Todd Olson is well known to Tampa Bay area audiences as producing artistic director of American Stage for the past seven years. Now he takes on a new role, as director of St. Petersburg Opera Company's production of Mozart's comedy Cosi Fan Tutte, which has three performances this weekend at the Palladium Theater. "Opera always appealed to me because it was a bringing together of all the art forms,'' says Olson, whose most recent previous opera directing job was a production of Carmen for Opera Southwest in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2003. This is his first chance to direct a Mozart opera. "It's the part of being a stage artist I like,'' he says. "You get to be a constant student. This is sort of my master class in Mozart.''
Cosi Fan Tutte, the final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, has an even more ridiculous plot than most comic operas. Two soldiers make a bet to test their fiancees' fidelity by appearing in disguise as Albanians and trying to seduce the other one's mate. Olson has relied on his theater experience to make sense of it.
"Certainly a lot of Shakespeare comes to mind,'' he says. "Any time there are double sets of lovers and confusion and mistaken identities, I draw on Shakespeare more than anything else.''
While the story is absurd, Mozart's music is sublime. "I think you just have to enter into it,'' Olson says. "Otherwise this work would not be so enduring and popular. It's a bet that allows lovers a way to love more deeply. Even the subtitle is 'the school for lovers.' It's sort of a long day's journey into romantic enlightenment. It's all bound together and you kind of say yes to it all.''
In opera, the conductor tends to have the final word in a production. For St. Petersburg Opera, that would be artistic director Mark Sforzini. What has been the division of labor between Olson and Sforzini?
"Mark described it as a tag team, and that's exactly how it's worked out,'' Olson says. "I enjoy that and I think that's the way Mark likes to work as well. I think I have gotten it up on its feet, and Mark will take 20 minutes here, 30 minutes there, to work just on music. So we're constantly advancing all of the elements simultaneously.''
Olson says directing opera isn't much different from directing a play or musical theater. "It still all comes down to the basic things. It comes down to a kind of truthful acting. It comes down to clear storytelling. Some of my work with the singers has been with the acting values.''
Both Olson and Sforzini have a lot of experience doing productions at the Palladium, which can be a problematic space for a large production like Cosi Fan Tutte, with a cast of six principals, a chorus of 15 and a 35-piece orchestra. With set designer Scott Cooper, production coordinator for American Stage, they have come up with a new approach.
"We've staged it around the orchestra,'' Olson says. "So the set sort of describes a circle or a large square with rounded corners. There's something about how this opera goes on that a big old circle just seems right.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.