During the decade I've been covering Orlando performing arts, opera has been declared deceased and then shouted "not dead yet" more times than a Monty Python character. With no fewer than four opera-focused companies now active in the city, it's safe to say the art form is finally out of the ICU. For traditionalists, Opera Orlando has a sold-out run of La Boheme this week, and performs Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors with the Orlando Philharmonic at the Dr. Phillips Center on Dec. 9-10. But if you want to experience opera's cutting edge, check out these companies that are trying to bring classical music to a new audience in innovative ways.
Opera Del Sol presents opera wars
A rock n' roll bar for gearheads probably isn't the first place you'd think of when planning an opera fundraiser, but that's part of the reason why Opera Del Sol founder Nicole Dupré wanted to have a cast meet-and-greet in support of their upcoming Opera Wars production in downtown's new Ace Cafe. "I have this immense love for the city of Orlando, and I realize the people walking on the streets are not the people that are coming into the seats," Dupré explained to me at last week's event, while performers and patrons mingled over happy hour cocktails. "Our average opera-goer is over 72 years old. ... If we want people to fall in love with this art form, we've got to shake it up."
Dupré, whose background is in hair and makeup, has worked backstage on 25 local opera productions since 2010, and recently served as Opera Orlando's director of community engagement, so she knows the old-school opera world as well as anybody. She says she started a new company with artistic director (and former Ringling Bros. ringmaster) Johnny Lee Iverson because she "didn't want to change anyone else's identity." They hope to draw in a new audience that doesn't currently attend opera by fusing the music with "grand, in your face" elements of circus, dance and even food in immersive productions that are "an experience, not just a show."
Opera Wars, which bows on Nov. 18 at the Scott Center at Holy Trinity in Melbourne before its Nov. 24-25 run at the Abbey, will be the first big test of Dupré's plan. It features iconic arias – including Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" and the "Toreador Song" from Carmen – repurposed into an intergalactic adventure story. At the mixer, I met cast members Amanda Millar, a veteran of local burlesque cabarets, who plays "Freya," a "sassy cynic" space pirate with a foot-rub fetish; and Samuel Hall, who's following his recent turn in Faust in St. Petersburg with "Lt. Commander Jack Sigmund," second-in-command of the space station I.S.S. Sol. "Even if they don't know opera, they're going to recognize the tunes," said Hall, and the "high camp" script is stuffed with references to Star Wars, Star Trek and Firefly. "It's a little bawdy, a little ribald," promises Millar, "and a little bit dirty."
Central Florida Vocal Arts presents double jeopardy
When I reviewed Central Florida Vocal Arts' 2017 Fringe production, I praised their musical talents but panned their comedy sketch-writing. With Double Jeopardy, they are thankfully on firmer ground with a charming pair of one-act operas that allow them to focus on what they do best: sing. Gilbert & Sullivan's lighthearted legal operetta Trial By Jury has been cleverly paired with The Trial of B. B. Wolf, a new family-friendly work by Curtis Tucker and Nelson Sheeley that debuted earlier this year at St. Augustine's First Coast Opera.
"Central Florida Vocal Arts has always been committed to hiring local talent and we are thrilled to now be able to feature a local composer on our season," CFVA executive director Theresa Smith-Levin told me. "Composer Curt Tucker worked with us on The Student Prince in 2016, and we are privileged to be premiering the work in Central Florida." The first act is a silly storybook spoof with an audience-participation twist that sees Mr. Swine (Christina Rivera) and Little Red Riding Hood (Katherine Stenzel) testifying against the criminal canine; the second is a more sophisticated courtroom rom-com that's sexually retrograde yet progressively polyamorous. Brian Hayes is delightfully devious as both defendants, and John Segers does double duty as a perverse pair of deliriously demented judges.
Double Jeopardy, which runs through Nov. 19, is CFVA's first production at Central Florida Community Arts' church auditorium on Ivanhoe. "The intimate setting of the CFCArts black box allows us to connect and interact with our audiences more closely," said Smith-Levin. "It helps us to continue to make classical vocal arts feel more approachable for our audiences." In this small space, these powerful soloists would probably be heard just fine over the lone pianist (Sarah Tellier, David Foust) without their crackling microphones, but music director Nishaa Carson coaxes rich harmonies from the unamplified chorus, and supertitles are projected lest you miss any of the amusing English-language lyrics.
CFVA's next events are Cocktails and Carols on Dec. 9 at Luma on Park, followed by Handel's Messiah Sing-Along on Dec. 10 at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in St. Cloud. They'll collaborate on the second with Space Coast Symphony and Opera Del Sol, demonstrating that cooperation among competitors is conceivable, even when dueling divas are involved.