Something bizarre is happening in the heart of the Village. Across the street from NYU’s ugly high-rise dorms and vintage-clad students, quite a different crowd is gathering. On the corner of Mercer and Waverly, middle-aged women with dramatic make-up and grand shawls that cover their shoulders just-so stand in a cloud of cigarette smoke and make conversation with round-bellied men. Soon they quiet down as a great baritone voice spills out of Caffé Taci’s propped-open doors. Deeply pleased, they file inside, and I follow.
Once seated inside at a round table near the door, I politely try to greet my mother’s friends, only to have them shush me – the aria is already well underway. As the voice rises and falls, they make quiet comments to each other about the singer’s range and coloratura—making it painfully obvious that I know nothing about opera. My embarrassment is quickly relieved, however, by a hand on my back. It is Leopoldo Mucci, the restaurant’s owner and self-proclaimed “missionary of Opera.” With unbridled enthusiasm, he looks into my face and exclaims, “Largo al factotum – Rossini!” Seeing my confusion, he adds in his thick Italian accent, “The Barber of Seville.” Leopoldo is by my side the whole night, and, in fact, by the side of everyone else in the café, jumping around between the tables with an uncanny grace, introducing each performance, talking about his favorite composers, hushing people when necessary, and offering up random pieces of opera wisdom such as “the tenor always gets the girl.”
It does not take long to realize that Leopoldo operates on the assumption that no one at the café is a random guest. For him, everyone is there for some reason, and everyone is someone. Tell Leopoldo you play the piano, and soon those at the tables around you will think you are a concert pianist. His cheer is contagious and pretty soon I am surprised to find myself no longer irritated by the impossibility of making conversation in the minute breaks between arias, but actually looking forward to the next performance.
Caffé Taci, whose name, after all, means “be quiet,” is probably not the ideal spot for a get-to-know-you first date. A “normal” café during the week, it turns into a gathering spot for those who live and breathe opera each Friday and Saturday night at 9 p.m., when advanced students and young professionals eager to break into the opera world mount the raised dais at the far end of the café.
Although Leopoldo’s warmth draws together many of the same faces week after week, the café has attracted opera aficionados from around the world, such as the table of former Argentine opera performers sitting (and singing) to my right that night. Tables change over rarely, and most of those who are lucky enough to get a table before 9 end up staying late into the night. They are rewarded when the quality of the singing changes radically after midnight as singers from the Metropolitan Opera – personal friends of Leopoldo’s – arrive after a show to sing a last aria or two at the café.
Leopoldo has made many of these friends during his time as a “spear-carrier” at the Met, though he shies away from talking about the experience. He is much more interested in discussing his home town of Modena, Italy and his time studying music at Columbia. His singing ambitions had kept him in the city following his graduation in 1976, but life had a different plan for him. Nearly 20 years later, Leopoldo and a friend opened the original Café Tací in July of 1995 near his beloved Columbia in Morningside Heights.
Though he talks about the Caffé’s opening with great fervor, Leopoldo prefers to leave the creation of the original Opera Nights shrouded in mystery. The story is always the same – four students from the Manhattan School of Music who, after requesting to use the café’s piano to practice a libretto after they had finished eating, were asked back to sing a program of arias because of their impressive performance. Leopoldo always changes his mind, though, as to whether this “beginning” was an accident or not, sometimes admitting Opera Night would not have happened without the four students, and sometimes citing the existence of the piano as proof he had the idea all along and was just waiting to put it into practice.
Whatever the origins of Opera Night, Leopoldo found it easy to attract the talent, culling singers from MSM and Mannes College of Music, as well as hiring a house pianist, Iya Fedotova, whose last engagement had been for the Ural State Conservatory in Russia. He found it much harder, however, to turn out a profit. Forced to move out in 2004 due to a rent increase, Taci was homeless for several months. Eventually, though, Leopoldo struck on Taci’s new location and instituted a somewhat wiser fiscal policy – a $30 minimum instead of a cover charge, and separate baskets to be passed around throughout the night for both Iya and the singers. He has managed to keep the prices fairly low by New York standards, though, and the minimum usually fully covers an entrée, coffee and desert.
Settled into his new Downtown location, Leopoldo is delighted to be part of New York’s opera scene once again, and he has made it his mission to help new singers achieve recognition. “They come to me,” he says of the performers, “because they know this is a meeting place for musicians. I get everybody on stage.” The night I was there, he was incredibly proud that one of his singers, a voluptuous soprano, was going to be having “very important, great auditions next week!” The singers feel Leopoldo’s sincere support and respond with the same amount of affection. As Brad Cresswell, one of the singers whispered to me during a lull in the music, “Sometimes they change the libretto for Leopoldo.” And, true enough, just moments later Leopoldo’s voice rings out above all the heads in the café, more muted than the singers’ but receiving equal, if not greater applause.