By Robert Croan
It isn’t every day that three friends get together over a glass of wine and decide to start a new opera company in Broward County. Even less often do they go through with the project, apply for funding and get some excellent young singers to follow through with them.
But that’s what happened one evening in the summer of 2016, when Jack Gardner, a Texas-born graphic artist with degrees in vocal performance from the University of North Texas and Southern Methodist University, got together with his Wilton Manors housemate Nate Sykes and close friend Brittany Mazzurco Muscato. Overnight, Gardner became artistic director; Sykes whose background is in theater, became stage director; and Mazzurco Muscato, a former PR director of Florida Grand Opera, became managing director of an opera company just about to be born.
With the help of Fractured Atlas, a New York-based organization dedicated to helping young artists and emerging arts organizations get off the ground, Gardner and his associates founded Fort Lauderdale Opera Works. Opera FLOW, as it is more conveniently labeled, will introduce its project to local audiences with a concert devoted not to opera but to contemporary American art songs, at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Broward County Main Library. The concert is free, and the company is not yet soliciting donations from the public.
“We’re doing this first show on our own,” Gardner explains. Part of the reason is that the company’s application for tax-exempt status is still in process.
Gardner, 43, says he chose art songs for the opening event because, “I don’t want to present a concert of top favorite arias. How many times can you listen to ‘Nessun dorma’ and ‘La donna è mobile,’ or ‘Che gelida manina’? I want our audiences to hear something in English, works that were written in the 21st century or near the end of the 20th, anyway. I wanted to explore the cutting edge of singing today.” His longer-range goal, he says, is “to produce opera on a regular basis here in smaller venues.”
Gardner feels that the sparseness of opera events in this area – a few visits to Broward Center by Florida Grand Opera, and the opportunity to travel an hour or more to attend Palm Beach Opera in the Kravis Center – has given him the opening to form a company that will attempt to fill some of the breach.
“Down here in South Florida, [Broadway] musicals are king,” Gardner states. “There’s no reason that these same people shouldn’t like opera. We have to convince them that opera is musical theater, that it’s really the same thing. There’s something in the [opera] repertory that everyone can find accessible.”
Composers represented on Opera FLOW’s first concert include Lee Hoiby, Ben Moore, Ned Rorem and Andy Vores – the latter’s song cycle on poems by Margaret Atwood described by Gardner as “the most tonally challenging on the program.” There will also be the premiere of a song cycle by Gardner himself, although the composer-impresario is disarmingly modest about his own work:
“I don’t pretend to be a great composer,” he says. “I write for coloratura soprano because I like the loud high notes. My songs are tonal, showpieces for a coloratura soprano whom I like.” Gardner is referring to one of the two vocal soloists on the Saturday program, Miami-based Jennifer Zamorano, who will share the stage with Hollywood resident mezzo-soprano Shanna Nolan Gundry.
Part of Gardner’s mission, he says, is “to give a lot of singers from South Florida a chance to sing in front of audiences,” adding, “We want to hear everyone out here who wants to sing.” He’s tapping the choruses of the two larger opera companies in the area, because “many of these chorus members are really good singers who don’t have any other outlets for their talents.”
Opera FLOW presents its first concert at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Broward County Main Library in downtown Fort Lauderdale, 100 S. Andrews Ave. For more information, call 954-278-9530, or visit operaflow.org.