“It has always been my nature to walk in uncharted territory,” says voice teacher Carmela Altamura. “Just like the salmon, I always go against the current.” This attitude helps explain Altamura’s quixotic decision to build a small theater in 2000 and run a festival of vocal music in Round Top, a small Greene County hamlet southwest of Cairo.
The Altamura Center for the Arts and Cultures has had a good run, bringing together her voice students and Altamura/Enrico Caruso International Voice Competition winners with a small-but-enthusiastic audience in the Catskills. But the series comes to an end with performances on August 22, 23 and 30.
The project began at Altamura’s year-round home in Hudson County, New Jersey. “I took mostly expatriates from the Communist world,” she told me. “My dream was to give a place to the winners of my international competition, where they could go and learn by encountering the great masters before they went on to the professional stage. I invited them to perform so they could have a résumé that smelled sweet. Some went on to La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Bolshoi.
“Our competition eliminated the age limit for entrants. I discovered some great voices which matured later and can now sing Verdi. Others wondered what the hell I was doing, but now everyone is imitating me. A young man may have to support a family, and his chances of getting a well-paying opera job are small. But now he can enter my contest and win if his voice has the quality. Many of these winners have become marketable. We follow them for a year and then bring them to Round Top to get some experience. Unless you have experience, nobody will hire you.”
Choosing Round Top may seem strange, but Altamura says, “I think this area has the most beauty in all of New York State. And the culture is needed here, because few people can afford to go to the Metropolitan Opera. Now we have a following, and people feel enriched and express their gratitude. That was enough to energize me.”
The last season of performances begins on Friday, August 22 at 8 p.m. Soprano Marcia Thompson, a winner of Altamura’s competition, will collaborate with pianist Simonetta Tancredi, who has worked as a conductor at La Scala and collaborated with Ricardo Muti. They will be performing vocal and piano works by the Peruvian composer Alejandro Núñez Allauca, concluding with his Magnificat. There is no admission charge for this concert, “although we love contributions.”
On Saturday, August 23 Altamura will host the “Immortal Scenes in Opera” program, with an orchestra conducted by Roger Malouf, a staff member of the Metropolitan Opera. Singers from seven countries will perform scenes from operas of Puccini, Verdi and others. Only a few tickets remain for this performance.
On Sunday, August 30, two pianists will collaborate with some of the same singers in a program of vocal and piano works. Pianist Lorenzo Di Bella, 2007 First Prize winner at the Vladimir Horowitz Competition in Kiev, will play music of Rachmaninov. Pianist Christina Altamura, a Fulbright scholar, will play Chopin and Oscar Peterson. The singers will perform classical songs with piano.
“It is sad that I have to leave this place,” says Altamura, “because I have such beautiful memories. But my husband, who is the major funder, is getting on in years. Just to turn the key costs $60,000. The county raised my taxes an incredible amount. And my senator back in Hudson County said the people here want you back and we have a theater you can use for nothing.
“I don’t think people realize how lucky they are to live here in nature’s sanctuary of beauty and health. I brought a lot of business to local inns, but I didn’t get the cooperation I think this work deserves.”
So Altamura will be staying in New Jersey from now on, but she is not giving up her work. Teaching remains her major interest. “I try to use discipline, but not break their spirit. I let them know the truth. I make them compete with themselves, because ultimately they are celebrating their own gifts and should never compete with others.” She is also planning to write a book with reminiscences of the many famous opera singers whom she has encountered. Perhaps by the time it is finished, some of her own students will be included.
Altamura Music Festival, Friday, August 22, 8 p.m., free, Saturday, August 23, 3 p.m., $35/$30, Saturday, August 30, 3 p.m., $35/$30, Altamura Center for the Arts & Cultures, 404 Winter Clove Road, Round Top, (518) 622-0070, www.altocanto.org.