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Singing her praises: Dyker fixture and founder of Regina Opera Company dies at 86

Swan song: Marie Cantoni, founder of the Dyker Heights Regina Opera Company, passed away on Oct. 28 at the age of 86.
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Local operatic trailblazer Marie Cantoni passed away on Oct. 28 at the age of 86.

Cantoni founded the Regina Opera Company in 1970 with her neighbor, Nick Tierno, after she learned that Tierno’s brother sang opera as a tenor and had no place to perform. Cantoni went on to transform the company into a renowned local favorite, beloved by both Brooklynites and opera-lovers beyond the borough alike for its affordable pricing and professional productions — which gained acclaim even in their school-auditorium venues.

Cantoni and Tierno began staging small concerts at the Regina Pacis Youth Center in Dyker Heights, staging their first full opera — Giuseppe Verdi’s three-act “La Traviata” — to piano accompaniment in 1971. But over time, the company grew to regularly draw crowds of around 300 people to classic productions like “Madame Butterfly,” “Marriage of Figaro,” and “Carmen.”

The company even attracted now-famous singers to its stage before they got their professional starts: Dolora Zajick, who went on to become an acclaimed mezzo-soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, tested out her lungs with the Regina Opera in 1980, before it even featured a full orchestra.

The company also became known for presenting operas in their original languages and projecting their own unofficial English translations above the stage for audiences to follow during the shows — a practice not commonly found outside of performances staged by the Metropolitan or New York City operas, according to Cantoni. And even when the company faced tough times and was on the verge of closing in the 1970s and ’80s, the heritage of the Dyker Heights neighborhood that Cantoni called home helped her and her performers sustain their success over time, she told this paper in 2010.

“You do a show where you sing Italian opera in an Italian neighborhood — the people just come,” Cantoni said.

Cantoni joined three older siblings when she was born at her Brooklyn home on 75th Street between 11th and 12th avenues in November 1930. She went on to attend PS 176 and New Utrecht High School. In 1957, she married her first-grade sweetheart, Matthew Cantoni, and soon gave birth to her daughter Linda in 1958. Her son Mark followed two years later.

Cantoni stayed involved with the Regina Opera Company, directing it as a labor of love — for which she was never paid — until she retired a few years ago. Her daughter, Linda, began directing operas at the company in 1986, and now serves on the board of directors and as the executive vice president, secretary, and legal advisor.

Marie Cantoni told the Brooklyn Paper that her love for opera began as a child, when she would listen to radio performances by the Metropolitan Opera with her mother.

“Every Saturday morning, my mother and I would listen to ‘Live from the Met’ on the radio — this was in the 1930s,” she said. “My mother would translate the singing for us. I was 6- or 7-years-old, and I enjoyed the music. It was exciting, and could be touching.”

And according to Cantoni’s daughter, Linda, even though her mother was too shy to appear on stage, she threw herself into her work any other way she could.

“Mom did just about everything for the company except sing — casting, scenery, set decoration, furniture, props, costumes, accounting, publicity, box office, administration — you name it,” she said. “She was amazingly creative and could draw, paint, sew and wield a hammer with the best of them.”

Cantoni said in 2010 that she doubted her idea to start the Regina Opera Company from the beginning, but that her work ethic and love for the art of opera kept her in it for the long haul.

“Me, start an opera company?” she said. “I thought it was crazy, I can’t even read music! But I loved it and I was willing to work hard.”

If you missed catching a performance with the Regina Opera Company in Cantoni’s heyday, have no fear, for the show must go on. You can catch the company’s performance of the same show they started with 46 years ago, “La Traviata,” on four dates in November in Sunset Park.

“La Traviata” at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Academy (5902 Sixth Ave. between 59th and 60th streets in Sunset Park, www.reginaopera.org). Nov. 18, 19, 25, and 26 at 3 pm. $25 ($20, seniors and students under 25-years-old).

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 5:52 pm, July 9, 2018
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