Starting tonight, the Miami Music Festival begins presenting productions from its Opera Institute, opening with Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.
The opera repeats Saturday and alternates Friday night and Sunday afternoon with Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Both operas will be presented at the festival’s home base at Barry University in Miami Shores, but next month it will be making local operatic history.
The festival’s young students will be presenting the South Florida premiere of American composer Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which debuted in 2000 and is based on the same Sister Helen Prejean memoir that inspired the movie of the same name, which takes a look at the death penalty and the possibility of redemption.
“He knows how to write for the voice. People hear ‘contemporary opera’ and they get scared by it, but Jake’s writing is incredibly lyrical,” said Michael Rossi, who founded the festival four years ago. “It’s impossible not to feel for everybody on the stage, from the victim’s parents to the actual criminal himself. You actually start feeling for what he’s about to go through. And then the whole redemption process, where he finally admits what he did.
“It’s just an incredibly powerful work, right from the first scene,” Rossi said.
Rossi has been at the Washington Opera for 15 years, during which time the company has produced two Heggie operas, Moby Dick and just this past February, Dead Man Walking. The Heggie opera will be presented in two performances July 27 and 29 at the Shepard Broad Performing Arts Center on the campus of Barry University in Miami Shores. It will alternate with a production of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro on July 28 and 30.
Heggie himself will be in town for the production, and preside over it. There also will be a tribute concert to him July 26 at the Betsy Hotel on Miami Beach, during which arias from his operas, as well as opera scenes, will be presented.
“It will be a Jake Heggie summer,” Rossi said.
The opera event with even bigger star power will be July 22, when Rossi presents the second summer of the Wagner Institute, which is designed to train singers for the style and stamina of Richard Wagner’s epic operas, which essentially are never seen in South Florida. Alan Held and Christine Brewer will join student singers in portions of two of the Ring operas: the complete Act I of Die Walküre, as well as “Wotan’s Farewell” and the “Magic Fire Music” from Act III and the prologue to Götterdämmerung.
“The word is out now internationally,” Rossi said of the institute, and that’s enabled him to lure singers who have been seen at major houses such as the Metropolitan Opera and Deutsche Oper to the performance. Bass Soloman Howard, who sang the King in last season’s Aida, will sing Hunding. Also performing will be soprano Elizabeth Baldwin as Sieglinde, and tenor Dominic Armstrong as Siegfried.
“It’s really what I envisioned happening, in that we have professional artists who have been through all the training programs and are working in the industry, who are looking for their outlet to get their first Wagner experiences,” Rossi said.
But opera — and zarzuela, the Spanish operetta form that gets a recital all to itself July 20 — is just one of the elements in the festival, which is based at Barry and also offers performances at The Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach and the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami (the Wagner concert will take place there). The festival includes teaching institutes for pianists, instrumentalists, conductors and operatic performers. The Piano Institute, which ended this week, saw a series of recitals by faculty members including pianists Alessio Bax, Ching-Yun Hu, Anton Nel, Alexandre Moutouzkine and Douglas Humpherys.
There are also several chamber music performances by students and faculty members this month, plus two nights of opera arias, a Broadway night, and at the end of the month, two studio performances at Barry’s Weber Hall of more opera: Robert Ward’s Roman Fever, and Dan Shore’s An Embarrassing Position.
New this summer is an Independence Day concert featuring music by Copland, Bernstein, John Williams and patriotic favorites, plus the completely unrelated but apparently unomittable 1812 Overture of Tchaikovsky (with synthesized cannon) will be presented at 6 p.m. July 4 at the Broad Center. Cities such as Washington, D.C., and Boston have annual Independence Day orchestral fetes, and Rossi hopes this first concert is the beginning of a Miami tradition.
“I’m hoping this becomes a yearly event, where we can bring in major artists, make a big show out of it, with fireworks and all,” Rossi said. This year, there won’t be any pyrotechnics, but the concert will end early enough for people to be able to drive to a nearby country club to see their fireworks show.
Winners of the festival’s concerto competition will be featured in a concert July 8, and July 15, conductor David Effron leads the festival orchestra in the Mahler First Symphony; both of those concerts will be at the Broad Center.
The festival has expanded in the orchestral realm this year with the establishment of two orchestras, one of them for symphonic repertoire and the other a fellowship orchestra that plays for the operas and works for two weeks with the eight or nine students of the Conducting Institute (for Wagner, the players from both ensembles will combine).
“It’s a stronger program for the conductors, because they have an instrument to practice on every day,” Rossi said.
The conductors will be featured in their own showcase concert for the first time this year, a free event July 14 featuring symphonies by Beethoven (No. 7) and Mozart (the Haffner, No. 35) and Rossini’s Barber of Seville overture.
About 1,500 people applied to the instrumental institutes this year, and 210 were accepted, Rossi said, after an audition process of about four months. In addition to performances, orchestral members get master classes and lessons, take part in orchestral readings, and get career management coaching.
The festival’s budget has grown to about $1 million in just four years, and Rossi has added six new staff members to the organization, which gives him more time to oversee things instead of having to be involved in everything to keep it running.
“All the visions I’ve had are coming together, about how the program should run in all departments. And I’m very, very happy to see that,” he said. Rossi will conduct only the Wagner concert this year, a sign that there are more people on the ground who have signed on to his vision.
And there have been other signs, too: During the Piano Institute, instead of a faculty-only dinner with Alessio Bax, the festival held a dinner for Bax and all 19 students, 12 of whom came, for what was an engaging evening in which students and teachers opened up in a more informal setting. In that moment, the institute became more of a community and less of a school.
“It was a memorable experience for all of them, one that went beyond the meat and potatoes of putting the program together, the lessons and the master classes and all that,” Rossi said.
The Miami Music Festival runs through July 30. For a list of concerts and operatic performances, visit miamimusicfestival.com or call 305-482-3793.