Documentaries’ ability to capture people and moments in time is potently exemplified by “Amato: A Love Affair With Opera,” vet documaker Stephen Ives’ loving portrait of legendary Gotham opera mavens Tony and Sally Amato. With the 50th anniversary of the couple’s tiny Bowery-based company, Amato Opera, as the launch pad, pic explores a shoestring artistic operation while indirectly portraying the best of the generation that matured during the magic New York decades of the ’40s and ’50s. A married couple and partnership has rarely seemed happier or more fulfilling onscreen, making the film not only a strong fest and tube entry, but one with unusually good theatrical prospects for a docu, despite the brief running time.
At the outset, a full house mingles outside the narrow brownstone that houses the company — right down the block from former punk club CBGB — just before the curtain rises on a new staging of Verdi’s “Falstaff.” As Sally greets the audience in the tiny lobby and jumps backstage to tend to last-minute details on costumes, Tony scrambles around, appearing to do everything else. It is no exaggeration, as a longtime friend of the company says later, that it would take five people to replace Tony and three to replace Sally, and it’s clear that if handmade, personal opera exists anywhere in the world, this is the place.
The theater’s odd shoe-box shape holds a mere 107 seats, and Ives had to employ wide-angle lenses to capture the vigorous action on the charmingly minuscule stage. But what distinguishes the place isn’t simply its unique scale. Docu notes that Amato Opera has played a crucial role as an opera-workshop theater, training multiple generations of singers and musicians and providing them a chance to perform away from the harsh glare of the uptown Met.
Ives, with editor George O’Donnell, gracefully interweaves the opera’s golden anniversary with accounts of the pair’s past, starting with their amusing memories of courting — it was Tony who fell in love first, despite his family’s reluctance to have him wed a lowly “showgirl.” They married two years before founding their company in 1947, managing to put on large productions for pennies.
Though they eventually lost their venue (replaced by Circle in the Square Theater), Tony convinced Sally that they could keep producing at their East Village storage space. The Amatos continued to exude limitless spirit and energy well into their 70s, treating their technical staff, cast and orchestra members like family members. (Tellingly, the Amatos had no children.)
Ives’ coverage of the official 50th anniversary party for the couple at the Plaza Hotel is a superb, emotional coda, revealing that Tony’s tenor voice remains strong and resonant as he serenades Sally before an adoring crowd.
Tech work, under the most cramped conditions possible, is exceptionally pro, with nimble camerawork able to keep up with the high-paced Amatos. Pic concludes with the sad information that Sally died last year.