The Florentine, once the stodgiest Milwaukee arts group, has moved to Riverwest. It will evolve further in 2012-13.
Stacks of moving boxes on the corner of Burleigh and Weil in Riverwest last week tipped me off: The Florentine Opera was moving in.
The company established a production center and rehearsal space there in 2009, in one of the buildings attached to the La Lune Furniture factory and offices. That worked out so well that Florentine has moved its offices there, too, from the ninth floor of a Downtown office building. The new Riverwest offices are neat and comfortable, but spartan and below ground.
“We’re saving $80,000 to $100,000 a year by being here,” said William Florescu, the Florentine’s general director since May of 2005. “And the free parking is like giving everyone a raise. And we love it here — just being able to walk over to the production center — great! This is a partnership with Mario and Cathy.”
Cathy and Mario Costantini, owners of La Lune, are patrons of the arts. Cathy is on the Florentine board. Crews are now at work on an old house they’ve owned for some time. It’s on Weil Street immediately north of the La Lune factory. They’ve taken off the roof and added a second story. The place will be the new home for the Florentine’s resident artists during their 10-month tenures with the company. The soprano and alto will live upstairs, the tenor and bass downstairs. (The makings of a comic opera are right there for the taking.) Such a perquisite will go a long way toward attracting the very best young singers.
The move to Riverwest — home to hosts of artists, musicians and writers — the frugality and the emphasis on the resident artists reflect Florescu’s vision of the Florentine, which differs markedly from his predecessors. Four years ago, Florescu set out to change the nature of the company, and he has. The Florentine has staged two world premieres. The recording of one of them, Elmer Gantry, won a Grammy Award. The company now builds as many productions as it rents, and it leans more toward rising young singers than fading stars. Florescu has expanded the company’s range, into Baroque opera on the one hand and new and newer American operas on the other. I wouldn’t exactly call the company daring — a traditional grand opera is always in its season mix — but it has certainly become more creative and interesting in both repertoire and staging.
“The Florentine has a national profile that it didn’t have before,” Florescu said. “And I think we can become still more vital as a national organization. We also sold a thousand more seats last season than we did the year before. I would argue that we’re doing better work, and we’re doing for less money.”
I agree about the better work, and Florescu has certainly been resourceful and frugal. He’s made a special effort to fold his artistic initiatives into money-saving practices. The company is making some money renting the sets it has designed and built. Instead of performing operas three times in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, he schedules two performances. That saves money in fees to the MSO and the house and to alternate casts. It allows for voices to rest a night, and it concentrates the audience, which builds the sense event. He’s also staged small-orchestra operas in the Marcus Center’s modest-sized, somewhat shabby, low-rent Vogel Hall. Florescu directed a brilliant Baroque double bill there in the spring.The company’s budget has fallen from $3.7 million four years ago to $2.7 million in 2012-13.
Florescu has also raised the Florentine’s year-round profile. The company’s banner will fly over some 20 events this summer, at its own Florentine at the Lake series at Alterra Coffee at the foot of St. Mary’s Hill, Starry Nights at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center, Gathering on the Green, Bastille Days, at Alterra Humboldt and at the Marcus Center Peck Pavilion.
In the high season, Florescu has put his resident artists to good use. For several years, in addition to a busy slate of school and outreach assignments, the four singers have played numerous roles, some of them big, in main stage productions. They’ve served as soloists with the MSO’s December Messiahs. Their joint recitals, notably the Valentine’s concert earlier this year, have attracted an audience. Florescu has installed next February’s Resident Artists program as part of the 2012-13 subscription season.
“What’s great about the recitals is that they are stand-alone events that make money,” he said. “If I could get it funded, I’d have two sets of resident artists.” One set would sing here all summer, the other would remain through the main season.
That recital will again be in Vogel Hall, as will a full production of Benjamin Britten’s comedy, Albert Herring, March 8-17, 2013. Florescu will direct, Christopher Larkin will conduct. The company’s own Noele Stollmack will design the show, and Holly Payne, costume director of the Milwaukee Rep, will design the clothes. The cast will feature the resident artists and local standout Kathy Pyeatt.
Britten and librettist adapted a Guy de Maupasaant short story. The opera is set in an English country town just after World War II. It seems none of the local girls are virginal enough to serve as Queen of the May. So the local committee — that is, Lady Billows — goes for a King of the May, and everyone pegs timid Albert Herring as the young man most likely to be virginal. Hi-jinks ensue.
The look of the Florentine production, said Florescu, will be “tweedy and Masterpiece Theatre.”
Bizet’s Carmen, always a sure-fire Florentine hit, will open the season Friday and Sunday Oct. 26 and 28 in Uihlein Hall. If advance sales are brisk, Florescu can always add a Saturday show. Dean Anthony will direct and Audrey Babcock will play the title role. Keith Phares, the Florentine’s Elmer Gantry, returns to play Escamillo.
“Even if we’re renting the production, I didn’t want this to be another ho-hum Carmen,” Florescu said. “Audrey Babcock is sexy as hell and she has a great voice.”
Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro will play at Uihlein Hall May 10 and 12.
“I had the opportunity to put together an outstanding cast of singing actors,” Florescu said. They include Jamie Rose Guarrine, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at UW-Madison and the winner of the 2007 Wisconsin Metropolitan Opera auditions. “We like to hire singers with Wisconsin ties,” Florescu said.
You can visit the Florentine’s website to subscribe or purchase a flex-pass.
Don’t miss anything! To keep track of the Florentine Opera and all of Milwaukee’s performing groups, bookmark Matthew Reddin’s TCD Guide to the 2012-13 season.