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 email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.