South Florida’s opera companies are keeping things busy and innovative this coming season even as the economy continues to take its toll on audiences, box office – and even a whole series of matinees.
Still, there’s enough intriguing opera ahead to interest fans and casual attendees, and for them to see some bright new talent take some big steps. Here’s what’s happening on the three major operatic stages, as well as touring companies and concert productions:
Palm Beach Opera: The West Palm Beach-based company, which began life with Verdi’s La Traviata in January 1962, marks its 50th anniversary this season, but it didn’t get there without some difficulties.
Specifically, the company announced in early September that it would be cutting all of its Monday matinee performances, meaning each of the three operas will get three, not four, performances this time around.
Officials say the company is trying to stave off economic trouble by not funding the Monday afternoon performances, which last season drew audiences of only 45 percent, down sharply from 80 percent four seasons ago.
The three operas this year are all popular, red-blooded shows that feature over-the-top romance and shocking violence. First up is one of the most beloved operas in the world, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Dec. 16-18), which the composer was always partial to, and which guarantees good box office whenever it’s presented.
Singing Cio-Cio San, the doomed geisha of the title, is the Italian soprano Maria Luigia Borsi, with tenor James Valenti as the feckless Pinkerton, who abandons his Japanese child-bride for a real American girl. Scheduled to sing the Saturday night performance is the Canadian soprano Michele Capalbo, along with the Puerto Rican tenor Rafael Davila. Suzuki will be sung in all three performances by mezzo Irene Roberts, a former member of the Young Artists program.
Next up, Jan. 20 and 22, are two gala concerts celebrating the 50th anniversary, which will be hosted by one of the great American opera legends: baritone Sherill Milnes. The concert of popular opera favorites will feature heavy hitters such as sopranos Ruth Ann Swenson and Denyce Graves, and lighter work from actor and singer Ron Raines, best known for his long stint on the soap Guiding Light. The conducting duties will be shared by artistic director Bruno Aprea and longtime New York City Opera maestro Julius Rudel.
Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, which takes the stage at the Kravis Center from Feb. 24-26, is based on the Shakespeare tragedy and is less well-known than Faust, but it is in the estimation of many scholars a better opera. And with performances of Faust now few and far between, Romeo may end up being the Frenchman’s most durable contribution to the operatic stage.
The fine American soprano Nicole Cabell and the Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz are the star-crossed lovers Friday and Sunday, and for Saturday’s performance the American soprano Janai Brugger-Orman and the Portuguese tenor Bruno Ribeiro take the leading roles. The opera will be conducted by Peter Feranec and stage-directed by Kevin Newbury.
The season ends with Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor from March 23-25. Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi plays the tragic heroine whose dramatic mad scene at the climax of the opera has been a soprano tour de force for decades, and the Romanian soprano Valentina Farcas takes the role Saturday night. Roberto De Biasio, an Italian tenor, sings Edgardo, and the Russian baritone Roman Burdenko is cast as Enrico.
The season closes with the Grand Finals of the opera company’s annual vocal competition on April 29. This is always a fun and exciting event, as 12 to 14 young singers vie for prizes before a big audience and a panel of professional judges.
The company also will present its Opera in One Hour series, which last year included abridged versions of a zarzuela (Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda) and Handel’s Ariodante, plus Bernstein’s complete one-act, Trouble in Tahiti. The new season of one-hour shows will be decided after the company has chosen the Young Artists for the season.
And on Oct. 22, Palm Beach Opera teams with the Kravis Center and the InSIGHT for Education group for a single performance of Brundibar, an opera for children written in 1942 by the Czech composer Hans Krasa. He was arrested by the Nazis and taken to the Terezin concentration camp, where as part of the Nazis’ attempt to cover what was really happening to Europe’s Jews, Brundibar was staged more than 50 times.
Krasa, like other “degenerate” Jewish composers, was shipped off to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed. The opera, which since has become a statement about the evils of bullying, will be sung by the Young Singers of the Palm Beaches along with Palm Beach Opera personnel.
For tickets and more information, call 561-833-7888 or visit www.pbopera.org.
Florida Grand Opera: Robert Heuer’s durable company opens its 71st season with its first-ever zarzuela and a nonpareil special guest. Placido Domingo, the great Spanish tenor and now baritone, who began his career in zarzuelas, will sing the role of Don Vidal for one night only, Nov. 15, at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in FGO’s production of Luisa Fernanda.
Federico Moreno Torroba’s 1932 tale of politics and love in 1860s Spain was the zarzuela Domingo himself suggested FGO mount for its first venture into the Spanish operetta form. The cast includes soprano Amparo Navarro, tenor Antonio Gandia as Javier and baritone Angel Odena as Vidal. (Six performances from Nov. 12-26 at the Ziff; two performances Dec. 1 and 3 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale.)
Second, it’s another new production for FGO in La Rondine, Puccini’s bittersweet, very adult take on romance, written in 1917 for Vienna’s Karltheater, which couldn’t present it when the time came because of World War I. Cuban-American soprano Elizabeth Caballero will sing the role of Magda, the “swallow” of the title; she lobbied Heuer hard to get FGO to mount it, and in doing so, she’s in step with the rest of the operatic world, which has increasingly mounted this neglected but lovely opera.
