Opera flourishing in Tampa Bay

BY JOHN FLEMING

Times Performing Arts Critic

The bay area has become a hot spot for opera.

For example, in the next 10 days or so, you could take in Tosca at St. Petersburg Opera, Un Ballo in Maschera at Opera Tampa and Turandot at Sarasota Opera.

But the best evidence may be the beginning of a new era at Opera Tampa, which is debuting the Florida Opera Festival with its production of Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), Verdi's love triangle that leads to a political assassination. The festival also includes a range of productions, from Puccini's La Boheme to a one-woman opera about chef Julia Child baking a chocolate cake. Those and a host of other events are compressed into February and March, instead of spaced out through the fall, winter and spring.

Not coincidentally, Opera Tampa has a new artistic director, Daniel Lipton. He succeeds the venerable Anton Coppola, who conducted every performance of the company during its first 17 years.

The festival takes place at Tampa's Straz Center for the Performing Arts, whose CEO, Judy Lisi, founded the opera company to operate as part of the center. She came up with the festival concept to take advantage of the amount of arts activity at this time of year in Florida.

"Between Sarasota and Clearwater and St. Petersburg and Tampa, with all the museums and performing arts, we have pound for pound during snowbird season more happening in art and culture than anywhere in the country where it's warm," Lisi said. "My new mission is for all of us to look at each other as a whole and not territorially."

To try to develop an audience of winter visitors, Opera Tampa has advertised the festival in markets such as Toronto, Detroit, Chicago and New York, as well as in national publications like Opera News.

It is also trying ways of making opera more accessible, with such events as opera pub nights, free open rehearsals, crossover concerts by the likes of Katherine Jenkins (a British mezzo soprano who was on Dancing With the Stars) and showings of opera movies like Moonstruck. The opera that plays off Julia Child is Lee Hoiby's Bon Appétit, with soprano Stella Zambalis (also starring in the title role of St. Petersburg Opera's Tosca) as the late PBS chef.

The social aspects of operagoing won't be neglected. The Opera Tampa Gala (tickets starting at $350) will feature the return of Coppola, 95, who will present an award to retired soprano Martina Arroyo.

"This is a big transition year. I hope it all works," Lisi said. "Change is always a challenge. Any kind of change is going to take three or four years before you see growth. I think this year is going to be a get-to-know-you thing."

Lipton's programming is a mix of the utterly familiar in La Boheme, probably the most frequently performed opera, and Un Ballo in Maschera, a melodrama about a political plot at a masked ball, which has not been staged in the Tampa Bay area in memory. This year is the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth.

"I wanted to do Verdi, and I wanted to do a Verdi which was not well known, because we were tied to the Boheme," Lipton said. "It is very much my idea to do an opera each season that has never been done in Tampa and one that is popular."

Compared to Coppola, Lipton, born in France, raised in New York and now living in Germany, is likely to bring in more singers from Europe and Canada, where he was artistic director of Opera Ontario and often conducts at Opera de Quebec. The singers he cast for this year's first festival include those he heard in auditions in Berlin and New York as well as several he knew from Canada.

Along with Ballo and Boheme, Lipton is conducting three concerts of "POPera!," a program of opera and musical theater favorites, featuring an orchestra and singers Julie Boulianne, Micaela Oeste, Bruce Sledge and James Westman.

"For people who love opera, they'll get to hear all their favorites without having to sit through the whole opera," Lipton said. "For novices, it will be a nice introduction."

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

Florida Opera Festival

Here are highlights of the festival staged by Opera Tampa at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts:

Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball): Verdi's romantic tragedy, in which a king falls for his best friend's wife. 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7, 2 p.m. Feb. 9, 2 p.m. Feb. 10; $34.50-$84.50

• Opera Tampa gala, Feb. 9; $350

• POPera! Mixes opera and musical theater selections. Feb. 14, 16, 17; $34.50-$84.50

• Bon Appétit: This one-act comic opera is taken from a classic Julia Child TV episode about making a French chocolate cake. Sung in English. Bonus! There will be chocolate cake and coffee after the show. Feb. 22; $25

• Katherine Jenkins and Nathan Pacheco: (at right) The concert, with orchestra, will feature opera, Broadway and pop selections. March 1; $100

• La Boheme: The heartbreaking tale of Puccini's young Parisian lovers living an exuberant bohemian life (considered a good one for first-timers). March 7, 9, 10; $34.50-$84.50

Other festival events:

• Open rehearsal for Un Ballo in Maschera, 7-9 p.m. Sunday; free

• Meet the cast of La Boheme with concert, 6:30 p.m. Feb. 18; $25

• Open rehearsals for La Boheme, 7-9 p.m. Feb. 21, 27, March 4; free

• The movie Moonstruck, 2 p.m. March 3; pay what you can

Information, tickets: (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

Daniel Lipton's top 5 . . . or 10

Ask Opera Tampa artistic director Daniel Lipton to name the top five "essential" operas, and it soon becomes clear this is an impossible task. "By which composer?" he asks, not at all facetiously, considering the prolific output of operatic titans such as Mozart, Rossini, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. But he tried. “La Boheme (Puccini) would be top of the list, absolutely without hesitation. It's just so accessible to everyone. Then I think Carmen (Bizet) would be No. 2 because of its popularity. People know Carmen without knowing that they know it. Of the Verdi operas I would choose La Traviata, though he thought his best was Rigoletto. Puccini's Madama Butterfly also has to be in there, though it's neck-and-neck with Tosca. For Wagner, I don't know if it would be The Flying Dutchman or Die Meistersinger or Tristan und Isolde or Die Walkure — I think it has to be Walkure because that gets you into the Ring. With Mozart, my personal favorite is The Marriage of Figaro. From the second act trio to the finale it's just unbeatable music. It makes my hair stand on end. Andrea Chenier (Giordano) wouldn't be on anyone's top 5 or 10 list, but it's one I adore performing."

John Fleming, Times performing arts critic

Opera for

newbies

What if i don't understand the language?

True, most operas are not sung in English, but don't worry. Translations (supertitles) are projected above the stage to help you follow the text.

What if i don't

know the story?

A quick search on the Internet will turn up multiple resources and synopses for just about any opera. Libraries and bookstores also have beginner guides, and when you buy an opera on CD, a libretto (little book) is usually included.

NO microphones!

Opera singers don't need amplification. They study for years to learn how to project their voices over the sound of the orchestra in the pit and reach the back row of the theater, no small thing in the Straz's Morsani Hall, which seats 2,500.

The passionate art form:

Unlike symphony orchestra concerts, where the audience is discouraged from making noise, opera tradition encourages applauding dramatic scenes and cheering (and booing) arias.

Opera flourishing in Tampa Bay 01/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 29, 2013 6:07pm]

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