An Italian Girl in Algiers, a Skylighter at the Florentine
Let us count the ironies surrounding the Florentine Opera’s L’Italiana in Algeri — The Italian Girl in Algiers — which opens Friday (March 18) at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall.
1. The director is Bill Theisen, artistic director of the Skylight Opera Theatre. The two companies were not so friendly rivals for decades.
2. The Skylight will open its own Italianate comic opera, Mozart and Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte, at exactly the same time Italian Girl opens.
3. Theisen and the Skylight build every production from the ground up, on an integrating concept usually dreamed up by the stage director.
4. Under general director Bill Florescu, the Florentine has become much more creative and strayed more and more from its time-honored “opera in a box” model, with rented sets, free-lance directors and traditional stagings.
5. But the Florentine is staging this particular piece in the old way, with no updating or conceits and sets from elsewhere.
“Some of our patrons want a traditional ride, and this is it,” Florescu said Wednesday. “It’s actually set in Algiers in the time when it was written.”
The ironies listed above were not lost on Florescu, who admits that they’re really pretty funny. He added one of his own: Though he and Theisen had talked informally about possible crossover and cooperation between the two companies for years, Italian Girl came about after Theisen had been temporarily ousted at the Skylight during the company’s troubles in the summer and fall of 2009.
“I thought Bill was going to be a free-lancer,” Florescu said.
The Florentine accrues a little fringe benefit to Theisen’s reinstatement. Local arts funders without adore inter-company cooperation. But that’s not why Florescu hired Theisen for this job.
“I saw his work as a director,” Florescu said. “Rossini lends itself to the Theisen touch.”
Theisen is a great on-stage comedian, and he has a deft directorial hand with comic opera. His staging of Rossini’s Barber of Seville at the Skylight last season, for example, was brilliant.
“The Skylight is more the oddity in the opera world,” he said. “When I direct in Kansas City, Virginia or Florida, it’s in a big house with original language, much more in the world of the Florentine. And we do have English supertitles. The timing of the supertitles is so important, especially in comedy. You don’t want the supertitle to deliver the punchline before you get to it on stage. We’ve working very hard to get the timing right. There’s an art to it.”
Theisen praised a willing cast for its willingness to engage in some vigorous physical comedy. Italian Girl, set in a sort of Marx Brothers idea of a harem, has lots of chases and sneaking around. In Così, the comedy is mostly verbal; in Italian Girl, it’s more physical.
“The whole premise of the story is so outlandish, that it gives you more freedom,” Theisen said. He’s satisfied that he’s been able to bring his own take to the piece, and he’s found the production conducive to his ideas about this opera.
“The set and costumes aren’t cartoonish, but they’re close,” he said.
He’s not too concerned about the Florentine draining away Skylight audience and vice-versa. The Skylight’s Mozart comedy has a long run in a small house; the Florentine’s Rossini comedy has a short run in a big house. Anyone who wants to can catch both shows. (The Florentine is handling the package; call 291-5700 ext. 224, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. through Friday.)
Florescu noted that the two companies have very little overlap in audience, and views this show as a chance to woo more people to patronize both of Milwaukee’s opera companies. To promote that, the Florentine, the Skylight and Next Act Theatre have joined in a package deal that gets you into the two operas and Next Act’s A Sleeping Country for a bargain $100. Now that’s inter-company cooperation.
“In the old days of John Anello and the Florentine and Clair Richardson at the Skylight, the two companies were like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Florescu said. “That approach is now off the table.”
Curtain times are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 18-20. Tickets are $28-$108 at the Florentine website and ticket line, 414 291-5700.
Display photo by Richard Brodzeller for the Florentine.