After all the recent drama involving Mad Cow Theatre and CFEA, it was a refreshing change to cover a major local cultural organization that's not only made it through the pandemic, but has done so while demonstrating their commitment to diversity and inclusion within one of the most tradition-bound arts. I recently caught up with Opera Orlando general director Gabriel Preisser before the first installment of the company's Summer Concert Series, which kicks off a "Viva Verdi" season that will (hopefully) culminate in their debut inside their long-awaited Dr. Phillips Center home.
Like so many performing arts groups, Opera Orlando had to "pivot the crap out of things" in response to the pandemic, says Preisser. "We all learned about the video side of the industry a lot more than we ever anticipated, but that was exciting; it was fun to figure those things out."
A recording of their December production drew online viewers from Japan, Europe, and "Duluth, Minnesota, of all places," and their live performances of Carmen sold out the socially distanced Walt Disney Theater and attracted international critical attention.
"We had a reviewer from the United Kingdom pick up our productions last season. We got our first review from Opera News," Preisser says. "We were one of the only companies to stay open ... so there wasn't as much going on nationwide, but it made it all worth it that we put the COVID policies in place [and] found a safe way to put on our productions."
The recent surge in the Delta variant prompted Opera Orlando to again postpone their annual gala from September until May 2022, but this month's Summer Concert Series launched on Sunday as scheduled at the University Club of Winter Park with a fully masked audience and take-home reception snacks. Each of the three concerts (which continue on Aug. 22 and 29) features an artist who will return later this season on the mainstage, performing a personally curated repertoire in an intimate setting.
Last Saturday I had the pleasure of interviewing Cecilia Violetta Lopez on the eve of her first Opera Orlando appearance since her acclaimed 2017 turn in La Bohème. Although the celebrated soprano has soared to singing classical roles with the Metropolitan Opera, she says the song she selected for her summer concert that's closest to her heart is Ignacio Fernández Esperón's "La Borrachita," which her mother taught her while they worked in the beet fields of her native Idaho.
"It's always a reminder of who I am, and the people that have sacrificed and work so much to help me be where I am," Lopez says. "As a professional opera singer, it was just weird to be singing it for a paying audience, so of course when I was learning it I had to call mom [and say] 'you will never guess what song I'm singing for money,'" Lopez says, laughing. "Those songs that I grew up singing out in the fields, those are the songs that my mom knew that my grandmother taught her; they're the songs passed down through generations."
That connection to her rural roots, despite her international career, extends to her serving as artistic advisor to Opera Idaho, where she's helping bring her art form to underfunded schools. And though she says she's never, thankfully, personally faced discrimination in casting as a Mexican-American, she's supportive of her colleagues who are "rocking the boat" for better representation: "Rome was never built in a day, so we can't expect changes to be done immediately, but the changes that I have seen are good."
Inclusive outreach is an intentional thread running through many of Opera Orlando's recent efforts, such as their year-old "Representation Matters" online series, their Haiti-set staging of Carmen and their upcoming newly commissioned opera of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' book The Secret River, which focuses on a Black family in Florida. "We're definitely trying to do our part to tell everyone's story," says Preisser, "and we strongly believe that representation does matter."
If you missed Lopez's summer concert, she'll return as her middle namesake ("Violetta" was a karmically appropriate misprint on her birth certificate) in October's La Traviata at the Walt Disney Theater. And you've still got a chance to catch the last two Sunday concerts with her co-star, Broadway tenor Victor Ryan Robertson, and husband-and-wife duo Kristen and Keith Chambers, who will be back in March for a unique site-specific immersive version of King for a Day at Universal Orlando's Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.
All this is prelude to April's scheduled premiere of Rigoletto in the eagerly anticipated Steinmetz Hall, whose acoustics will finally allow audiences to enjoy unamplified operas as God and Verdi intended, capping a remarkable period of growth for Opera Orlando. "I know opera's kind of had a difficult history in Orlando, but I hope we've proven ourselves, going from a $250,000 annual budget to $1.5 million over five years, expanding from two productions to five to six productions a year, and even surviving COVID," concludes Preisser. "Opera is here to stay, and we're excited to be a part of this community."