Episode 41. Ira Siff: La Gran Scena and Beyond
Episode 41 – Ira Siff: La Gran Scena and Beyond
Today’s episode is an interview I did with Ira Siff, artistic director of La Gran Scena Opera Company di New York, alter ego of the beloved “traumatic soprano” Vera Galupe-Borszkh, lecturer for the Metropolitan Opera Guild and Weekly Commentator on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. My association with Ira and Gran Scena goes back more than thirty years, when he provided me with my first employment as a singer when my alter ego Daniela della Scarpone sang for two years with the renowned travesty opera company. I sat down with Ira in his East Village apartment last this past January for a wide-ranging interview in which we discuss his early days as a standee at the old Met (where some of his opera-going experiences included Maria Callas’s final Tosca performances, Renata Scotto’s 1965 debut as Madama Butterfly, and Leonie Rysanek’s wild traversals of Verdi and Wagner). He discusses his first performing experiences in the early 1970s in association with Al Carmines and others, the genesis of La Gran Scena and their development into a worldwide phenomenon, and his subsequent “legitimate” career as lecturer, stage director, vocal coach and voice teacher and commentator all stemmed from in his words, “getting in a dress and singing soprano,” which he dubs “the strangest part.” This is a free-wheeling and extremely Opera Queeny interview, peppered with Ira’s unique anecdotes and snippets from Gran Scena (and other!) performances. There is no better way to celebrate Gay Pride in isolation than to listen to this episode!
Ira Siff is a native New Yorker, who grew up on the standing room line of the old Metropolitan Opera, worshiping the famous singers of the 60’s.
A graduate of the Cooper Union, with a degree in Fine Arts, Mr. Siff began to study voice, and made his debut as a tenor in 1970. For the next decade, he performed roles in opera, operetta and musicals in the New York, at The New York Shakespeare Festival, Circle in the Square, Playwrights Horizons, and many other venues. Turning to cabaret, Ira created an act using vocal parody of opera, jazz, and other styles of music, gaining critical acclaim, and a loyal following.
In 1981, he founded La Gran Scena Opera Co. di New York, the internationally acclaimed travesty troupe, whose gifted falsetto “divas” have spoofed opera with great affection for over two decades, in New York annually, and on tours to some of the great festivals, theatres and opera houses of the world.
For the past thirty years, Mr. Siff has been a voice teacher and interpretive coach, teaching in New York, Italy, Israel, Holland and China, giving Master Classes for the Metropolitan Opera Guild, and was on the faculty of the Renata Scotto Vocal Academy. Ira was a guest teacher of bel canto technique at The Royal Conservatory in Den Haag in 2008, and then at the Dutch National Opera Academy for five seasons, and at the Amsterdam Conservatory in The Netherlands where he returned annually, and was appointed Permanent Guest Teacher.
In 2000, he turned to stage directing, gaining critical acclaim for his productions of operas ranging from Tosca, Turandot, and La Fanciulla del West to Lakmé, Werther, and La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Sarasota Opera, The Caramoor Festival, and the Tanglewood Music Festival, where he directed productions of Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and Ariadne auf Naxos. All in all, he has directed operas for companies in New Jersey to New Zealand, with stops along the way in Puerto Rico, Lima, Peru and Utah. Singers whom he has directed include Sumi Jo, Dolora Zajick, Aprile Millo, Eglise Gutierrez, Krassimira Stoyanova, and the late Marcello Giordani. Conductors with whom he has collaborated as a stage director have included Richard Bonynge, Christoph von Dohnányi, and James Levine.
He has also given master classes in bel canto and verismo for the Metropolitan Opera Guild every season since 2008 and has presented sold-out lectures for the Met Guild as well on a variety of operatic topics. These lectures can be heard on the podcast of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Ira also lectures on opera twenty times a season for two private classes, has been a contributor of reviews and features to Opera News since 1997 and has been Weekly Commentator on the Met Broadcasts since 2007.
La Gran Scena Opera Company was conceived and launched in 1981 by its Artistic Director Ira Siff and performed extensively in New York and around the world for the next twenty years. After appearances in Munich in 1985 (a performance preserved on DVD and published by Video Arts International), Italian appearances in Venice, Vicenze, Mestre, and Como followed, as well as a special appearance in Zurich.
In 1989 the company debuted at the Theater des Westens here in Berlin, at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London, and at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. All three debuts were a great success and the company returned for extended seasons to all three in 1990. In addition, the 1989-90 season brought appearances at the Wexford Festival, The Belfast Festival, Mayfest in Glasgow and the Kunstlerhaus Mousonturm in Frankfurt. Their long season of Verdi that year at The Ballroom won Gran Scena a MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets) Award for Major New York Comedy Engagement. In 1990 -1991, Gran Scena began their Tenth Anniversary Celebration with performances in New York at Symphony Space, followed by a two week season at The Ballroom (sidebar: I was a company member during those two seasons and sang with them in all those performances, which appearances marked my professional singing debut).
