If Joseph Pucciatti’s life were anything like his favorite opera, it would be chock-full of brutal bloodshed, perplexing riddles, angry mobs, tragedy, and of course, singing. Fortunately, as the founding artistic director and conductor of Boheme Opera NJ, Joe, a member of the Class of 1976, only has to worry about the latter right now, as he as his wife are in the midst of a slew of performances on TCNJ’s campus this spring—two comic operas by Giovanni Pergolesi were performed in February, and Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca will be performed during Reunion Weekend in May.
“I picked up opera in college on a whim,” Joe says. “Sometimes I’d get a little tired of all the symphonies we had to listen to [as music majors], so I’d just start pulling out opera recordings. I started to really develop a taste for it, and thought it was something I’d love to do someday. Little did I know…”
At the same time, somewhere across campus, Joe’s future leading lady was cultivating her own interest in the art form. Sandra Milstein MA ’80 had grown up with an opera-loving father and had begun accompanying opera singers on the piano as an undergraduate in the Temple University School of Music. “That’s really when I began to develop my love for it,” she adds.
The Pucciattis’ decades-long duet began when their burgeoning interests in opera intersected with some song-worthy romance. While a junior at TCNJ, Joe met Sandy, a first-year graduate student in the school’s music masters degree program. They went on their first date to a student performance of The Fantastiks and, as Joe recalls, “We hit it off and the rest is history.” Make that musical history.
Before long, the Pucciattis were married and living in South Trenton, where Joe worked as a music teacher at Trenton Central High School. But, like the hero of any great opera, he yearned for more. “I was tired of just teaching all day and then coming home and watching TV,” he says. So Joe and Sandy started the Boheme Club musicians’ guild. (The name was a tribute to a playful club started by Puccini, Joe’s favorite opera composer.) They’d get together once a month with other musically inclined friends—most of whom were also TCNJ alumni—and have “parlor concerts” with vocal, piano, and other instrumental performances. The group continued to grow both in membership and ability, and in 1982, they performed a one-act opera, I Pagliacci, at Trenton’s now-defunct Feast of Lights Italian festival.
In the late 1980s, the Pucciattis found their club gravitating more toward opera, and by 1989, it had transformed into a professional opera company, staging two full productions per year—one in the spring and one in the fall. (They also changed their name from the Boheme Club to the Boheme Society to Boheme Opera NJ.) Their performances—which typically feature a 32-piece orchestra, 24–32 cast members, and a core cast of about eight singers, depending on the production—have earned the company multiple Citations of Excellence from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts and grants from The New Jersey Cultural Trust.
These accolades are due in large part to Joe’s knack for discovering and featuring rising opera stars. Located in Trenton—“within earshot,” as Joe says, of major opera companies like the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and the Opera Company of Philadelphia—Boheme has a large talent pool from which to draw. And though Joe says he tries to keep his productions “as Jersey as possible,” he also holds auditions in New York for lead roles, attracting professional opera singers who aren’t yet experienced enough to command those parts at, say, the Met, but who are eager to add them to their résumés.
“It takes a certain amount of trust and company capacity to keep finding singers who are on the verge of great careers,” says Sandy, who serves as the company’s managing director. “There’s a level of trust, and they feel comfortable with us. Not only do they debut with us, but they keep coming back.” Take Daniel Sutin, the baritone who will reprise his role of Baron Scarpia in Boheme’s Tosca performances at TCNJ: “When he first came to us, he had never sung the role,” Sandy says. “He was a perfect example of someone who needed the opportunity to try this role out, and
he was just fantastic. He needed that exposure.” Since playing Baron Scarpia at Boheme’s original Tosca performance 10 years ago, Sutin has gone on to several lead roles with the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and London’s Covent Garden.
In addition to breaking rising stars, Boheme has introduced hundreds of New Jerseyans to opera—a core aspect of its mission. “Opera has taken some hits over the years,” Joe says. “Our goal has always been to offer affordable opera for everyone to come and see. We’re not an elitist group.” Adds Sandy, “You don’t have to dress up to enjoy an opera, and we certainly don’t require that for our gang. We just want people to come and to enjoy it.”
Enjoy it, yes, but also understand it. The company has been using English supertitles since 1994, ensuring that the foreign languages don’t prohibit opera-goers from following the often-complex storylines. Joe also gives pre-curtain talks about an hour before each performance, chatting informally with the audience about the background of a work, its composer, and any relevant back-stories or historical references. During these talks, Sandy plays themes from the opera on the piano.
The Pucciattis are equally concerned with educating and involving the next generation of opera singers: teenagers. “I sincerely believe that for opera to stay alive, young singers need to be nurtured,” says Joe, who still works as a music teacher at Trenton Central High School. “We have to bring them along, and we do that.” Boheme’s high-school apprenticeship program offers teens what Joe calls “a really excellent learning experience,” allowing them to rehearse and perform alongside professionals. Participants have gone on to study opera and vocal music at some of the country’s top schools: Eastman School of Music, Westminster Choir College, the Manhattan School of Music.
Boheme has also served more than 7,500 students in Mercer, Burlington, and Monmouth counties over the last seven years through its curriculum-based middle- and high-school program, Inside Opera. The program offers in-school workshops with hour-long opera adaptations—including traveling set pieces, costumes, wigs, and makeup—along with invitations to Boheme’s backstage tours and open dress rehearsals.
Despite the highs they’ve experienced over the years—renowned performers, colorful productions, numerous awards, and grants—the Pucciattis say keeping their company afloat for more than two decades has been a challenge. “Like anything, there are ups and downs, and you’re constantly turning over and bringing in new people,” Joe says. And when it comes to budget, “you have to be realistic and keep things in perspective.” In this regard, Joe says he’s especially fortunate to collaborate with a talented and savvy artistic staff.“Sometimes, I may want that notable singer from the Met, but I can’t afford that luxury.”
And much like the company, opera itself is continually in flux, according to Joe. “It’s a challenging profession, but it’s also very exciting,” he adds. “Opera is always reinventing itself, and right now, it’s stronger than ever.”