Daniel Lipton, the 6-foot-4 maestro with the deep voice that shifts seamlessly into other languages, spoke to the class.
"Who here has never been to an opera?" he asked the crowd at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts' free Opera 101 seminar.
A few hands went up.
"What do you think opera is?" Lipton asked.
"A play with music," one man volunteered.
"A musical," a woman said. "But the musicians are more finely trained."
Each year, opera is a concept that more and more casual consumers of theater are venturing to grasp. And it's high time for the art in Tampa Bay. The St. Petersburg Opera Company and Sarasota Opera are about a third of the way through their current seasons, and Opera Tampa is entering its 21st year of the Florida Opera Festival this weekend. Opera Tampa's festival brings two Mozart compositions this season (Cosi Fan Tutte and Don Giovanni) and Verdi's La Traviata at the Straz.
The challenge, as always, is getting bigger and more diverse crowds to attend. Opera Tampa is trying to bring in fans by employing younger singers and offering free lectures and having a little sense of humor.
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A taste for opera has grown steadily, if slowly, in the Tampa Bay area. The Sarasota Opera started doing productions in 1973, an outgrowth of the Asolo Opera Guild. Judy Lisi, the chief executive officer and president of the Straz, and others launched the Florida Opera Festival in the mid-1990s. The St. Petersburg Opera Company got off the ground in 2006.
Can Tampa Bay support three opera houses?
"I don't think having three opera houses in this geography is an issue," said St. Petersburg Opera artistic director Mark Sforzini, "as each company creates its own special brand of opera."
Lipton's recent talk at the Straz should be proof of that. Opera 101 resulted in 40 ticket sales and several season subscriptions.
Lipton took over in 2012 as Opera Tampa's second artistic director. Besides English, he speaks French, German, Italian and Spanish. He lives in Tampa six months of the year and spends the rest of his time in Germany, where his wife lives, or conducting around the world.
He believes the opera will continue to expand its audience as more people appreciate its entertainment value.
Lipton has directed more than 60 operas and never tires of it.
"I can't compare conducting to anything," he said. "It's like being in love. When people ask me what my favorite opera is, I say, 'The one I'm conducting.' Because when I'm conducting, that is my true love."
At Opera 101, Lipton previewed the coming attractions, weaving in some trivia. The longest opera, it turns out, lasts 18 hours, including intermissions. Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, better known as the Ring Cycle, consists of four operas to be performed consecutively.
The fourth piece culminates with a nearly 20-minute aria by Brunnhilde, a stout Viking warrior princess, giving rise to the axiom, "It ain't over until the fat lady sings."
Opera's roots extend to the ancient Egyptians. The first opera as we know it came out in 1597, in Italy. That opera was Dafne, by Jacopo Peri, Lipton explained to the class.
Then, a mechanized female voice from someone's iPhone interrupted from near the front.
"Sorry, I missed that," said Siri.
"Jacopo, Jacopo," Lipton said, and everyone laughed.
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Many opera companies are encouraging the art by establishing residencies for up-and-comers. They have prominent roles in all of the productions and may serve as understudies for the leads.
At Opera Tampa, there's Leigh Remy, whose grandmother used to read her bedtime stories. At the time, Remy didn't know the stories were also the plots of operas. When she thought the girl was ready, the grandmother finally said, "You know, music goes with these."
There's Gabriel Preisser, a coach's son who just wanted to play football.
"I was the kid who would be dressed in my football pads and sing the national anthem before games in high school," Preisser said.
Florida State University passed on Preisser as a quarterback, but offered him a music scholarship.
And there's Cody Austin, one of last year's "New Voices" crop at the Straz. (All three have roles in Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, which is playing now.) Austin grew up in Texas, where he won a few singing competitions. He didn't know much about opera until he and some friends went to see a production of Rigoletto by the Dallas Opera.
"I realized, 'This is the epitome, the top voices in the world,' " Austin said. Besides the quality of the voices, it also impressed him that they were singing without microphones.
"We are out here exposed like none other," Austin said. "If we mess up, you hear it. They can't cover you with some sort of Auto-Tuner, like Justin Bieber."
The profession is highly competitive, and demands must be met quickly. Performers travel constantly. Fluency in Italian, German or French is a plus. At a minimum, singers are expected at least to know the meaning of each word they are singing.
And while the purpose of opera remains singing, the ability to act is more than desirable.
"As a musician, I'm really sorry to have to say that if I see an opera performance which is poorly staged and brilliantly sung," Lipton said, "I'll appreciate it but if falls flat. And if I see a performance that is maybe not as brilliantly sung but brilliantly staged, then my interest is piqued."
There are no shortcuts to producing top-tier work, Austin said. The first year or two of some of the best training might not involve singing words at all, just making sounds.
Austin acknowledged that singers have been known to hastily prepare audition pieces by watching YouTube, then mimicking those performances.
"That will only get you so far in your career," he said. "You will get weeded out. You will meet a maestro who knows that you listened to YouTube."
Anyway, he said, imitation misses the point, which is the joy of discovering "no one has a voice like you."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.