Performers in Twilight Years Sing for Their Dreams

Verdi, opera, Positively OldOpera singers at the Casa Italiana Opera Company in Los Angeles’ Chinatown are a unique breed. They come together from all walks of life and at all ages to learn and perform challenging operas, and they do it without years of experience or pay, solely for the love of music drama.


The Casa Italiana Opera Company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, continuing its run as the oldest continuously-producing opera company in Southern California. The all-volunteer group of singers puts on four to five operas per year at the cultural center next to St. Peter’s Italian Church.

Many of the performers are in their seventies and eighties and still going strong. The founder of the opera company, Maestro Mario Leonetti, died last year in 2010 at the age of 92; he was still staging the operas and directing the performances when Don Carlo was filmed in November, 2001. According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, “Mario’s legacy of giving unknown singers a chance to pursue their operatic careers will be remembered throughout the community for years to come.”

How the Dream Began

The Casa Italiana Opera Company was created in 1971 when Father Luigi Donanzan of St. Peter’s Italian Catholic Church approached Mario Leonetti about staging operas on the church property. To this day, proceeds from ticket sales are donated to the Church.

Leonetti’s illustrious career with the San Carlo and New York City Operas and studios in Los Angeles made him the perfect partner for the venture. He quickly established a format, with a banquet served at the table preceding the performance.

Over the years, hundreds of singers have found an opportunity to learn and practice opera roles onstage. Each production features singers of professional caliber polishing new repertoires. Developing singers have the advantage of working alongside experienced performers as they stretch their wings; conductors get to enhance their skills with new works.

Among the operas tackled by the company have been the Los Angeles premiere of Verdi’s Luisa Miller, and such rarities as L’Amico Fritz and Andrea Chenier, as well as the obligatory Bohemes and Butterflies. The company was featured in the “Tavern Scene” from Carmen in the 1977 film, “Fun with Dick and Jane.”

Operas are performed with orchestra, costumed and fully staged, and usually in the original language. The company also stages benefits for charitable organizations in the community, and is the subject of an award-winning documentary film, “Volunteers for Verdi,” produced by New Playwrights Foundation.

“Volunteers for Verdi” Documentary

In the documentary, the company is shown preparing and performing Verdi’s Don Carlo, with as much drama behind the scenes as there is onstage. The cast could not be more eclectic, with backgrounds as diverse as:

• a Korean-born homemaker as the lead singer

• the owner-operator of a local fence-building company as Don Carlo

• a retired Argentinian mechanic

• a mail carrier

• a villainous kindergarten teacher

• a multi-hyphenate executive producer/writer/actor who never had an interest in singing opera at all and claims to be doing it only because of his wife

• a real estate appraiser

• a business administrator

• an English-born Irishman and emeritus professor of economics who fought Nazis in Belgium during World War II, and

• a tax preparer

The conductor, Walter Unterberg, is a registered U.S. patent agent whose family fled Austria during the 1938 Anschluss and escaped to England when he was only a teenager. And professional musician, John Mitchell, was the rehearsal pianist and sang in the chorus.

What can possibly bring such a menagerie together? Friendship, women (one wifeCover of Volunteers for Verdi and one romantic interest), a chance for a once-in-a-lifetime creative outlet, a love of opera, and individual dreams that can and do come true, even into their twilight years.

For More Information About:

The Casa Italiano Opera company and their next performance of Turandot on August 28, 2011

The documentary, Volunteers for Verdi


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