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'Rigoletto' role with St. Petersburg Opera is St. Petersburg High grad's big break

Rigoletto is a perennial favorite for lovers of operatic debauchery, with its tale of the depraved Duke of Mantua and his humpbacked court jester, Rigoletto. Only the jester's daughter, Gilda, has any redeeming virtues in the opera by Verdi.

"There are a lot of ugly people, a lot of ugliness, in the opera,'' says Sara Peeples, the soprano playing Gilda for St. Petersburg Opera. "She's the one ray of light.''

Peeples, 29, who is singing her first big role with the company, is a hometown girl. She went to St. Petersburg High School, always performing in school productions of musicals such as Into the Woods, Bye Bye Birdie and Chicago, and the University of South Florida.

She started studying opera at 16 and performed with other bay area companies, such as New Century Opera in Tarpon Springs. She has worked with St. Petersburg Opera from its early productions and has sung smaller roles, such as Frasquita in Carmen and Rapunzel in Into the Woods.

"When I heard Sara audition for Gilda, I thought to myself, it's time for her to do this. This is her moment,'' says Mark Sforzini, artistic director and conductor of the company. "It's kind of a natural arc for her to have an opportunity to do a major lead role with the company now.''

In 2005, Peeples was one of two singers alternating in the title role of Madama Butterfly for Sunstate Opera, but she has come to recognize that her voice was not right for the character. "That wasn't the fach'' — German for voice type — "for me,'' Peeples says. "I feel now I'm a light lyric soprano with coloratura abilities. Gilda is a beautiful fit. She's a very comfortable sing for me. She's much more appropriate for me than Cio-Cio San. I wouldn't do Butterfly again.''

In Rigoletto, Peeples will perform with two singers who have been on the Metropolitan Opera roster, Luke Grooms, playing the Duke, and Galen Scott Bower, Rigoletto. To prepare, she read the source material, Victor Hugo's play Le Roi s'amuse, and worked on the role with her teacher, RoseMarie Freni, and other vocal coaches.

Dean Anthony, the director of Rigoletto who worked with Peeples in his previous production for the company, Carmen, thinks the soprano is ready for the spotlight. "I'm so fond of her,'' Anthony says. "She's working so hard and is so hungry to grow and learn. I think this is going to open doors for her to move into other companies.''

There's another hometown angle to Rigoletto. The production designer is Barry Steele, who grew up in St. Petersburg and graduated from the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School in 1990 before moving on to become a lighting designer for opera and dance companies around the country.

Steele worked on the Rigoletto design with Anthony. "It's minimalistic setwise,'' the director said. "We're doing a lot of video. There isn't a lot of color, but when there is a hint of color, it will be very clear, I hope.''

Rigoletto has performances Friday and Jan. 23 and 25 at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N. $21.50-$61.50. (727) 823-2040; stpeteopera.org.

More opera

Carlisle Floyd will hold a master class for singers for Opera Tampa at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Patel Conservatory. Floyd, 84, a former Florida State University professor who still lives in Tallahassee, is one of the leading American opera composers, with such works as Susannah, Of Mice and Men and Cold Sassy Tree to his credit. $15. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

LA Phil on big screen

Gustavo Dudamel, the wunderkind Venezuelan music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was the star of LA Phil Live, the performance from Disney Hall that was beamed into movie theaters last Sunday. It's an effort by the orchestra to replicate the success of the Metropolitan Opera's simulcasts, though without the obvious theatricality of opera.

There were 25 or 30 people in attendance at the Pinellas Park Regal multiplex, and they seemed to enjoy the experience, applauding at the end of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, which was indeed given a terrific performance.

Dudamel was a charming loose cannon in his backstage interviews with glamorous host Vanessa Williams — at one point, playfully covering the camera lens with a towel — but I could have done with a lot less of the pointless banter. More interesting was footage of the conductor in rehearsal or composer John Adams describing the L.A. Philharmonic as "the Ferrari of orchestras.'' Adams' Slonimsky's Earbox opened the program.

A highlight of the concert was Kelley O'Connor, the dark-eyed mezzo-soprano who sang the solo "Lamentation'' of Bernstein's Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah. After a while the closeups of orchestra members became tiresome distractions — where did the bassoonist get those funky eyeglass frames? — and the electronic amplification only reminded me of how indispensable hearing music live and in person is. The lines of Frank Gehry's architecture looked great against the blue California sky.

There are two more Sunday afternoon Philharmonic theater-casts, on March 13 (a Tchaikovsky program) and June 5 (Brahms). See laphil.com.

Mornings with orchestra

Michael Pastreich, president of the Florida Orchestra, sees a lot of potential in the market for daytime concerts. He was encouraged by the turnout for the orchestra's first morning coffee concert in Clearwater, which drew 649 ticket buyers to Ruth Eckerd Hall on Jan. 5. The series, conducted by Alastair Willis, has been a longtime hit at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, where it, of course, continues with four more concerts this season. Two coffee concerts at Ruth Eckerd are on March 2 and April 6. See floridaorchestra.org.

Evening with playwright

Driving to the Moon by Tampa playwright Kim Hanna is having a reading at 7 p.m. Tuesday at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. Hanna's The Hypoxia Zone was done by Stageworks in 2004. Driving to the Moon, set in the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, is described as "a play of memory, magical realism, redemption and, finally, truth.'' Pay what you can. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.

'Rigoletto' role with St. Petersburg Opera is St. Petersburg High grad's big break 01/15/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 15, 2011 3:30am]

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