The fat lady still hasn’t sung for the beloved Regina Opera House.
The shoestring Dyker Heights company has for 40 years been an operatic proving ground for would-be Pavarottis, as well as a reasonably priced, homegrown venue for lovers of “Madame Butterfly,” “Carmen,” and other classics.
Opera lovers from Boro Park, Bay Ridge — and even from as far away as New Jersey — still flock to the school auditorium-turned-opera house every month and regularly leave space for standing room only.
“The company is older than a good portion of the singers on stage!” said one of the Regina’s founders, Fran Garber. “We run on a shoestring budget — it’s a labor of love.”
And over those 40 years, Garber, the producer and executive vice president, has seen it all.
“We’ve had sets collapse on singers,” Garber said with a laugh. “Costumes have ripped on stage. One time a zipper broke during a performance and the woman sung the whole opera holding up the front of her dress.”
But the opera house — which allows auditions for any hungry singers looking to make it — is not just some fly-by-night operation. The more popular operas draw big crowds of around 300 people, and the Regina has even seen some budding stars take the stage.
Dolora Zajick, one of the most famous living mezzo-sopranos, passed through the Regina Opera back in 1980, before it even featured a full orchestra.
“She is the mezzo at the Met,” said Garber. “She wouldn’t have sung with us if we were crappy.”
But the Regina isn’t just notable for the celebrities that have sung there — it is also a vital resource for hungry opera singers getting their start.
“Professional singers come from all over because the people at Regina are wonderful and you have the chance to sing with a full orchestra in a full production,” said Margaret O’Connell, who will sing in the upcoming anniversary gala, as well as “Carmen,” in June. “There aren’t as many opportunities to participate in a full scale production anymore.”
“And [the Regina does] professional-quality productions,” O’Connell added. “Productions we can be proud of.”
Fortunately for the opera house, the surrounding neighborhood boasts a built-in fan base.
Opera remains a fundamental part of the community for many longtime residents of Dyker Heights, which was historically an Italian neighborhood.
“Every Saturday morning, my mother and I would listen to ‘Live from the Met’ on the radio — this was in the 1930s,” said Marie Cantoni, the president of the Regina. “My mother would translate the singing for us. I was 6- or 7-years-old, and I enjoyed the music. It was exciting, and could be touching. ”
Now, Cantoni and her cohorts — who are not paid for their dedication to the Regina — extend the same courtesy to the audience that her mother extended to her.
During the operas, “supertitles” — unofficial English translations done by the company — are projected above the stage so that the audience will not be left in the dark as the drama unfolds.
The idea for the opera house first came about after Cantoni overheard one of her neighbors on Tabor Court in Dyker Heights singing beautifully every morning. Eventually, the idea evolved among her and some friends to organize a few performances of operatic selections — but not a full opera.
“Me, start an opera company?” said Cantoni. “I thought it was crazy, I can’t even read music! But I loved it and I was willing to work hard.”
Though there were rough spots in the 1970s and 1980s where the opera house was on the verge of closing — Cantoni said the formula for success remains quite simple.
“You do a show where you sing Italian opera in an Italian neighborhood — the people just come.”
Regina Opera’s 40th Anniversary Gala, featuring selections from numerous classics, at Regina Hall [65th Street and 12th Avenue in Dyker Heights, (718) 259-2772], April 11 at 3 pm. Tickets are $10.