The first time I interviewed Brooklynites Brianna Maury and Daniel Ellis-Ferris about their indie opera company, LoftOpera, we met up at a coffee shop in the Lower East Side. That was in 2014. When I reached out this year, Maury invited me to meet her at Loft Opera’s office, a spacious unit with a view inside the spiffy WeWork co-working space in Dumbo.
It’s not hard to imagine how LoftOpera grew into such a successful business venture. The concept of accessible, hip opera for a young crowd at just $30 a ticket is unique (by comparison, Met Opera tickets cost $200 and up); what’s more, Maury and Ellis-Ferris are two of the most business-minded art nerds I’ve ever met. In just two years under their aegis, LoftOpera has gained enough critical acclaim to poach The Metropolitan Opera’s Sophia Dumaine, formerly the Met’s Gifts Coordinator, as Development Director for their company.
And there’s another boast in order: Next month, LoftOpera is staging Macbeth — yep, it’s an opera, too — at the soon-to-be MAST chocolate factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, owned by the now infamous Mast Brothers. Brokelyn sat down with Maury to chat about the company’s growing success, the marriage of opera and chocolate, and what it is that makes successful people so easy to criticize.
“A lot of people have said we’re ruining the art form,” Maury, 26, told us. “When you’re doing something right, people can’t help but hate you.”
Verdi’s Macbeth opera dates back to 1847; it’s a dark, brooding libretto translated from Italian after Shakespeare’s play, and a fittingly somber tragedy to bring under the roof of a company whose reputation has faced similarly damning spots in the past two years.
As you might remember, the brothers Mast were scandalized in 2015 when word arrived that they’d remelted industrial-grade chocolate and sold it as bean-to-bar chocolate at $10/pop. The brothers were quickly martyrized as living effigies of inauthenticity, a crucial blow to be dealt in a borough that relies so heavily on the primer of “authentic” in its consumer culture.
But for Maury, that doesn’t really matter. She considers the Mast brothers “kindred spirits” to her and Ellis-Ferris, innovating and challenging notions of traditionalism and adherence to form.
“Opera culture breeds a kind of traditionalism that is fervent,” Maury said. “People say we’re bastardizing, that we wouldn’t exist if not for the hipster movement. And it’s funny, because those kinds of lambasts come from [people studying] opera now.”
Despite the occasional cry-wolfs, LoftOpera draws far more compliments than it does criticism. Soon after its launch the company was featured in Fortune, and their productions are now regularly (and favorably) reviewed in the New York Times. The company has imminent plans to expand to Detroit.
Rick Mast first caught wind of the company through their media buzz, too. An opera enthusiast himself, Mast formerly worked at Glimmerglass, a summer opera and musical theatre festival upstate in Cooperstown, New York. Maury reached out to connect, and Mast was eager to collaborate.
“When we got on the phone he was like, ‘I love opera!'”
Macbeth will be your first look inside MAST’s new 65,000 sq. ft. space at Brooklyn Navy Yard — and your last chance to see it empty, as it’s slated to begin renovations and manufacturing processes in early 2017. LoftOpera’s production, directed by Laine Rettmer, will feature a 33-piece orchestra and use immersive video elements “to explore the magic, horror and complicated psychologies” of Shakespeare’s tale.
It’s worth noting that for all its business acumen and critical success, LoftOpera is still very much a homeless operation— which is to say, every production hinges on the company’s ability to secure a venue. Part of the seduction of LoftOpera is in its “alternative” staging, opting for sprawling warehouse spaces over traditional theaters. And in Brooklyn, that means dealing with a lot of landowners and landlords, who aren’t always as friendly or creatively inclined as a Mast Brother.
“It’s funny, there are just so many, more and more landlords and landowners now,” Maury said. “You have to be really tough, negotiate every contract very diligently. It’s very nerve-wracking.”
Maury recalled the anxiety she’d felt just a few months prior in having to secure 101 Varick St. for September’s production of Cosi Fan Tutte. “We had to wire transfer a huge sum of money to a company that we’d never heard of. It is not for the faint of heart.”
Apt as her heart is for the job, Maury has career aspirations beyond LoftOpera. She plans to leave the company (in good hands) within the next five years to pursue another passion: insurance. Believe it or not, Maury’s resumé is stacked with insurance company experience, and she’s written essays about her insurance jobs, including one titled, “Only Boring People Get Bored.”
In looking to the more immediate future, though, Maury told us she hopes to pioneer LoftOpera into even greater operatic territory: she wants the company’s productions to feel like raves.
“The people that really inspire us are the people that are throwing raves,” she said. “The thousands of people, those lights. We had an after party in the space after [one of our shows], we had blacklight, and people got really drunk and had sex in the offices.”
When asked about what late-night office sex had to do with opera, Maury responded, “I think it goes back to the fact that when Opera was created, it was made for people to create joy. It feels totally natural to go there.”
LoftOpera’s Macbeth runs December 8, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18 at the MAST factory (Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bldg #128) All shows at 8pm. Tickets are $30.
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