The Season Ahead: Florentine Opera

General director William Florescu talks about the company's 80th Anniversary season, beginning with the epic "La Traviata," and the company's increasing efforts to engage with the Milwaukee community year-round.
November 11th, 2013 |
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William Florescu, general director of the Florentine Opera.

In 1933, local conductor John-David Anello gathered a group of singers calling themselves the Italian Opera Chorus to perform and celebrate their beloved art form.

Eighty years later, that group – long since rechristened the Florentine Opera – still goes strong, entering an anniversary season under the guidance of general director William Florescu with a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata this weekend.

It’s the first offering in a season that Florescu calls a tribute to the Florentine’s roots. While he’s made a name for himself and the Florentine since his hiring in 2005 by presenting both older Baroque operas and newer American works, including a critically acclaimed production of Semele in 2009 and a production of Elmer Gantry in 2010 that later won two Grammy awards, all four productions this year stand as examples of Italian opera music. Along with La Traviata, the company is doing Handel’s Julius Caesar and Puccini’s La Bohème, and their now-annual Valentine’s-themed concert this year is Festa Fiorentina, a romantic romp through the love songs of famous Italian artists.

But Florescu wants to emphasize that the season isn’t just about paying homage to their roots. “We picked this season’s shows purposely, because the company was founded as an Italian opera group … but it’s as much forward-looking as backward looking.” An elaboration on two of the shows on that schedule illuminates his comments: Florescu points out that Handel’s Julius Caesar will be both a Baroque opera and a completely new production they can subsequently rent to other companies, and says their Valentine’s concert will include works by Italian-American performers of the Great American Songbook – think Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra – as well as more traditional opera arias. “It’s a mix of the old and the new.”

La Traviata falls squarely in the classic category. The opera, one of the most commonly performed in the world, tells the story of Violetta, a courtesan who unexpectedly falls in love with Alfredo, a young noble whose passion for her is truly authentic. But their love comes with a snag – the destruction of Alfredo and his family’s reputation, and his father Giorgio ultimately arrives to force the end of their relationship and save his daughter’s betrothal.

"La Traviata" tells the story of Violetta (Elizabeth Caballero), a courtesan who unexpectedly finds herself in love with a naive nobleman. Photo by Kathy Wittman.

“La Traviata” tells the story of Violetta (Elizabeth Caballero), a courtesan who unexpectedly finds herself in love with a naive nobleman. Photo by Kathy Wittman.

It’s a story that requires a trio of powerful singers, with Violetta the most demanding of all, according to Florescu. He says each of Verdi’s three acts calls for a different kind of soprano virtuosity: elaborate coloratura in Act I; big, bombastic sound in Act II; and light, airy musicality in Act III. “And to top it all off,” Florescu said, “you have to be all three while acting up a storm.” Florescu’s tapped Elizabeth Caballero, last seen at the Florentine as Donna Elvira in 2006’s Don Giovanni, for the role; she’ll be flanked by tenor Rolando Sanz as Alfredo and baritone Mark Walters as Giorgio, both making their Florentine debuts.

This year's Florentine Studio Artists are performing more than ever, thanks to the "@ The Center" series. Photo credit JMZ Photo.

This year’s Florentine Studio Artists are performing more than ever, thanks to the “@ The Center” series. Photo credit JMZ Photo.

The two nights of La Traviata are being billed by the Florentine as epic events – with good reason – but increasingly the company is getting as well known for what they do outside their “regular season” as for that season itself. This summer marked their 10th annual summer concert series featuring the talents of the Florentine Studio Artists (four gifted performers, selected out of hundreds of applicants), and those same four singers inaugurated the Florentine’s new “@ The Center” series in October, which presents samplings of their repertoire on the smaller stage of the Florentine Opera Center in Riverwest.

Florescu says the new series is the logical extension of his long-term efforts to increase the number of performances done out in the broader Milwaukee community, both as a form of musical outreach and (more practically) as a way to spread word of the Florentine and build up their base. They’ll perform five more concerts in addition to the October opener, including “Florentine After Dark” on Nov. 22 and 23, a program of German and French cabaret songs; an alumni recital featuring former Studio Artist Scott Johnson on April 11 and 12; and a workshop performance of Sister Carrie, a new opera by Robert Aldridge and Hershel Garfein, the composer and librettist behind Elmer Gantry, on May 23 and 24.

“This series gives us a chance to do things on a different scale,” Florescu said. “We’re trying to be more active than any other company in town. … Keeping us woven into the minds of the community takes work.”

It’s work Florescu says he is more than willing to embark on, to preserve the company that’s been helping Milwaukeeans fall in love with an incomparable art form for 80 years. “One of the things that separates opera from other forms of musical theater is the power and glory of the human voice … we’re still making that real and relevant.”

The Florentine Opera will perform La Traviata, in Italian with projected English supertitles, twice only at Uihlein Hall: Friday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 10, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $124 and can be purchased at (414) 291-5700 x. 224 or the Florentine’s online box office.

Want to learn more about the rest of the Florentine’s 80th Anniversary season? Read on:

Festa Fiorentina
Dates: Feb. 14-16, Vogel Hall
Synopsis: Presented as a “romantic tour of Italy,” Festa Fiorentina mixes classic Italian opera arias with works pulled from the Great American Songbook – albeit as made famous by beloved Italian-American performers.
Production Notes: This revue will be performed by the Florentine’s Studio Artists: soprano Julie Tabash, mezzo-soprano Erin Gonzalez, tenor Aaron Short and baritone Pablo Siqueiros. Florescu will act as a host/master of ceremony.
William’s Thoughts: “We wanted to do the Great American Songbook, inspired by the Italian tradition. … We’re using the broadest paintbrush in our repertoire for these songs.”

Julius Caesar, by George Frideric Handel, sung in Italian with English supertitles
Dates: March 28 & 30, Uihlein Hall
Synopsis: Set before his rise to power, Handel’s Julius Caesar depicts the Roman general as the savior of Egypt, combatting its ruler Ptolemy while winning the heart of the lovely Cleopatra.
Production Notes: The Florentine’s production of this Baroque opera is being built from scratch, with new sets (featuring video projections) and lighting by Noele Stollmack and costumes by Christianne Myers. The cast includes Ava Pine (most recently Blanca in 2010’s Rio de Sangre) as Cleopatra and Deanne Meek making her Florentine debut in the trouser role of Julius Caesar. Eric Einhorn will direct.
William’s Thoughts: “It’s not the Shakespeare or Liz Taylor version. This is the story of Caesar coming to the rescue of Cleopatra. … We’re building and conceiving this project from the ground up.”

La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini, sung in Italian with English supertitles
Dates: May 9 & 11, Uihlein Hall
Synopsis: Puccini’s most famous opera depicts the lives and loves of a group of friends and artists in 1840s Paris – most notably, the doomed love affair of Rodolfo and Mimi.
Production Notes: Noah Stewart, last seen at the Florentine as Don Jose in last year’s Carmen, plays Rodolfo, while former Studio Artist Scott Johnson takes on the role of Schaunard. Alyson Cambridge (Mimi), Katrina Thurman (Musetta), Corey McKern (Marcello) and Matthew Treviño (Colline) round out the principal cast, all making their Florentine debuts.
William’s Thoughts: “There’s not a wasted note in [La Bohème]. … We’ve assembled a cast of beautiful people with beautiful voices who can act beautifully.”

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