift to communicate. We’ll figure it out someday. I do believe that if you love somebody and they’re far away and you’re thinking about them, you can probably develop some ability to hear their thoughts—especially if you have a hardship.
Q: You and Nat Chandler performed together in “The Merry Widow,” “Madama Butterfly” and a program of operatic favorites. Why do you like singing with him? Why is he a good fit with your voice and personality?
A: We just have great chemistry. I hired him for “The Merry Widow” and during the six shows we did in Florida he just raised the level of performance–and fun. He sounds great and he looks great. He’s just a delight.
Q: Was there a pivotal person who made you think that opera had to play a major role in your life?
A: I was a senior in college, studying history, when a very good friend, a clarinetist, played me a recording of Ravel’s “Sheherazade.” It was performed by the Cleveland Symphony, one of the most renowned orchestras, with Marilyn Horne, who is very well known for her legato line and her musicality. It has poems in French that are so intense and powerful and it was just—wow! Up until then I didn’t realize that opera could express these dramatic thoughts. Up until then I had thought opera was all about shallow stories and strange people with horns.
Q: Do have a role model for Manhattan Lyric Opera? Something about your group reminds me of a 19th-century troupe touring Midwestern and Western towns, although way back then there were no nursing homes to play.
A: I started MLO because I was looking for places to perform, and trying to help my colleagues so they didn’t have to pay to perform. I think of us as troubadours who want to reach as many people in as many venues as we can, who don’t care about making a lot of money. I like to think of the Albert Finney movie “The Dresser,” where bombs are dropping on London [during World War II] and the actor and his dresser don’t care. Their feeling is: My god, we’re going to do “King Lear” tonight and, oh God, “Hamlet” tomorrow night—no matter what.
Performing is all about communicating and being real. When people were going crazy for [tenor Luciano] Pavarotti, they weren’t really going crazy for him. They were going crazy because he made them feel their feelings. We’re always told to suppress our feelings in public, so we appreciate people who can make us feel deeply in a safe setting–although it’s not really safe, because we’re not supposed to weep and wail in public.
Q: What was the most unusual place you performed in the service of MLO?
A: We were hired to do “Die Fledermaus” for this billionaire in his home in the West Village [in Manhattan]. He spent a fortune having his place decorated with velvet wallpaper and everything. “Die Fledermaus” takes place in many places, so we performed scenes all around the place. It was a surprise for his party guests, like a murder mystery. I came out as the maid; for a half hour I was serving people drinks and food. They were being a little imperious–until I started singing [laughs].
Q: How about a few memorable memories of performing in subway stations as part of the “Music Under New York” series?
A: I remember I was somewhere in Brooklyn and it was a little creepy because no one else was around except this homeless guy. He was a little jittery; he was probably a little mentally disabled. I was singing a lot of coloratura, which can be disruptive on the brain cells. So I switched to the gospel song “Deep River,” which slaves sang as a code to send the message they planned to escape from the South to the North. All of a sudden he just calmed down. It made me feel that music really has the power to soothe the savage beast. You know, the Greeks used to say the gods must have created music because it’s so beautiful, so mystical.
Another time, I was singing in a station by 34th Street [in Manhattan], where I got to know a lot of undercover cops, some dressed as homeless people. They got to know me, of course, because I was so loud. I was singing a big, complicated aria and all of a sudden this guy ran by me. Then the cops ran by, chasing him, and I was actually asked: “Which way did he go?”–while I was singing. Maybe I should add “opera singer and crime stopper” to my resume [laughs].
Q: What have you learned over 14 years as MLO’s chief that have led to significant changes?
A: Well, I’ve learned about hiring certain artists and not hiring certain artists. I’ve learned about the importance of having a stage manager and not doing every job myself. I’ve learned that when you perform in a down-to-earth setting, your performance in a big theater will probably be more intimate, and more real. In fact, I think the subway is still the best place to perform. You have the most honest audience you’ll have in your life. If they don’t like you, they’ll just keep walking by.
I remember singing with teenage boys jumping and dancing around in front of me, trying to do anything to distract me, for fun. When they couldn’t do it, because I’ve trained myself not to be distracted, they started asking me questions. “Is this new music?” “Oh no, it’s old, but it’s new to you because you’ve never heard Mozart before.” By the end they basically wished me good luck with my career. They even gave me a high five.
Anne Tormela: The Scoop
First favorite song: “The Sound of Music”
First influential aria: “Steal Me, Sweet Thief” from Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief”
Top opera characters: Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Violetta in “La Traviata,” Amina in “La Sonnambula”
Top awards: third-place and audience prizes at the 2011 Altamura/Caruso International Voice Competition, where she sang “Hymn to the Sun” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel”
Places she’d like to play include the Rainbow Room in Manhattan and “a small, high-class boat to Alaska.”
She began playing the clarinet and practicing taekwondo to boost her breathing and body alignment.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite operas include “The Magic Flute” and “Tales of Hoffman.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.