Tom Strini

Those Florentine Opera “Elmer Gantry” Grammy Awards

By - Feb 21st, 2012 04:00 am

Donna Baumgartner, William Florescu, Don Baumgartner and Robert Aldridge celebrate the Florentine’s Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 12.

Bill Florescu’s daring strategy for the Florentine Opera got a big boost at the recent Grammy Awards.

His company, once the stodgiest of the city’s arts institutions, won the 2011 Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and Best Engineered Classical Recording, for its Naxos recording of Elmer Gantry.  Such a thing would have unthinkable 10 years ago. Florescu has ventured into the risky world of new and newer operas and more original stagings of traditional operas, and finally got some payback for his effort.

The Florentine put on the second run of the Gantry, by composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein, in March of 2010. The Nashville Opera premiered the piece, developed over 18 years of creation and workshops and false starts at production, in November of 2007.

Florescu, the Florentine’s general director, committed to the recording project and found much of the funding for it. He didn’t have to do that, but he wants to advance the art and put the Milwaukee company on the map.


“Elmer Gantry” punched the Florentine Opera’s Grammy Ticket.

“The Grammies give me some ammunition,” Florescu said, over coffee at the Humboldt Alterra, a block from the Florentine’s Riverwest production center. “It’s pretty significant validation. It helps us to create a brand. People are starting to think of us they way they think of theater companies. They come to see what we’ll do this time.”

As opposed to coming for another familiar opera staged in a familiar way, which had been the Florentine way through most of its long life.

Florescu explained that many factors aligned to win the awards and, before that, to get the recording made.

“Sound Mirror, the Boston recording engineering firm, is the gold standard in the business,” he said. “It happens that Sound Mirror records all the Milwaukee Symphony concerts. So they’re in Uihlein Hall all the time. They assembled the master tape from the two live performances in Uihlein Hall. The recording quality is unbelievable. Robert Aldridge has a relationship with Naxos, now the biggest classical record company in the world.

“The opera premiered in Nashville, where the music industry and the Grammies are huge. The recording got great reviews in Opera News and in Gramophone. A lot of buzz surrounded it.”

Any member of The Recording Academy can nominate any disc. Sound Mirror’s reputation, the Naxos connection, the good press and the Nashville origins made a nomination likely. Elmer Gantry got three, including Producer of the Year in addition to the two it eventually won. Florescu said he did no lobbying or publicity to promote the disc among Academy voters.

“I was ready to die and be buried just when we got the nominations,” Florescu said. “And when we won, I was so happy for Bob and Herschel, that such a long journey could end on such a pinnacle.”

Florescu, Aldridge, Garfein and long-time board members and donors Don and Donna Baumgartner made the trip to the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the awards on Feb. 12. They did not know if they’d won until the public announcement; the experience was suspenseful and fun for all of them.

The awards the Florentine won, along with 66 others, were handed out in ceremonies starting at 1 p.m. The splashy show we know from TV, which involves 10 awards, began at 5 p.m. Pacific time. The Florentine party got to attend both.

“We walked the red carpet for our awards, but no paparazzi,” Florescu joked.

“People from all these different genres were put together, from opera to rap. Everyone was very generous and respectful to everyone else. The night event is more for the public, and during the day it’s more for musicians. Joyce DiDonato [winner of the classical vocal solo Grammy] sang an aria from [Rossini’s] La Cenerentola, and I wondered how opera would go over. The audience went absolutely nuts.”

In their speeches, Aldridge and Garfein gave special thanks to Nashville, Milwaukee and their companies for taking a chance on their opera.

“Nobody batted an eye that this kind of work should come from the middle of the country, and that it’s wasn’t the Chicago Lyric,” Florescu said. “I’ve been squawking about what we can do creatively as regional companies and that we should get some national recognition. Now it’s been confirmed by someone else.”

The Florentine has two productions coming this spring: Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and Mozart’s Idomeneo.


0 thoughts on “Those Florentine Opera “Elmer Gantry” Grammy Awards”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi Tom,
    I think it’s worth noting that the orchestra for this recording was the Milwaukee Symphony.

  2. Anonymous says:

    As well as the fact that it was only possible due to the MSO’s deep experience with recording for radio, CDs, and the Internet. It was a great collaboration between the Florentine and the MSO, and a wonderful example of how Milwaukee can leverage its cultural assets for the promotion of the city and region.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Glad you brought that up, Frank. During the interview, Bill did say that the MSO was a key ingredient in all of this. First, without such an orchestra, the project wouldn’t be worth doing. Second,the MSO connection with Sound Mirror was crucial. — Strini

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