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Opera Tampa at 25: A ‘crazy’ dream that made it, but what comes next?

As a new season opens with ‘Carmen,’ leaders and singers look back at its growth and forward to its future.

TAMPA — On her ride from the airport, Catherine Daniel spotted something she’d never seen before: Catherine Daniel, fully made up and in costume, towering over traffic on the interstate.

“I’m like, wait a minute, that’s me!” said the Canadian mezzo-soprano, the star of this weekend’s Opera Tampa production of Carmen. “This is my first experience of seeing my face on a billboard. That’s fun, right?”

Daniel has performed all over North America, yet Tampa was the first city where she’d seen herself so magnified. The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts’ resident opera company is entering its 25th season, and Opera Tampa is ready to go big.

When Straz president and CEO Judy Lisi founded Opera Tampa in 1996, building a professional opera company in Tampa seemed an improbable dream. One newspaper critic, not mincing words, called it “suicidal.” Lisi herself called it “crazy.”

“Yet when it’s right," she said, "there’s nothing better.”

Mounted at more than a half-million dollars, Carmen will feature more than 100 mostly local performers, from principal and chorus singers to a full symphony. It’s the sort of show, Lisi said, that reveals an arts center’s potential like nothing else.

Yet Opera Tampa still faces questions about its future. Lisi, the company’s general director and biggest booster, plans to retire this decade. At that point, Opera Tampa will have to evolve again.

“It’s going to be a different show,” Lisi said. "I am not the person for the future of this performing arts center. I was the person for it a generation, two generations ago. It’s not going to be that. It’s going to be wherever our culture is going.”

Opera Tampa performers Susan Hellman Spatafora, left, and Timothy Wilt, right, receive instruction from staging director Dean Anthony, center, during a rehearsal for Georges Bizet's Carmen on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, at the Straz Center in Tampa.
Opera Tampa performers Susan Hellman Spatafora, left, and Timothy Wilt, right, receive instruction from staging director Dean Anthony, center, during a rehearsal for Georges Bizet's Carmen on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, at the Straz Center in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

* * *

Opera companies have been coming to Tampa since at least the 1890s, performing Carmen and La Traviata at Centro Asturiano and the Tampa Bay Casino. But attempts to build local, professional companies always failed. Opera fans had to look to Orlando or Sarasota.

“You go to a city like Dallas, they’ve been around forever. And the seats are filled with progeny — sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters,” said Lea Davis, founding chair of the board of directors of the Opera Tampa League. “We didn’t have that.”

When she came to Tampa in 1992, Lisi — a Juilliard-trained singer who founded an opera company in New Haven, Conn. — knew she couldn’t launch a company right away. Then called the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the young venue was operating at a multimillion-dollar deficit.

But the Straz is one of the largest performing arts halls on the east coast. Two of its theaters, Morsani and Ferguson, are designed in the tradition of European opera houses.

And it had a steady stream of theatrical revenue in touring Broadway musicals. If a new opera company could share staff and resources with the venue, it would have a better shot than most.

In Connecticut, Lisi worked with conductor and composer Anton Coppola, part of Hollywood’s legendary Coppola family. That’s brother of Carmine, uncle of Francis Ford, grand-uncle to Sofia and Nicolas Cage — Oscar winners, all. When she started Opera Tampa, she hired him as artistic director.

During several minutes of a standing ovation, Opera Tampa conductor and founding artistic director Anton Coppola blows a kiss to the audience in 2012 upon his retirement.
During several minutes of a standing ovation, Opera Tampa conductor and founding artistic director Anton Coppola blows a kiss to the audience in 2012 upon his retirement. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Coppola, now 102, “never could never have anticipated” how long Opera Tampa would last, he said by phone from his home in New York. “But it turned out it was one of the happiest periods of my life. The most constructive, the most artistically satisfying of my somewhat lengthy career."

Yan Yan Wang sings during a rehearsal for Opera Tampa's Madama Butterfly in 1996.
Yan Yan Wang sings during a rehearsal for Opera Tampa's Madama Butterfly in 1996. [ Times (1996) ]

Not long after debuting Madama Butterfly to sold-out crowds in 1996, Coppola was responsible for Opera Tampa’s biggest creative swing: The world premiere of his original opera Sacco and Vanzetti in 2001. The show garnered Opera Tampa some national attention, even if it wasn’t a blockbuster.

“It’s still a regional opera company,” Coppola said. "But it has become an important regional opera company.”

Not all of its history has been positive.

In 2017, the Straz Center cut ties with artistic director Daniel Lipton, who replaced Coppola in 2012. Shortly thereafter, it came to light that police in Canada had issued an arrest warrant for Lipton in connection with an alleged sexual assault there in the late 1980s. Only after more women brought forward allegations of unsettling conduct did Lisi acknowledge that Opera Tampa bought out Lipton’s contact following “hearsay” of his actions.

“I really tried to build him up,” Lisi said. "I had his picture up in the lobby, a whole wall with his picture. I put his picture everywhere, and then for it to blow up in my face was really something.

“You know, if I ever write a book, it’s going to be some kind of title like, Opera Would Be Wonderful If You Didn’t Have to Deal with People,” she continued. “In our business, it’s all people. The product is all people. And then you’re delivering it to a congregation of all people. That’s why you have to be so well planned, because anything can go wrong. You have to try to anticipate and look around corners, so it doesn’t hit you in the back of the head. Because it will.”

Lipton’s resignation preceded similar #MeToo moments that rocked the opera world, including allegations against former Metropolitan Opera music conductor James Levine and renowned tenor Placido Domingo. But as bad as the episode looked from the outside, the company experienced little fallout from patrons or benefactors.

