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Eric Dillner, Anton Coppola give 'La Traviata' a dark twist for Opera Tampa

Eric Dillner works with Elizabeth de Trejo, who plays the role of Violetta in La Traviata, during a recent practice. Performances will be Friday and May 1 at the Straz Center in Tampa.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Eric Dillner works with Elizabeth de Trejo, who plays the role of Violetta in La Traviata, during a recent practice. Performances will be Friday and May 1 at the Straz Center in Tampa.

Eric Dillner has been enjoying his job directing La Traviata with Opera Tampa because of the chance it has given him to work with the company's venerable conductor, Anton Coppola.

"I know the show backwards and forwards," said Dillner, a onetime opera tenor. "I've sung it a bunch. I've directed it. But to do it with maestro Coppola is a special experience. I'm just trying to learn as much as I can from him."

Verdi's opera about the doomed courtesan winds up the Opera Tampa season next weekend, and Coppola and Dillner have dreamed up a twist on the staging. A vignette will take place onstage during the orchestral prelude to foreshadow Violetta's death. Soprano Elizabeth de Trejo sings the role.

"I don't want to give it away, but we want to deliver at the beginning a suggestion of where Violetta is headed," Dillner said. "So the whole show will be like a flashback."

Dillner, 43, is directing his first opera here. Since last year, he has been artistic producing director of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, which runs the opera company. His responsibilities for the Straz include other productions, such as Forbidden Broadway and The Nutcracker, but "the anchor here for me is opera," he said.

Dillner had a good career as a tenor, performing with New York City Opera, Sarasota Opera and other companies. The Count in The Barber of Seville and the Duke in Rigoletto were two of his favorite roles before he stopped performing a decade ago to go into arts administration. He was artistic and general director of Shreveport Opera.

Two years ago, Dillner was at the center of a big flap at Skylight Opera Theater. He was managing director of the well-regarded company in Milwaukee when it tried to deal with financial problems by eliminating the position of its popular artistic director, William Theisen, only to face a community uproar. Dillner became the focus of a vitriolic online campaign.

Criticism of the company was intense, and the managing director was cast as the villain. In a New York Times story about the controversy, the Skylight music director was quoted as saying Dillner was "a menace to this company and to this community."

"It happens," said Dillner, who resigned in August 2009. "When you're the leader, you have to take it as it comes. It was a tough time for the company."

Dillner is happy to have rebounded with his position at the Straz. His wife, Susan Yankee, also an opera singer, grew up in St. Petersburg. His late father-in-law, Conrad Yankee, was a legendary fisherman in Pass-a-Grille.

For Opera Tampa, Dillner deals with agents to hire the artists. "What I like to do is to find the promising young singers and help their careers to grow," he said.

La Traviata has performances Friday and May 1 in Morsani Hall of the Straz Center. $29.50-$89.50. (813) 229-7827; operatampa.org.

More opera

• St. Petersburg Opera is having a Puccini festival, starting with the composer's knockabout one-act farce, Gianni Schicchi, a collaboration with American Stage for nine performances at the theater company's home in St. Petersburg. Todd Olson, artistic director of the theater, and Mark Sforzini, who does the same for the opera, are in charge of the small-scale production, which is to be sung in English. It opens Saturday and runs through May 8. $25-$39.50. Puccini's Madama Butterfly tops the festival, with performances June 10-14 at the Palladium Theater. (727) 823-2040; stpeteopera.org.

• Puccini is also on TV in the PBS presentation of the Metropolitan Opera's La Fanciulla del West, with Deborah Voigt and Marcello Giordani. 3 p.m. today on WEDU-Ch. 3.

The choral sound

The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay has landed in a fine place at the University of South Florida's new music building. The group's concert this month, featuring Minnesota composer Rene Clausen, was a consummate musical experience under artistic director James Bass. The hall's acoustics are especially good for choral music, and the premiere of Clausen's Jubilate Deo was a joyous occasion.

Jobsite sets season

A pair of high-profile plays top Jobsite Theater's 2011-12 season: David Mamet's Race and The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow's treatment of the Hitchcock film. The season opens Sept. 8 with The Guys, Anne Nelson's melancholy homage to 9/11 on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. In other highlights, artistic director David Jenkins stages Quills by Doug Wright, Gavin Hawk directs Closetland by Radha Baradwaj, and Joe Popp turns A Christmas Carol into a rock musical. Discounted season tickets go on sale May 9.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

Eric Dillner, Anton Coppola give 'La Traviata' a dark twist for Opera Tampa 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 5:30am]

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