The Florentine Opera
“Opera in a box” is the insider’s term for the sort of company that rents sets from elsewhere, imports its singers, directors and designers and creates little or nothing of its own.
Not so long ago, the term applied to Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera. No more.
Former general director Dennis Hanthorn, who left for the Atlanta Opera in 2004, put a toe in the waters of creativity near the end of his Milwaukee tenure. His successor, William Florescu, has taken the plunge.
The seminal moment came in February of 2009, when the curtain rose on Handel’s Semele. The Florentine had never staged a Baroque opera before; it rarely strayed from a tight orbit around familiar Italian Romantic operas in very traditional stagings.
Not only did Florescu take the Florentine out of its usual home, Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Not only did he stray from the usual Florentine rep. He also brought in John La Bouchardiere’s brilliant, radical staging.
Florescu rolled the dice with Semele. If it had failed, he probably wouldn’t be here today. Semele turned out to be the company’s most significant artistic achievement in decades, and maybe the biggest in its history. It also succeeded mightily at the box office. Even the traditionalists in the audience loved it.
That sounds like a classic strategy of sandwiching the unpalatable new between slices of the reliable box-office old gold. But it wasn’t, really. Noele Stollmack, the company’s production manager and in-house designer, created daring new settings for both of the Italian operas. Florescu directed Rigoletto and got some good work from his singing actors, especially the fabulous Georgia Jarman.
The season didn’t always succeed, artistically. Gantry is an uneven piece, the casting was uneven in both Tosca and Rigoletto, and Stollmack’s set for Tosca didn’t quite work (Stollmack hit her stride in Rigoletto, though). But all three shows had their moments. More important, the productions exuded energy and nerve, which have been in short supply at the Florentine. They reflected Florescu’s determination to try to give his audience something fresh and unpredictable.
“We are transforming ourselves,” Florescu said. “We’re producing newer work and visiting the older end of opera’s time continuum. And we’re revisiting traditional repertoire in new ways.
“The reasons are philosophical, but there are pragmatic reasons, too. The old way sat on an eroding shoreline. If we want to capture new audiences, we have to do it in new ways. To new audiences, Tosca means no more than Gantry or Rio. And how many times can you rotate in Carmen, especially with the Lyric doing it down the street in Chicago? The kind of season I’m doing has no circling predators.”
The Florentine has about 1,200 subscribers. The company sold 70 percent of capacity last season. That’s down some from the old days of traditional Bohemes, Carmens and Aidas, but the company is in the early part of a transition amid volatile times. Crazy things are happening with Milwaukee audiences generally. The Milwaukee Symphony, for example, sold out an entire run of a concert performances of Bartók’s Bluebeard this season. Who would have predicted that?
“We are not yet entirely what we will become,” Florescu said. “We don’t want to leave the traditional repertoire and its audience behind. So we have to look backward and forward for a while. We need to stretch our audience, but we can’t show contempt for them. We have had some erosion in subscriptions, but we’re also attracting new audience. We’re a little ahead for 2010-11, which is a nuts season. But sitting still and hoping no shrapnel hits is in some ways more risky that what we’re doing.
“I think everyone can feel the surge of energy. It’s just more exciting to do what we’re doing now. It’s been risky — we won’t hit every one out of the park — but people are talking about what we’re doing. That’s a sign of health. This company produced operas by dead guys for 75 years, and now in two seasons in a row we’ll put on operas with the composers alive and present. That just creates a new kind of energy. Naxos recorded Gantry and will distribute it all over the world. The things we’re doing make us worth talking about.”
During the recession, the Florentine chopped its budget from about $4 million to about $3.3 million. For years, the Florentine’s ambition was to expand the budget and get back to four productions per year, as in the 1980s. Florescu’s not interested.
“That $3.3 million won’t change any time soon,” he said. “We’re after quality, not quantity. And look at [the lowered goals for] UPAF and the six opera companies around the country that closed in the last few years.”
The Florentine has no long-term debt and has a reputation for fiscal responsibility.
“We’re incredibly lucky to have individual donors who’ve stuck with us,” Florescu. “But we’re about 74/26 donated to earned income. I want to boost that second number.”
Florescu has found that building sets costs just about the same as renting them. And the sets that the company has built, most of them designed in-house, have become revenue producers. Other companies are renting them from Milwaukee. So the company is still a player in the opera-in-a-box game. Now, though, the Florentine is not merely opening them. It’s filling them.
For times, dates and subscription and ticket information the Florentine’s 2010-11 season, click here.