Claire Nowak

Florentine Takes Ownership of Elmer Gantry

Five years after winning Grammys for its recording, the opera company seeks to establish Gantry as an American classic.

By - Mar 10th, 2015 05:17 pm
Vale Rideout, left, as Frank Shallard, and Keith Phares, as Elmer Gantry, carousing. © 2010 Richard Brodzeller Photography for Florentine Opera Company

Vale Rideout, left, as Frank Shallard, and Keith Phares, as Elmer Gantry, carousing in the first production of Elmer Gantry. © 2010 Richard Brodzeller Photography for Florentine Opera Company

The Florentine Opera’s second production of Elmer Gantry, opening this weekend, may be more important than its Milwaukee premiere. Yes, the show’s 2010 recording won two Grammy Awards for best contemporary classical composition and best engineered classical album. Yes, those wins gave the Florentine, composer Robert Aldridge and librettist Herschel Garfein much deserved praise and recognition.

But this weekend’s performances could help determine the future of this American opera.

“Getting a world premiere (of an opera) is easy compared to getting a second production because opera companies want to be able to advertise it as a world premiere,” director Frank Kelley says. “But getting it to go on and have a life after that world premiere is very difficult.”

Florentine general director William Florescu is determined to give life to what he considers “one of the greatest operatic achievements of the late 20th century.” The opera is based on the 1926 novel of the same name written by Sinclair Lewis and takes a satirical look at American evangelization and religion. A young Elmer Gantry (Craig Verm) fakes a religious conversion to receive a scholarship to the seminary from Reverend Baines (Jeffrey Beruan) and satisfy lustful thoughts of the Reverend’s daughter Lulu (Alisa Suzanne Jordheim), despite her engagement to Eddie Fislinger (Matt Morgan). Elmer’s philandering continues as he falls in love with evangelist Sharon Falconer (Katherine Pracht) before he ultimately pays for his sins.

“(Florescu) is convinced and compelled to keep on bringing this work to the public’s attention so that it can gain a foothold in the canon,” Kelley says. Five years may seem relatively recent to bring the work back, but Kelley believes such frequency is crucial to solidifying Elmer Gantry as an American masterpiece.

Kelley has been part of the opera since its inception, taking part in workshops in 1992 and 1994 before its premiere at Nashville Opera in 2007, in which he played Eddie Fislinger. Florescu attended that premiere and later told Aldridge and Garfein he would bring it to Milwaukee. They took the promise with a grain of salt, after waiting 15 years just for its premiere. But Florescu delivered, in the process contributing to the two Grammy Awards for the recording of the performance, which also featured Kelley as Eddie.

For this production, Florescu hired an entirely new cast and brought on Kelley to direct. This is his professional directing debut, but after being part of past shows with various casts, he has great insight into what’s needed to capture what he calls the “full textured splendor” of the opera.

“I have a multi-point perspective on each of these characters,” Kelley says, “plus I’ve had a lot of time to think about each of these characters, and I’ve been living with this music for so long.”

One aspect of the show he hopes to improve is the large group scenes. They are so complex, he says, that in just focusing on getting them onstage, the detail of multiple, internally consistent plot lines can be lost. A clearer focus in these scenes will better define character development and the plot as a whole for audiences.

Kelley is also taking a hyper-realistic approach to the characters’ personalities, keeping them honest and deep, but adding a slightly over-the-edge, operatic tone. The most moving moments, he says, are when the characters discover their own flaws and see themselves as they truly are.

“Because I know these characters, especially Eddie, the character I portrayed on stage,” Kelley says, “I think I’m able to help these singing actors bring the subtlety to their moments on stage.

“It’s practically Mozartian to take these characters, make them a surface character and flashy at the beginning and then turn that character inward and show that on stage. It’s brilliant what Bob and Herschel have done, and I hope that’s going to be apparent in the production,” he continues.

Following a two-time Grammy-winning show certainly brings more anxiety than a typical production. Kelley feels the responsibility to add something new and vital to the opera, and conductor Christopher Larkin feels pressure to deliver the music in a way that honors the genius of the piece. Yet from both the cast and chorus, there is only excitement about the challenge.

“They are so into the music and into this textured story that’s so much about America,” Kelley says. “By the end of the (last) rehearsal, there was just such an exuberant feeling in the room. Everyone was so excited about the opportunity to perform it.”

7:30 p.m. March 13 and 2:30 p.m. March 15 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range from $27-121, available online or by calling 1-800-32-OPERA.

Festival City Symphony

From great American operas to great American symphonies, classical music is turning Milwaukee patriotic this weekend. The next Festival City Symphony Sunday performance, “American Masters,” presents three pieces that prove national composers are on the same prestigious level as their European colleagues. The program includes Aaron Copland’s “An Outdoor Adventure,” George Whitefield Chadwick’s “Symphony No. 2,” and “Suite Lyrique for Harp and Strings,” a new work from contemporary composer John Rutter, featuring FCS harpist Ann Lobotzke.

3 p.m. March 15 at The Pabst Theater. Tickets cost $14 for adults and $8 for children, students and seniors, available online or by calling 414-286-3205.

0 thoughts on “Classical: Florentine Takes Ownership of Elmer Gantry

  1. Anonymous says:

    I love both the Florentine Opera and the Festival City Symphony (I try to attend every performance of the latter and the last one, Seascapes, was superb, also introducing us to the work of Frank Bridge)! Wuthering Heights (by the Florentine Opera) at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts was amazing, and I so much look forward to seeing the award-winning Elmer Gantry (having gone to the opera’s center to see the film itself a few weeks ago) Friday night at 7:30 – tomorrow night!

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