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Taking local opera to a new level

It all started with “Annie.”

As a young girl who was always singing, Susan Cotroneo remembers both her earliest record, a 45 rpm vinyl record of “Delta Dawn” sung by Helen Reddy, and her first concert, Captain & Tennille at the state fair with her parents.

But it was her fifth-grade chorus and works of Rodgers & Hammerstein that sparked her interest in show music.

“My mom was going to Gold Circle and I asked her to buy me ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ albums. She came home with ‘Oklahoma’ and ‘Annie.’ That was it, I was hooked, I needed to be Annie,” Cotroneo recalls. 

Today, Cotroneo’s passion for music is stronger than ever. She calls it an obsession for opera, and her mission is to bring it to everyone in Rochester.

She hopes a new home for her opera company, Rochester Lyric Opera Inc., will do just that. It purchased the former First Church of Christ, Scientist, at 440 East Ave. in April for $1.2 million. The site has been named the Lyric Theatre and plans include a multimillion dollar renovation project.

“Our tagline is ‘Rochester Lyric Opera—Opera for Everyone,’” Cotroneo, 46, points out.

The goal is to show that opera has a wide appeal, and the venues for the RLO’s performances up until now have proven that, she says.

“We have been in some strange places, mainly out of necessity,” Cotroneo says. “We were at the mercy of everyone else’s schedule and when their space was available.”

In a way that may have been a blessing, she acknowledges, because of the diversity of the audience the RLO was able to reach. It performed at the School of the Arts, the Linehan Chapel at Nazareth College and the Visual Studies Workshop on Prince Street. There was diversity in its performances as well.

“We did the children’s opera at Strong, the royal ball weekend, where the kids all dress up. And we performed at the Hall of Justice with a courtroom comedy at lunchtime. We had great audiences and they were so much fun,” she says.

But to build a solid following, the RLO needed a more regular schedule, Cotroneo says.

“It made it hard for us to have a season or for crowds to depend on us,” she says.

Finding a home
She felt it was time to find a permanent home.

The former First Church of Christ, Scientist, proved to be the perfect location, she says, because of its size, stature and exceptional acoustics. The Lyric Theatre will be used as a medium-capacity performing arts center for the RLO, as well as several arts, cultural and educational organizations—both non-profit and commercial acts, Cotroneo says.

The RLO purchased the landmark building for $1.2 million with money raised through private donations; renovation plans will run upwards of $6 million, largely to overhaul the building’s infrastructure and install an orchestra pit. The funding will come mainly through a capital campaign kicking off this month.

RLO administration—a staff of seven volunteers—will occupy existing offices in the theater, along with other arts organizations that would like to share its resources.

John Nugent and Marc Iacona, the producers of the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, are a major sub-tenant, managing the theater operations for their shows and paying a fee to hold performances there, Cotroneo says.

Proceeds from a newly announced lineup of performances at the Lyric Theatre will be used for the renovations.

The first performer in that lineup over the next several months is especially significant to Cotroneo and a sign her efforts to promote music in Rochester are paying off.

As a voice teacher doing private lessons, Cotroneo was committed to music education in the schools. She connected that mission to the opera company, where she needed to develop outreach programs by starting a voice competition in honor of a student who passed away, Jonathan Angelone.

The first student to win that competition five years ago was Matthew Swensen, a Penfield High School senior, who is about to graduate from the Eastman School of Music and is on his way to Julliard School, Cotroneo says.

Swensen donated a recital as the debut performance at the Lyric Theatre on April 24 as a way to show support for the opera, but also to thank Cotroneo for supporting him.

“What an honor that RLO could have been a stepping stone in his journey,” Cotroneo says. “Having the theater is only going to magnify the impact we can make in our outreach programs. It is so exciting.”

“Matthew dedicated his singing to the RLO,” says his mother, Kathryn Cowdrick. “He was happy to do it. Hopefully this will be the start of many other great performances there for many singers. This venue is fantastic.”

Cowdrick, a member of the voice faculty at Eastman School, met Cotroneo through the competition her son won and says she was so impressed by Cotroneo’s passion for music that she became a judge on the panel.

“As musicians we are looking at what we can do for the next generation. We are especially appreciative of the outreach she has done in schools,” says Cowdrick, who adds she has done fundraising for the RLO. “We want the arts in our children’s lives.”

The debut performance at the Lyric Theatre exceeded all expectations, says Cotroneo’s financial adviser and husband, Anthony Cotroneo, a partner with the Rochester law firm Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP.

“Over 200 people came. That’s pretty good for something that had such little notice and publicity,” he says. “Opera is a close-knit community here, so we were happy to see lots of new faces turn out.”

Capital campaign
His wife’s goal is to begin showcasing the theater as soon as possible, he says. The plan is to use the theater for the next several months with a light schedule. It also will feature performances with the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival and the First Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival.

“If we’re fortunate enough with the capital campaign, we can start renovations around January and finish in six to eight months,” Anthony Cotroneo estimates.

The campaign will begin by seeking private donors, Cotroneo says. If needed, it may seek public support.

The RLO has been working with the CPA firm the Bonadio Group to develop budgets for the theater, he says, including its renovation and operation.

“We are in serious discussions with all major arts institutions and organizations in Rochester,” he says. “There may be up to 30 groups that would utilize this theater. That’s part of what motivated us to move forward.”

He stresses it will be used for much more than a home for the RLO.

“The theater has to be a lot more than an opera house. It will be used for a fully staged opera maybe once or twice a year. The rest of the time it has to be a sustainable business model for commercial users like the jazz fest. That’s how it will thrive,” he says.

Making money has never been the main goal in this project for Susan Cotroneo—at least, not for herself.

