For 35 years, Peter Haley has been the Pied Piper of opera in the Capital Region. As founder of the 400-member Siena Opera Club, he teaches classes on the art form, leads dozens of bus trips every year to performances across the east coast, and organizes European tours.
Preparing for it all means long days immersed in music and logistical details. And Haley doesn’t even get to take the summers off.
That’s because the local opera season is concentrated during the months of July and August. At the head of the pack is the Lake George Opera at Saratoga, which Haley and his crew call “the home team.” The company launches its 48th season tonight with a new production of “Carmen” and continues on Friday with Donizetti’s “Viva La Mama.” Meanwhile in Cooperstown Glimmerglass Opera’s opening weekend features Puccini’s “Tosca” on Friday and Copland’s “The Tenderland” on Saturday.
The Siena Opera Club will show up in force for most everything.
“They’re enthusiastic and knowledgeable opera-goers,” says Curtis Tucker, artistic director of the Lake George Opera. “Peter Haley’s leadership of the organization has been extraordinary. He has made the Siena Opera Club an important group, serving individuals, opera companies near and far, and the art form that we love.”
“Our mission it to put people in front of live opera,” says Haley, 70.
That’s also an apt description of Haley’s life purpose. He’s had sundry other musical pursuits, including 54 years as a church organist, starting in his teens and continuing at various parishes in the region. But opera’s been his primary focus since at least 1975 when he was recruited to teach an appreciation course in the tiny music department at Siena College in Loudonville.
Haley recalls that when he became a full time faculty member there in 1984, “I was the music department, teaching an intro class, music history and introduction to opera.” He retired five years ago but continues a pace with the club.
According to Haley, the class in opera was surprisingly popular with undergrads, partly since it met just one night a week but was worth three credits. But it also drew a healthy contingent of adult students from the community. In 1980, the regulars prevailed on Haley to continue offering monthly seminars and to expand the range of excursions. Bus rides to the Metropolitan Opera have been happening ever since, sometimes a dozen times a season.
“If you live in the Albany area and are a die hard opera fan, it’s the best deal going,” says Deborah Onslow, former president and general manager of WMHT, who’s been a member for about four years. “It allows me to go to New York and not have to spend the night. Sometimes those operas are so long that there’s no hope of catching the late train back.”
For Met performances, members are dropped off at Lincoln Center at 4 p.m., allowing time for a bit of shopping or site seeing as well as dinner before the 8 p.m. curtain. After the show, they pile into the buses and arrive back at Siena by 1 or 2 a.m.
Membership in the Siena Opera Club is $25 a year for individuals, $40 for families. Members can pick and chose which performances they’ll attend. Met tickets, including transportation, are around $150. The advance seminars are free.
“My only regret is that I didn’t learn about it when it first started,” says Roland Hummel of Brunswick. “I subscribed to the Met for 20 years and took the train. But it’s best to be with other people interested in opera.”
During his 15 years of membership, Hummel has gone on at least a dozen European tours with the club and is looking forward to trip to Spain in the fall. Though he’s 91 years old, Hummel is not the oldest active member. That distinction goes to John Cetner, age 102.
“It’s the pure pleasure of listening to good music,” says Cetner, who still attends several performances each year. “And Peter is a gem who uses plane language to describe the plots and singers.”
While the membership tilts toward the grey-haired set, vocal students from local high schools and colleges are regularly taken along to performances for free. Three years ago a partnership was formed with the Opera Club at Lisha Kill Middle School. It consists of students who give up recess to watch opera on DVD and sometimes tag along on the opera club outings.
“Watching the discussions about opera on the bus is my favorite part,” says Lisha Kill band instructor Karen MacWatters. “Suddenly there’s a bunch of crazy noisy kids and the seniors just light right up.”
Quietly presiding over it all is the benevolent Peter Haley. Also a former critic for the Times Union, Haley is as discerning and experienced a listener as you’ll find, having seen “La Traviata” more than 50 times. But he mostly keeps his opinions to himself.
“I try to respect where my people are and if they’ve had a great time and I haven’t, why bother to say anything,” he explains. “Though to my friends I’ll bitch up a storm about a bad performance and just let the blood run.”
Without a hint of condescension, Haley continues: “At midnight after we’ve been through an opera and I’m checking people onto the bus, someone will say ‘Wasn’t that wonderful?’ And I’ll just smile. My pleasure is making pleasure for other people.”
Originally appeared in Times Union.
Photos: Cindy Schultz, Times Union