By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Oct 20, 2014 at 12:46 PM

It was just a rehearsal – no costumes, no set, no orchestra, no chorus, no plush seats, no lights on stage. As a matter of fact, there was no stage at all, just a piano. And the whole thing was in German.

In spite of all of those things that weren’t there, the thing that was there was a fascinating story and some amazing voices that told the story with such romance and strength that I followed the whole thing from my folding chair. I knew that there was a captain of a ship and that he sold his daughter’s hand for a treasure of silver to a mysterious stranger. I knew that the daughter and the stranger met, separated by distance before moving together, step by halting step toward their first tender and hesitant kiss.

This was Milwaukee’s gem, The Florentine Opera, and a staging rehearsal for "The Flying Dutchman," the Wagner opera that runs for two nights – Saturday, Oct. 25 and Monday Oct. 27 – at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Milwaukee’s own Paula Suozzi is directing, another step in her seemingly unstoppable climb into the ranks of major opera directors in this country. She directs at the famed Metropolitan Opera next month.

She watched rehearsal closely as the singers and Maestro Joseph Rescigno went through was was obviously a difficult piece to perform. Rescigno is clearly the master of all he surveys, and the passion he has for the music is stunningly obvious.

I’ve always thought that there are any number of hidden cultural gems in Milwaukee that deserve to have a light shone on them. I think the Milwaukee Ballet is one. I now add the Florentine to that list.

The company is 81 years old, one of the oldest continuously operating regional opera companies in the country. There is history here, much of it memorable.

One of the best stories comes from the year 1965, when "Samson and Delilah" was being staged. At the last moment, famous tenor Richard Cassilly withdrew to go to Europe where he built an enviable career. Artistic director John Anello was panicked and placed a call to a young tenor he knew in New York. The tenor was headed back to his home in Spain, depressed because he could not find work in America. His name was Placido Domingo. He came to Milwaukee, sang the role and has often said that the Florentine marked the turning point in his career.

William Florescu has run the company since 2005. Suozzi says his leadership has been very important to the continued national status of the company.

"Bill has done really good work with this company," she said. "He’s cast shows really well, getting good singers, bringing people in and using local talent. The chorus here is absolutely outstanding."

I’ve heard a lot of people in my life say that opera is too boring or too hard to understand or too elite. When the Three Tenors (Domingo, Carreras and Pavarotti) were singing all over the world and drawing huge crowds, there were critics who complained, saying "opera is not for the masses." That’s the kind of elitism that’s hurt the world of opera. Given half a chance, I can see a whole new audience growing for the Florentine.

Take "Dutchman" as an example. It has a great story, exciting enough to rival anything you see on television or in the movies. It has spectacular – and I mean spectacular – singers. And the songs they sing are monumental in their beauty.

Look at the moment near the end of the second act when the Dutchman – played by bass baritone Wayne Tigges – and Senta, the woman whose hand he has purchased, meet for the first time. The incredible soprano Alwyn Mellor plays Senta. The money has gone to her father, and her father has ordered her to love and wed this stranger. The music creates this incredible mood as they exchange lyrics, growing ever closer to each other until that magic kiss.

(drawing slightly nearer to Senta)
Are you not against your father's choice?
Could what he promised - could it hold good?
Could you be mine for ever
and give your hand to me, a foreigner?
After a life of torment shall I find
in your true love my long-sought rest?

Whoever you may be and whatever the doom
that cruel fate may decree for you -
whatever the lot that I bring upon myself
l will always be obedient to my father.

The other principal artists in this production are mezzo soprano Jenni Bank, Danish tenor David Danholt and bass Peter Volpe, a Milwaukee favorite who is sure to make hearts flutter with his striking good looks.

The opera will be performed with supertitles that carry an English translation across the top of the stage. But, as I say, I am convinced I would rather hear this spectacular music and singing in its original German, even though I don’t speak a word.

The story is that clear and moving and if you haven’t been to an opera, this is a wonderful one to try for your first time.

Tickets and information are available at the Florentine Opera website.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.