“Not many people know that I do not pay myself,” she says. “This is truly a labor of love.”

She points out the seven core members of the RLO are volunteers who have day jobs in education or music. One member is a paralegal.

“We just love vocal music and want this company to survive,” Cotroneo says. “The goal is that with the revenue generated from the operas, everyone committed to us will have some sort of salary. But not me; for now, it is my community service.”

The annual budget for the RLO is around $80,000, Cotroneo says. Some 90 percent of the proceeds come from corporate sponsorships, and individual donors contribute the remaining funds.

Many of the performers are hired on a per-performance basis and their pay is based on more than the length of the event.

“For singers, we negotiate based on experience. We hire locally and from out of town. Rehearsals and a two-night performance pay as much as $3,000,” Cotroneo says. “Orchestra musicians get paid per service. It’s not determined by us, but by the union.”

That is typical for a regional opera, she says, noting musicians from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra Inc. are sometimes hired as independent contractors for the RLO. That would be additional work for them since they are on salary for the season with the RPO, she says.

Career path
Cotroneo says she did not have the stress many musicians have of worrying about where their next gig would be. Teaching gave her a paycheck after college, so singing was more of an outlet than a career for her initially.

She joined the Rochester Opera Factory Inc. and also took leading roles with Buffalo Opera Unlimited Inc., the Genesee Valley Orchestra and Chorus Inc. and the Rochester Oratorio Society Inc.—all while teaching vocal music. She first taught at Newfield Central School near Ithaca, then Roth Middle School in the Rush-Henrietta Central School District and in 2003—the position she loved most—at the Rochester School of the Arts.

All this time, she was also building her family. She and her husband were raising three children when the decision came to start an opera company.

“In 2005 we founded Empire State Lyric Theatre, what is now Rochester Lyric Opera.  Leading up to forming this company I (had an agent) in New York City and spent a year traveling back and forth for auditions—it became very clear that I would have to make some choices. I did not feel right about taking off for the day or night and leaving the kids.”

That was the turning point that led Cotroneo to make the decision to bring her love for opera home.

She credits her courage, in part, to her hardworking parents and the way they inspired her growing up. Her father taught for a while, and then began his own business as a general contractor. Her mother was an elementary school teacher for years in the Rochester City School District and then a principal, retiring from School 46 a few years ago.

“They were tough on me as the oldest sibling and only daughter.  They were always ‘building character’ and their daughter was going to be able to ‘take care of herself’ as an adult,” Cotroneo says. “Because of what they did, no is not an answer I will take. There always has to be another way.”

While it was her parents who instilled her determination, it was her aunt Ceil who helped her love of music blossom. Her aunt was working on Broadway as a singer and dancer, and Cotroneo took a trip to visit her not long after her mother bought her that beloved “Annie” album.

“We saw as many shows as we could see. We took a daily trip down to the discount ticket booth … and bought whatever was on the board.  Thank goodness ‘Annie’ was there. I saw it and done deal—I was going to be a singer, no doubt in my mind,” Cotroneo recalls.

Her dream came true, and Cotroneo is proud to sing with the RLO. Plenty of challenges lie ahead in carrying out the dream of making the Lyric Theatre its new home, and juggling her daily schedule is one of them.

“I hit the ground running in the morning,” Cotroneo says. “My eye is on the opera prize and doing whatever needs to be done to keep growing the company and passion behind it.

“At three o’clock, I change hats and get my kids off the bus, run to Wegmans, make dinner and drive the soccer-wrestling-music lesson-playdate circuit.”

People who know her say if anyone can balance it all, Cotroneo can.

“She’s got a lot of drive, a lot of moxie and a lot of imagination,” says Rose-Marie Klipstein, a retired teacher from Nazareth College.

The two met years ago at an Eastman School reception. Klipstein served as chairwoman of the Friends of Eastman Opera for nine years, she says, and sees herself as an ardent opera fan.

“It’s wonderful Sue has formed this opera,” Klipstein says. “This is a wonderful music town. We have the RPO, Hochstein, Eastman—Rochester deserves an opera, especially in such a gorgeous building.”

Many opera fans, including Klipstein, believe that exposure to the art brings out an admiration for it. That is one of the hopes both Cotroneos have for the RLO and the new Lyric Theatre—that it could attract new audiences.

“I played the sax in junior high, but still don’t know how much music acumen I have,” Anthony Cotroneo explains. “But I have come to appreciate it more by being around it. It’s just like art or sports. I think the appreciation of opera comes with learning, and a lot of communities haven’t done enough to educate about it.”

As for their own family, Susan Cotroneo says their children have some appreciation for music.

“All three have beautiful voices,” she says. “My daughter has a little bit of the theater bug when she gets on stage. She performed the role of Annie. She’s a red head—sassy!”

As a mother to three school-age children, Cotroneo spends much of her time attending their sports games. She acknowledges she would like to see more concerts now and then, but she can do that later. The Pittsford resident enjoys being with the family, cooking when she has time, and singing always.

“I just love what I do as a musician, administrator, wife and mother. They are all fulfilling and energizing, and I can’t wait to see what new experience they bring tomorrow.”

Susan Cotroneo
Position: Managing director, Rochester Lyric Opera Inc.
Age: 46
Education: Bachelor of music in vocal performance and music education, Ithaca College, 1991; master of music in vocal performance from West Virginia University, 1996
Family: Husband, Anthony Cotroneo; sons Nate, 14, and Max, 13; daughter Annabelle, 10
Residence: Pittsford
Interests: Singing, music, cooking and going to her children’s sporting events
Quote: “No is not an answer I will take. There always has to be another way.”

5/8/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.



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