“I don’t think people even noticed that he was gone,” said Zena Lansky, a Straz trustee and major Opera Tampa donor.

Opera Tampa named Lipton’s successor, Robin Stamper, without so much as a press release. As Stamper sees it, the lack of fanfare was partly to emphasize that Opera Tampa had grown into something greater than just one conductor.

“Some people think it’s about bringing in some star, celebrity person, and it’s not,” said Stamper, who will conduct The Pirates of Penzance in March. “Different conductors have different strengths, just like different singers do.”

Backstage at Ferguson Hall, the 1,042-seat theater at the Straz Center.
Backstage at Ferguson Hall, the 1,042-seat theater at the Straz Center. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

* * *

Audiences have come to expect more of a Broadway experience from the opera, Stamper said. Singers now must act and emote more than “singing armchairs” like Luciano Pavarotti, and theatrical technology has evolved accordingly. In 2006, the Metropolitan Opera began streaming live, high-definition performances into movie theaters, right next to Marvel movies.

Six years ago, Opera Tampa held a free outdoor showcase in Curtis Hixon Park. They expected a turnout of about 500; three times that showed up. The event, now called Straz Live! in the Park and incorporating Broadway tunes, today draws crowds in the thousands.

Opera Tampa has replicated the success of that event with free concerts at Armature Works and the Riverwalk, including an annual October show dubbed the Witching Hour. For The Pirates of Penzance, they’re adding an abridged, kid-friendly morning performance. Tickets start at $12.50.

When he moved here three years ago, Jean Carlos Rodriguez “had no idea that Tampa even had an opera house,” he said. Born in the Dominican Republic, he fell into opera singing in choruses in New Jersey and Connecticut. But when he got a job at the University of South Florida, he gave it up.

Since meeting Stamper, he has performed in Opera Tampa productions of Romeo and Juliet, The Barber of Seville and La Boheme, and stars as Escamillo in Carmen. Last summer, he sang in “A Night in Spain,” a concert featuring excerpts from Spanish-inspired works.

“I saw a lot of young faces, I saw a lot of Hispanics,” he said. “I saw a lot of people from work that I didn’t even invite. They just heard about it and said, ‘Oh, you’re singing in Spanish? I’m going to go watch.'"

In 2019, the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory launched its first camp and class devoted specifically to opera. Both are returning in 2020, said Timothy Wilt, Patel’s music department manager.

“Right now, I’m just wanting to get kids in the door and get students exposed to this art form,” said Wilt, a Seminole native who’s also featured in Carmen. With guidance from Stamper and Opera Tampa, he hopes to see a proper student production.

“We have this great space right on the riverfront. Let’s welcome the Tampa Bay community into it,” Wilt said. “We’re not just here for your money, to put on some shows. We’re here to serve the community.”

Opera Tampa performer Chris Holloway, center, gets a wig fitting from wig and makeup designer Dawn Rivard, right, before joining a rehearsal for Georges Bizet’s Carmen on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, at the Straz Center in Tampa.
Opera Tampa performer Chris Holloway, center, gets a wig fitting from wig and makeup designer Dawn Rivard, right, before joining a rehearsal for Georges Bizet’s Carmen on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, at the Straz Center in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

* * *

There’s no guarantee that Lisi’s successor at the Straz will share her passion for opera. Once she left the New Haven Opera Company, it “continued for about five years, and ended. It is the fear.”

The cost of Opera Tampa productions has ballooned in 25 years, from $186,000 for Madama Butterfly in 1996 to nearly $570,000 for Aida in 2020. During that span, other companies have closed or merged with other entities. In 2009, after more than 50 years, Orlando Opera declared bankruptcy and shut down (a new company, Opera Orlando, has arisen in its wake). In 2011, the Kennedy Center took over the Washington Opera, an arrangement that resembles that of the Straz and Opera Tampa.

Packed houses have been rare. Last season, Opera Tampa sold 2,985 tickets for two performances of La Boheme and 2,017 for two performances of Die Fledermaus, both staged in 2,610-seat Carol Morsani Hall. It sold 1,702 tickets for two performances of The Pearl Fishers in 1,042-seat Ferguson Hall.

On the other hand, Lisi said, Opera Tampa has about the same subscription renewal rate as Broadway season ticket holders, about 70 percent. And of those subscribers, a higher percentage are likely to be donors. Opera Tampa now has an endowment worth $3 million to $5 million, with ongoing and estate gifts in the offing.

Posters from past Opera Tampa productions, including one for Giacomo Puccinis Madama Butterfly (center, yellow), their first production, from May, 1996, are displayed on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, at the Straz Center in Tampa.
Posters from past Opera Tampa productions, including one for Giacomo Puccinis Madama Butterfly (center, yellow), their first production, from May, 1996, are displayed on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, at the Straz Center in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

“What I’m trying to do is build up enough community support, awareness and funding so that whoever my successor is, they look at it as a viable program,” Lisi said.

Now, there’s a built-in audience. Since Opera Tampa started, companies like the St. Petersburg Opera and Tarpon Springs’ New Century Opera have popped up, building a small but devoted opera community around Tampa Bay.

It’s now a region where performers like Rodriguez, Carmen’s heroic toreador, can feel at home.

“As long as there are young people like myself and so many others, it’s not going to go anywhere," he said. "It might struggle here and there, but there will always be a need for it.”

CARMEN

$95.50 and up. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N W.C. MacInnes Place, Tampa. (813) 229-7827. operatampa.org. Future productions include The Pirates of Penzance (March 13-15) and Aida (April 24 and 26).

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