Saint Cecilia seems to be looking over musician and Boheme Opera conductor Joseph Pucciatti in more ways than one.
First, the patron saint of music plays piano in the painting right over Pucciatti’s head as he plays a Wurlitzer spinet during the weekly Monday night rehearsal of the choir he leads at St. Joachim Catholic Church on Butler Street. The eight-member group performs traditional music during Masses and holidays, and, notes Pucciatti, is open to anyone with “passion to sing and glorify our Lord.”
But the second way is when Pucciatti says, “I’m very blessed. I got to do music as a career. I’ve done music everyday in my life” — that include his 10-year stint with the choir — one of several at the church, part of our Lady of the Angels Parish. “I was asked to take over for a few months and I’m still here,” he says.
And while Pucciatti may step away from the St. Cecilia analogy — he converted to Judaism years ago — he is still connected to the church where he was baptized, attended school, conducted his first opera, and leads a choir.
“I’ve got feet in both religions,” he says. But a conducting hand may be a better analogy. In addition to conducting the choir for church masses, he also conducts the Congregation Beth Chaim Choir of Princeton Junction.
Then he has his hands full with other musical activities. He is a music teacher and orchestra conductor at Trenton Central High School and founder and co-producer of the nonprofit professional Boheme Opera. The company is marking its 29th year with a production of the oft paired short operas “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci” at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, Friday, April 20, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 22, at 5:30 p.m.
Growing from both an outdoor performance of “I Pagliacci” during the then-annual Feast of Lights festival in Trenton and a formal production of “La Traviata,” Boheme has been presenting opera since 1989.
Pucciatti’s partner is his wife, pianist, and Boheme manager Sandra Milstein Pucciatti. He says that they are helped by a board of directors who all share the same sense of mission. “We believe in this,” he says. “It’s something that needs to be done. Someone asked me once why I spend my time on opera and I said, ‘I just have to do it.’”
Boheme’s roots run deep in Trenton. Pucciatti’s father, Vince, a first-generation American, was the head custodian at Washington School in Trenton. “It was the cleanest school!” Pucciatti says. “He had the idea that a job worth doing is worth doing right. My father was a hustler. He had two or three jobs at a time.”
“He insisted we do something after school. We all had piano lessons. My brother, Lenny, is a jazz drummer (and retired City of Trenton director of inspections). I stayed with piano and went into conducting. My sister Lisa took lessons for two or three years. But my brother and I are the musicians. My mother, Jean, was a housewife, and then took a job as a lunchroom aide.”
Born in 1953, Pucciatti graduated from Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey, and entered the Trenton School System where for more than 30 years he has worked in all levels of choral instrumental music instruction.
The work has convinced him that students participating in an orchestra “perform better in everything they do. In orchestra they watch out for rhythm, melody, and dynamics. They become aware of details and develop their cognitive skills and perceptions.”
It was at Trenton State that he discovered opera through a class assignment and was swept away. Something else there swept him away: Sandy, a Philadelphia pianist enrolled in the college’s masters program. The two have been married 40 years and have an adult daughter.
In addition to maintaining private piano studies at the couple’s Hamilton home, Sandy is the opera company’s principal rehearsal pianist.
“I’m thoroughly amazed at the way she can sight-read,” says Pucciatti. “Some piano reductions of operatic scores are tricky. You might need 25 fingers to play them.”
A longtime Trenton institution performing at Trenton Central High School auditorium and the Trenton War Memorial, Boheme became homeless when the War Memorial closed in 1994 for five years of renovations and found a new home at Villa Victoria in Ewing.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” says Pucciatti. “We honed our craft there. We experimented and worked things through.”
Boheme left Villa Victoria and returned to the War Memorial after completion of the renovation. But when rising War Memorial costs threatened Boheme’s lean budget, the company moved to the College of New Jersey in 2011.
Boheme’s home now is the Kendall Theater at TCNJ, which seats 830. “Kendall is small enough for the audiences to read the faces of performers,” Pucciatti says.
Asked about his hopes over the next several years, Pucciatti says, “We’re trying to bring opera into the 21st century with virtual sets and updating the period of operas while still satisfying mature audience members.”
“We want to be different and better,” Pucciatti says reflectively.
It’s also something he is trying to do during the choir rehearsal as he waves a raised right hand and calls, “A little bit more! Watch your pitch!” — all under St. Cecilia’s watchful eyes.
“Cavalleria Rusticana” and “I Pagliacci,” Boheme Opera, Kendall Hall, The College of New Jersey, Ewing. Friday, April 20, 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 22, 5:30 p.m. $15 to $65. For more details, visit bohemeopera.com.