NEW YORK: It is an opera lover's midsummer night's dream: a picnic blanket, a bottle of wine and blissful strains of Mozart, Verdi or Puccini in New York's Central Park.
In a nearly 40-year tradition, city dwellers converge in Manhattan's Central Park to experience the sumptuous operatic fare usually only enjoyed by those willing to pay top-dollar at the city's celebrated symphony halls.
This week, under the baton of the octogenarian maestro Vincent La Selva, music lovers enjoyed a production of Puccini's "Tosca."
The performance took place in Central Park's Naumburg Bandshell, where many music lovers snubbed the amphitheater's built-in seats in favor of folding lawn chairs -- or simply took in the music while reclining on the grass.
"I do operas that I think people want to see. They come from all around the country," said La Selva, founder and director of the New York Grand Opera, which staged the free public production.
"What's very interesting is that we have a lot of young people, which is unusual. The young people -- 19, 20 years old -- they don't go to the opera, they are not opera-goers," he said.
The decades-long tradition began when New York's cultural authority asked La Selva if he would be willing to try to stage a production at the Bandshell, an underused clamshell-like amphitheater. He eagerly accepted the challenge.
"The first year I did one opera, 'La Boheme,'" he said.
"The next year I did five. For the last four or five years, I have done two or three operas a year, mainly because the funding has gone down," he said.
Even with less funding, over the years the operas in the park have come to be a New York tradition, and La Selva has become something of a celebrity.
"I have people stopping me on the street and saying: 'You know, the first opera I ever saw was in Central Park with you, and now I go very often to the opera' It's great," he said.
There are no curtains on the Bandshell stage, so audience members watch the entire production unfold, including set changes, before their eyes. Somehow, under the canopy of trees and the starlit sky, none of the magic is lost.
La Selva has attracted top talent to his productions. On Wednesday, the role of Cavaradossi was sung by the celebrated Mexican tenor Alejandro Olmedo.
But his operas also feature New York's legions of talented singers, who gain valuable experienced in the high-profile production.
"There's a tremendous amount of talent in New York, singers who don't have place to go," he said.
The New York Grand Opera's critically acclaimed productions over the years have been seen by an estimated three million people throughout the New York metropolitan area, including productions staged in the city's four other boroughs outside Manhattan.
This summer, two free Puccini performances will be put on in the Bandshell. The audience heard "Tosca" this week. On July 18, visitors will be treated to a production of "Madama Butterfly."
La Selva has been lauded by former president Bill Clinton, governors George Pataki and Mario Cuomo, and has been awarded the Handel Medallion, New York City's highest honor for cultural contributions.
Next year, on the 40th anniversary of the open-air opera, La Selva plans to honor Giuseppe Verdi, one of his favorite composers. In the coming years he hopes to see opera expand to even more venues.
"New York is a big place. We are eight, nine million people. Why should it have just one opera? We deserve five or six."