Further appearances for the company included debuts in the opera houses of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, a full run at the Edinburgh Festival; further UK appearances at the Manchester Festival, the Buxton Opera House, and the Bloomsbury Theatre (where they performed for five seasons in total), and debuts in Spain and The Netherlands (where they were enormously popular and made numerous return engagements and tours), and Belgium. The company returned to Germany to perform in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Heidelberg, Wiesbaden, and Hannover and performed as well in Barcelona, Montreal, Chicago, Brisbane, and Uruguay.
In New York, the company’s performances at Town Hall, Symphony Space, and (finally in 1998 at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall) were enormously popular and earned them a legion of fans, including Renata Scotto, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, James Levine, and Anna Moffo, among many others, whose appearances at live performances of the company were a thrill and delight for all who were in attendance.
The company wound down its activities with a New York Farewell in October 2001 and a week of performances at the Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona in November 2002, but the company’s prima donna, “traumatic soprano” Vera Galupe-Borzkh, (as embodied by Ira Siff), continued to alternately present comeback performances and annual farewell recitals until 2009, when Ira and Madame Vera finally bid farewell to the stage for real. Fortunately, for the joy and amusement of opera lovers everywhere, many of the performances of Vera and other favorite company members, including Philene Wannelle, Sylvia Bills, Fodor Szedan, Alfredo Sorta-Pudgi, and the legendary 105-year-old diva Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola, under the various batons of the company’s various music directors, including Francesco Folinari-Soave-Coglioni, Sergio Zawa, Helmut Maria Dorf, and Lorenzo Costellata-Denaro are available for viewing on Madame Vera’s YouTube channel as well as on DVD’s published by VAI, including the delicious biographical show, Vera: Life of a Diva and The Annual Farewell Recital.
RECORDINGS HEARD IN THIS EPISODE
Richard Wagner: Ho-jo-to-ho (Die Walküre). Vera Galupe-Borszkh, Francesco Folinari-Soave-Coglioni [Ross Barentyne]. New York, 15 May 1993
Francis Poulenc: Les chemins de l’amour. Vera Galupe-Borszkh, Maestro Francesco Folinari-Soavi-Coglioni
Giacomo Puccini: Vissi d’arte (Tosca). Magda Olivero
Francesco Cilea: Io son l’umile ancella (Adriana Lecouvreur). Olive Middleton; La Puma Opera Company
Giuseppe Verdi: cadenza from Arrigo, ah, parli a un core (I vespri siciliani). Renata Scotto [composite recording]
Henry Bishop: Home, sweet home (Clari). Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola [Keith Jurosko]; Sylvia Bills [Joe Simmons], Maestro Francesco Folinari-Soave-Coglioni [Ross Barentyne]. New York, 15 May 1993
Engelbert Humperdinck: Evening Prayer (Hansel and Gretel). Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola, Dame Emily Post-Morddum [Charles Walker]; Maestro Francesco Folinari-Soave-Coglioni. NYC 1989. If you watch the video very closely, between 9:00-9:30, you can see me (as Daniela della Scarpone) sprinkling fairy dust on the old divas.
Gaetano Donizetti: Verranno a te sull’aure (Lucia di Lammermoor). Joan Sutherland, Richard Tucker; Antonino Votto, Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra [14 October 1961]
Giuseppe Verdi: Mio superbo guerrier (Otello). Leonie Rysanek; Tullio Serafin, Rome Opera Orchestra 
Giacomo Puccini: Tosca, Excerpt from Act II. Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi; Carlo Felice Cillario, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden [London 24 January 1964]
Giacomo Puccini: Ancora un passo or via (Madama Butterfly). Renata Scotto; Arturo Basile, Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della Radiotelevisione Italiana [12 September 1967]
Charles Gounod: Salut, demeure chaste et pure (Faust). John Alexander; Alberto Erede, WDR Radio Orchestra [Köln, 1969]
Giacomo Puccini: Ed io venivo a lui (Tosca). Régine Crespin; Carlo Felice Cillario [Buenos Aires, July 1962]
Al Carmines: Song from Christmas Rappings. Ira Siff and The Judson Poets’ Theatres Chorus [rec. 1979]
Richard Burke: Opera Parody from I’ve Got this Song. Ira Siff, Julie Kurnitz 
Vincenzo Bellini: Son vergin vezzosa (I Puritani). Vera Galupe-Borszkh; Helmut Maria Dorf [Richard Burke]; La Gran Scena Opera Company [New York, October 1982]
Giacomo Puccini: In questa reggia (Turandot). Vera Galupe-Borszkh; Helmut Maria Dorf
Georges Bizet: Près des remparts de Séville (Carmen). Philene Wannelle [Philip Koch], Juan Ponda-Linguine [Francisco Casanova]; Francesco Folinari-Soavi-Coglioni [New York 1986]
Excerpt from the narration for La Gran Scena’s Tosca Scene. Sylvia Bills [Bruce Hopkins]
Johannes Brahms: Die Mainacht, Op. 43/2. Hans Pieter Herman; Peter Nilsson [Dutch television 2012]. For information on The Fidelio Foundation for Dealing with Hearing Health and Loss among Musicians, please contact Hans Pieter Herman directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit Hans’s website by clicking here.
Francis Poulenc: Les chemins de l’amour. Vera Galupe Borszkh; Francsco Molinari-Soavi-Coglioni