Florentine Goes Big Next Season
Expanding to four productions with a very unusual mix of shows.
In a climate in which many cultural groups are slashing budgets and downsizing, the Florentine Opera Company is actually expanding from three to four shows during the 2017-2018 season. Not a bad situation to be in. All the more impressive is the adventurous choice of shows for a company once known for sticking to the tried and true, mostly the classic Italian operas.
Next season’s offerings ranges from a classic like Mozart’s The Magic Flute to American composer Carlisle Floyd’s new opera Prince of Players, which premiered in 2016, with a plot about a Restoration-era actor in crisis that is based on Jeffrey Hatcher‘s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty. The Florentine will also create a recording of the show, adding another world premiere recording to past ones it has done.
The season will also include the tuneful 19th century operetta The Merry Widow, with dancers from the Milwaukee Ballet performing in the show, and an unusual pairing of two Baroque operas, Venus and Adonis and Dido and Aeneas, an intimate show that will run in the Marcus Center’s Vogel Hall, and with a much longer run than the usual Florentine show.
“We’re excited about the shows,” says Bill Florescu, general director of the company, under whose direction the Florentine has taken more risks while still appealing to a broader audience.
“A lot of new operas look at social relevance,” something he thinks can be important. But first and foremost? “To be quite honest, I look for a good story. To me, some stories beg for a lyrical response.”
With so many entertainment options in Milwaukee, one might wonder how opera competes with so many other venues. Florescu says that’s an old refrain that was never less true.
“They’ve been ringing opera’s death knell for hundreds of years,” he says. “Opera is not going anywhere. In fact, it’s growing. In Milwaukee we support opera very well.” Florescu says it’s really encouraging to see audiences coming out.
“Within the community we see so many educational shows and reach more than 40,000 people a year. We do more in the community than onstage,” Florescu says. Florentine Opera Company programs reach a broad spectrum of individuals throughout metro Milwaukee and beyond.
Opera can be a challenge: it faces the perception among some that it can be hard to understand. Florescu says if there’s a way forward, it involves a healthy opera ecosystem in which the old favorites, lesser- known operas and contemporary works co-exist and opera-goers are steered from one to the next.
Last season the Florentine presented a world premiere of Sister Carrie, by American composer Robert Aldridge and it was a big success. “The reviews were great, composers were happy,” Florescu says. “Other companies expressed interest in doing the production, so that’s a good sign.”
Collectively, opera is taking more chances to reach out and to make a name with premieres. Florescu hasn’t always been sold by those attempts.
He points to a piece like Doctor Atomic an opera by the contemporary American composer John Adams, with libretto by Peter Sellars which premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2005. The work focuses on the stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos while the test of the first atomic bomb (the “Trinity” test) was being prepared. “For my taste, I don’t feel Dr. Atomic as an opera,” Florescu says.
And perhaps its appeal was too narrow.
“There’s a misconception of what is called ‘high art,’ Florescu says. “We need to shift away from that term. In Italy, Verdi’s audiences were peasants. That reflected more of an Italian folk music. I can understand audiences love for a show like Hamilton, but opera has been doing stuff like that for fifty years.”
Florescu says the search for the right operas at the right time is critical, if you hope to satisfy confirmed opera lovers as well as excite new ones.
Past recordings of Florentine performances have won Grammy Awards and gained national recognition. This doesn’t happen in a recording studio; rather the opera is captured live shortly after a scheduled performance, minutes after the audience has left the theater.
“It’s more effective to do it this way, cost-wise, for a couple of reasons,” Florescu says. “That way we have all the performers together and don’t have to pay extra for musicians. We have a conductor and will bring in a recording engineer.”
He says normally those recordings are made after a Sunday matinee. The cast takes a twenty-minute break after the show and gets back to it. Florescu says this makes the recording fresh as the performers are still in the groove from a show. That’s how the Florentine will do its next recording, of Prince of Players.
Do some shows present more challenges for Florescu? “Each show will cause you to answer in a different way,” he says. “Merry Widow is a big show and there are dancers involved, so that is challenging. At the same time, it’s such a well-known production there’s no problem selling this show. In January, we’re working with an original ensemble (the pairing of Baroque shows) and that has some innate challenges.”
With the Magic Flute, Florescu says it’s all about finding the right cast. “To audition, I’ll go through my mental Rolodex to cast the show. I tend to know what I’m looking for. In Magic Flute the Queen of the Night is played by a singer from Argentina, our tenor, from Denmark. Others are young American singers. We have as broad a swath of talent as could imagine. I tend to try and find someone with a connection to the material.”
The season rundown:
October 20 and 22: The Merry Widow
Soprano Alyson Cambridge, who has performed in past Florentine shows like Madame Butterfly, will sing the title role of Franz Lehar‘s operetta. Florescu will direct the production, which will feature Milwaukee Ballet dancers and the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St.
January 26-February 4: Venus and Adonis/Dido and Aeneas
The show pairs the one-act Baroque operas by English composers John Blow and Henry Purcell. Acclaimed harpsichordist Jory Vinikour will lead the Great Lakes Baroque ensemble; Florescu will handle the stage direction and Danceworks artistic director Dani Kuepper will choreograph. With soprano Alisa Jordheim and mezzo-soprano Colleen Brooks. Marcus Center Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall.
March 16 and 18, 2018: Prince of Players
Baritone Keith Phares, a Florentine regular, will sing the lead role in the new opera by Carlisle Floyd, known for works like Susannah and Of Mice and Men. Marcus Center Uihlein Hall.
May 11 and 13, 2018: The Magic Flute
Danish tenor David Danholt sings Prince Tamino. Joseph Rescigno will conduct the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra as well as the Florentine Opera Chorus. Fluoresce will also stage direct this show. Marcus Center Uihlein Hall.