Baritone Craig Colclough sings Rambaldo, and as the maid Giselle, look for Corinne Winters, who won the Palm Beach Opera’s Grand Finals competition two seasons ago. The opera will be conducted by the company’s new artistic director, Ramon Tebar. (Six performances, Jan. 21-Feb. 4, Ziff Ballet Opera House only.)
Next comes Rigoletto, never out of the repertory since Giuseppe Verdi composed it in 1853. Starring as the bitter jester is the excellent American baritone Mark Walters, but the most auspicious performance here might be that of Nadine Sierra, the Fort Lauderdale-born soprano who made a very fine Euridice in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice for Palm Beach last season. If she makes a strong impression in this role – and there’s no good reason to think she won’t – this appearance with FGO might be one of the last times area audiences will be able to see this local girl made good. (Six performances, Jan. 28-Feb. 11, Ziff; Feb. 16 and 18, Broward Center.)
Last up is Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, in another instance of overlapping French operas between the Palm Beach and FGO companies (two seasons ago, each company mounted what turned out to be radically different versions of Bizet’s Carmen). Sarah Coburn, long an FGO favorite, sings Juliet, and the French tenor Sebastien Gueze, seen last season in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, is Romeo. Mercutio is sung by Jonathan G. Michie, and Craig Colclough steps in as Friar Laurence. (Six performances, April 21-May 5, Ziff; May 10 and 12, Broward Center.)
For more information or to buy tickets, call 800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org.
Sarasota Opera: The brilliant repertory company in southwest Florida opens its 53rd season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly as its fall opera offering (six performances from Oct. 28-Nov. 15). Starring as Cio-Cio San is the soprano Asako Tamura, one of the few Butterfly singers now working who’s actually Japanese. Her Pinkerton will be none other than Rafael Davila, a frequent Sarasota Opera guest who will then sing the role a month later in Palm Beach. The Suzuki here is the Japanese-American mezzo Nina Yoshida Nelsen.
Sarasota opens its winter season Feb. 11 with Bizet’s Carmen, and gives a dozen performances of this hugely popular 1875 opera through March 24. Starring as the impetuous Gypsy woman who ensnares a hapless soldier’s heart is the American mezzo Frederika Brillembourg. Don Jose will be sung by the American tenor Antonio Nagore, and the American soprano Danielle Walker, who debuted with the company as Donna Elvira in last season’s Don Giovanni, will sing Micaela.
Ten performances of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor are scheduled next (from Feb. 18-March 23). The Korean-American soprano Kathleen Kim, who sang Chiang Ching in Adams’ Nixon in China and Zerbinetta in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos for the Metropolitan Opera last season, takes the role of the doomed bride. American tenor Joshua Kohl is Edgardo, and the American baritone Lee Poulis sings Enrico.
Part of Sarasota’s uniqueness can be found in its Verdi Cycle, a complete traversal of the composer’s operas, which will conclude in 2013 on the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth. The opera this year is a premiere for Sarasota, and perhaps Verdi’s greatest work: Otello. Rafael Davila, the go-to tenor hereabouts, takes on the role of Shakespeare’s Moor, with the American soprano Maria d’Amato as Desdemona. The American baritone Sean Anderson sings Iago, Otello’s nemesis. Sarasota will give Otello seven times from March 3-25.
Last season, Victor DeRenzi’s company launched the American Classics Series, a series of revivals of operas by native composers. The first opera in the series was Robert Ward’s The Crucible, and this year it’s Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. It’s one of Barber’s finest achievements, but too often confined to recital excerpts, and not seen in fully staged productions.
The all-American cast includes soprano Kara Shay Thomson as Vanessa, mezzo Audrey Babcock as Erika, and tenor Scott Piper as Anatol. Mezzo Cindy Sadler is the old Baroness, and baritone Thomas Potter sings the role of the old doctor. David Neely of Des Moines Metro Opera conducts a production staged by Michael Unger; Vanessa will be staged six times from March 10-24.
For tickets and more information, call 941-328-1300 or visit www.sarasotaopera.org.
Opera International: The Maryland-based touring company brings three operas to area stages under the auspices of Joseph Ferrer’s Sunset Entertainment. These are usually well-staged, well-sung performances by professional voices, and concertgoers in search of the occasional operatic experience have shown up reliably for these shows.
First up is Puccini’s La Boheme, in performances Jan. 23 at the Eissey Campus Theatre at Palm Beach State College in Palm Beach Gardens, and Jan. 25 at the Kaye Auditorium on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Verdi’s La Traviata follows on Feb. 20 at the Eissey, and Feb. 22 at FAU. The last opera in the series is Rigoletto, which bows March 5 at the Eissey and March 7 at FAU. Tickets for the Eissey performances can be had by calling 561-278-7677; the FAU performances are available at 800-564-9539.
Other noteworthy operatic events in South Florida include a concert performance of Bela Bartok’s wonderful two-person one-act, Bluebeard’s Castle. The magnificent American bass Eric Halfvarson is the duke with many wives and even more secrets, and Michelle DeYoung is Judith, his latest conquest. It will be performed twice by the New World Symphony at its New World Center home on Miami Beach, directed by Michael Tilson Thomas (April 27-28). Tickets/information: Call 800-597-3331 or visit www.nws.edu.