The opera singer? She’s the quietest tenant of all.
by Daniel P. Bader
You know when an opera singer is your neighbor. That is unless you are next door to opera singer Christina Ascher at Workspace, the burgeoning modern office spaces constructed by Edison Properties that are filling up two floors of 5030 Broadway.
Ascher, an accomplished contralto coming off a long career in Europe, is just down the hall from State Senator Eric Schneiderman’s office, and just below a speech therapist. But no one in Schienderman’s office spills their coffee when she hits a high note; no one stutters upstairs when she belts an aria. They don’t even know she’s there.
“Welcome to the WhisperRoom,” says Ascher, pushing open her studio door to reveal a made-to-order soundproof box that fills the entire office, leaving only a narrow pathway around its perimeter.
“In Germany they put out plants” when someone moves into a new home she says, gesturing to some plastic flowers hanging off one exterior wall of the WhisperRoom. “I planted geraniums. It’s not my taste. It’s more of a joke.”
Ascher opened her studio at Workspace in April after 34 years abroad. She picked Inwood as her new home after reading online community newspapers from her home in Frankfurt, Germany. She said that what she read about Inwood in the online version of the Manhattan Times helped her make a decision.
In the 1970s she lived on W. 183rd Street and Ft. Washington Avenue and always had ideas of returning after cutting her teeth on the European opera scene.
“I noticed all the big roles were being sung by Americans who live overseas for a long time or were European,” Ascher remembers. Her agent got her on an auditioning tour around Germany and she landed a contract.
She’d get those big roles in the German opera houses of Karlsruhe, Bonn, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Graz, Oldenburg and Zurich, Switzerland. She was successful, and she stayed. Then, last year, she decided to return to the United States – in time to cast her ballot in November’s presidential election.
“I thought the country might be getting bigger and better,” Ascher said, adding: “At some point you want to go home.”
She resisted the tide of talent migrating to Brooklyn, insisting on staying in Manhattan.
“It seemed to me there is a community feeling” in Inwood, she said.
She found an apartment on Cooper Street through a friend of a friend, and found Workspace with an advertisement at the bottom of an email.
“Opera singers have problems their whole lives” disturbing people when they practice, Ascher said. It’s even more disturbing if you give lessons in your home – something Ascher wanted to do. “I did practice at home and it’s no problem, but I love to teach,” she said.
Though returning to the United States brought about thoughts of retirement, instead she found fulfillment in teaching and through new contacts in the New York opera scene. The older singers get, the weaker their voices get, Ascher said.
“My voice is nowhere near going out,” she said. “I thought there’s no way I’m going to retire.”
Ascher pops open the door to the WhisperRoom and steps inside. “You just wouldn’t expect this in this building,” she said.
“It was so unconventional that someone would come in and propose an opera studio,” said Edison Properties Business Relations Manager Jason Miller. “I said I would entertain it. Inwood brings in a different element.”
But something had to be done to contain the sound.
Standing outside her studio, without the WhisperRoom, Ascher blew him away.
“It felt like she was right there,” Miller said. “She has probably one of the most powerful voices you would hear.”
The two visited Little Airplane Productions, home of the children’s television show “Wonder Pets,” in the South Street Seaport and tried out its WhisperRoom.
The rooms come in two types and all kinds of sizes. Little Airplane’s is a “single pane” which promises to cut a 100 decibel sound in half. After hearing how well it worked, Ascher ordered a “double pane” version, which cuts the same 100 decibel sound 75 percent.
Floor lamps illuminate the inside where a keyboard, music stands and two stools are arranged. Even with the door open, inside the soundproof room the sound of Workspace’s ventilation system disappears.
“You have to get it perfect. If you don’t you have all kinds of noise coming out,” Ascher says, holding up an inch-thick book of assembly directions.
Manhattan Mini Storage’s loading dock was filled with boxes the day the WhisperRoom arrived, and even though the Ikea-like instructions were meant for anyone to be able to follow them, Ascher brought in a company from North Carolina to assemble her room inside a room.
When it was finished, she asked one of the workers to stand inside and shout, while she stood in the hall to listen for any noise. She didn’t hear a peep, and wondered if the man had really shouted.
“He came out with a really red face,” she said.
Miller said no one has complained about Ascher’s rehearsing yet.
Molly Keogh, a summer social work intern in Senator Schneiderman’s office, said there isn’t much she can hear in the office – even from neighbors without fancy technology.
“Her room is soundproof,” she said, “but even our doors are really, really heavy. We have other neighbors and I can’t hear them.”
As the voice lessons pick up, Ascher has learned that she can’t be in the WhisperRoom until her student arrives and is announced on the telephone.
“I can’t hear the bell when the door’s shut,” she says with a smile.
The Manhattan Times is the bilingual newspaper of Washington Heights and Inwood.