Over the last 40 years, the Tampa Bay area has enjoyed a building boom and survived recessions, seen its two-lane downtowns give way to high rises and makeovers of makeovers. We have built stadiums for the professional sports franchises we acquired, then realized these structures were not big enough or luxurious enough to keep pace.
Against such conspicuous change, the growth of the performing arts in general, and opera in particular, is easy enough to miss. The truth is, one of Europe's oldest hand-me-downs is still in its infancy locally, but inching forward every year. As the St. Petersburg Opera Company kicks off its season Oct. 14 with Il Trovatore, the company's hardiness and that of Opera Tampa, which opened in 1996, are worth noting.
A string of local companies, the Florida Lyric Opera and the defunct St. Petersburg Opera Company (which bears no relation to the current company of the same name) ran in Tampa and St. Petersburg from the 1940s to the 1970s. Whatever caused those endeavors to fizzle out, times have changed.
Consumer demand and donor support are now allowing fine singers to perform some of the world's best music, decade after decade. A new professional company, Sunshine City Opera, debuted in September with an emphasis on new or rarely performed work. Here's a rundown of what to expect in 2016-17.
Growing interest: St. Petersburg Opera Company
The company incorporated in 2007 and opened the same year with La Boheme. In the company's first year, auditions were held only in St. Petersburg and drew around 50 singers, mostly from Florida and the Southeast, said founder and artistic director Mark Sforzini.
The opera received more than 700 applications for the current season. Sforzini put about half of those through to auditions, held over four days in New York and another three in St. Petersburg.
"The level of singers that are coming here has really shot way up," he said.
Two standouts from last season, Michael Morrow (who played Don Jose in Carmen) and Alexandria Batsios (Konstanze in The Abduction From the Seraglio), return to play lead roles in Giuseppe Verdi's Il Trovatore. The steamy plot weaves threads of alleged sorcery and revenge, a love triangle and suicide.
After a December holiday concert, Seasonal Sparkle, the season resumes with Gaetano Donizetti's comedy The Elixir of Love. Christopher Holloway, who played the bullfighter Escamillo in Carmen, returns as Belcore, a swaggering army sergeant who is competing for the hand of the fickle Adina.
"The season really needed Elixir to bring some comic elements to the season as a whole," Sforzini said.
Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann brings John Kaneklides to play Hoffmann, a poet who regales his students with stories about his past loves. St. Petersburg Opera is casting the three former lovers individually. (Some productions have used one singer for all.) Kaneklides, last seen locally as Lt. Cable in South Pacific, will join fellow cast member Todd Donovan (Emile de Becque in South Pacific), who plays all four villains in the story.
The season-ending musical, Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, casts Melissa Misener as the Narrator, a central role normally given to a male actor. Misener recently starred in Freefall Theatre's The Light in the Piazza, not long after finishing the lead role of Cosette in the Broadway production of Les Misérables.
A Times story earlier this year detailed a bumpy beginning for the opera, after co-founder and benefactor Doyle McClendon defaulted on financial pledges. The company has more than recovered since, with an average revenue growth of 32 percent a year, Sforzini said. "It just feels as though there is as much momentum as there ever was."
Short and sweet: Opera Tampa
Opera Tampa celebrates a milestone in March: the 100th birthday of founding maestro Anton Coppola. Coppola, who led the opera from 1996 to 2012, is known for versatility and productivity. His abridged orchestral arrangements remain under lock and key at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and are coveted by orchestras. His original opera, Sacco and Vanzetti, premiered in 2001 at the Straz with a $700,000 budget.
Coppola will conduct the orchestra March 25 for Opera Tampa's annual gala.
The season opens Jan. 20 with Charles Gounod's Romeo and Juliet. The work is something of a rarity. Few of the hundreds of attempts to remake Shakespeare plays in operatic form have been successful. And while Romeo and Juliet has inspired other plays, movies and a ballet, Gounod's opera stands alone as a pure opera hit. Soprano Sarah Joy Miller plays Juliet, a role she also performed with Opera Grand Rapids and the Baltimore Opera.
The program changes pace next with Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, or Cinderella, an operatic take on the Grimm Brothers tale that debuted in 1817. Mezzo soprano Emily Righter gives her first performance with Opera Tampa as Cinderella. Righter won an audience's favorite actress award in 2014 at the Salzburg (Austria) Landestheater. Also making an Opera Tampa debut is Adelmo Guidarelli, as Cinderella's stepfather, Don Magnifico. Guidarelli is the winner of a MAC award for best comedy or musical performer, and has been called the "clown prince of opera."
Opera Tampa wraps up the season in April with Giacomo Puccini's Tosca, a relatively modern (1900) and controversial take on the abuse of legal authority. Cesar Sanchez plays the painter Mario Cavaradossi, the persecuted love interest of Floria Tosca.
"A very close friend told me, 'You have to hear this guy, he has a great future,' " maestro Daniel Lipton, Opera Tampa's artistic director and conductor, said of Sanchez, a tenor. Lisa Houben, a Dutch-American soprano, sings the role of Tosca, with which she began a long and distinguished international career.
Lipton lives in Tampa and spends part of the year in Germany, and has served as a guest conductor for 10 years at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. He has auditioned Opera Tampa singers at the German opera house and in New York, and also seen the number of prospective cast members increase each year. Opera will endure, he said, because it "feeds the richness of the soul, often what is lacking so much in society today."
Breaking new ground: Sunshine City Opera
A full house at the [email protected] took in the debut on Sept. 16 of a newcomer to the local opera scene: Sunshine City Opera, the brainchild of composer and flutist Erin Huelskamp. Neither soprano Katherine Stenzel nor mezzo soprano Thea Lobo sang any centuries-old arias. For now, the core of the St. Petersburg-based company is Huelskamp herself. Two concerts in September have attracted interest, she said, and she would welcome prospective board members.
Sunshine City Opera has scheduled three concerts this season, a fundraiser and a workshop on acting techniques for singers. The main event comes in May at the [email protected], a production of Antonio Vivaldi's 1735 opera Griselda. Based on a medieval tale in The Decameron, by Boccaccio, this rarely performed opera centers on the rejection of a 14th century queen by her husband and casts multiple countertenors.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.