Having struck gold once before, the Florentine Opera is set to give it another shot with the same team that won two Grammys – except this time that team is trading Sinclair Lewis for Theodore Dreiser.
Four seasons ago, the Florentine recorded a magnificent performance of the new opera, "Elmer Gantry," and it was met with both commercial and critical success. The opera, based on the novel by Lewis, was composed by Robert Aldridge with a libretto by Herschel Garden.
Now, the Florentine brings Dreiser’s "Sister Carrie" to life, again with the same composing team, William Boggs as music director and the genius of a Boston recording company, opening Oct. 7.
Staging an opera like this, with general director William Florescu as stage director, is a complex undertaking, marrying the artistic world with the world of technology.
"Sister Carrie" will be a commissioned world premiere of a new opera, something that the opera world takes very seriously. There have long been questions of where the new operas are going to come from, and while Puccini and Verdi still resonate and sell tickets, the developmental grants and funds are for new operas. That’s why there will be so much national and international attention paid to "Sister Carrie" and why this is a big deal in the world of classical music.
"Recording has become part of our brand now," Florescu said. "That has become kind of our calling card. When it comes to composers wanting new works recorded, we’ve become the most popular girl in the senior class. I can’t tell you how many scores I have in my office. It’s a crowded field of composers out there."
The process of getting to opening night began after the success of "Gantry" and the work that went into bringing it to stage is a convoluted road with many paths.
"After 'Elmer Gantry,' Bob (composer Robert Aldridge) asked me about doing the premiere of their next work," Florescu said. "I asked him what it was, and he said 'Sister Carrie.' I had read it years ago, but it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. So I read it again, and I thought it was a great idea for an opera. The idea that a girl starts out in Waukesha and grows into a complex woman in Chicago would resonate.
"Based on what they had already done, I signed on right away. The decision to record was an easy one. Our experience with Soundmirror was so great, it wasn’t even much of a debate."
Soundmirror is a Boston company that's an acknowledged leader in the world of recording classical music. Blanton Alspaugh is the senior producer and will oversee the Florentine recording.
"Recording an opera is totally different from recording a symphonic performance or a studio performance," Alspaugh said. "The challenge begins with the fact that we need to accomplish two things: We need to get the mics as close as possible acoustically and make them as unobtrusive as possible."
Alspaugh and his team begin thinking about the design for their mics early in the process. Meeting with designers and production and stage managers helps as Alspaugh begins to fashion his own design for the microphones. The contest between performance and recording isn’t really much of a problem.
"It’s very simple," Alspaugh said. "They do their staging with the theatrical audience in mind. We come in after the stage concept has been set, and we just adjust our approach to what’s taking place on the stage."
Soundmirror will record the dress rehearsal and both performances. Then, after the last performance, the operatic version of the White House situation room happens. The leaders of the production – including directors, composers and sound guys – meet to go over the "punch list," places in the recording that need to be punched up. Parts of the opera are then performed right after the final performance. Once the recording is complete, the final version is mixed in the editing process and heads to the classical music market.
Soundmirror has the most important voice in the room, and the company brings both technological and musical expertise to the decisions.
"All of our team are musicians, as well as tech guys," Alspaugh said.
This opera is an interesting challenge that fits into the way the Florentine has evolved over the years. Florescu has been general director of the company for 10 years and has steered the company in new and exciting directions.
"There is an element of risk in a world premiere," he said. "One of the things about the non-profit opera model is that you may do 'Madame Butterfly' and sell it out, and you are still short of paying your bills. One of our biggest successes was 'Aida.' It sold more tickets than we ever sold, but it also lost $500,000.
"We couldn’t do three new operas a year. But by continuing to challenge ourselves and our audience, we gain more recognition both locally and nationally. If we don’t do something interesting, nobody is going to give us any (grant or developmental) money."
In 2010, Florentine developed and adopted a plan that involved a new model, for both its business and artistic sides. The company moved out of expensive headquarters to a gorgeous spot in Riverwest, and things have taken off from there.
"It’s interesting because Florentine was not traditionally an innovative opera company," Florescu said. "We were a traditional company. I like pieces that connect with the audience, and that’s a part of it. The board has been very supportive of our producing new works, and that gives us an opportunity to take a new look at productions of traditional works."
Getting a slice of the artistic pie is problematic for many organizations, but the Florentine faces one huge competitor right in the neighborhood.
"When you are 100 miles from Chicago and you have Lyric Opera with an $80 million budget, developing a unique brand is tricky," Florescu said. "What we’ve had to do is change our definition of our end user, and we have many different loyal constituencies. We are in schools and at coffee shops. Some of these people love opera, and for some, it’s their first experience with our singing. Just because we don’t always get them all to come to our performances doesn’t mean we have failed."
"Sister Carrie" and the release of another CD marks the next big step in the development, adding to its reputation and to its revenue.
"Recording is expensive and a huge undertaking, but for us, it’s worth it," Florescu said. "It’s also a draw for singers. Having a recording on your resume is important for them. And you need singers who have the chops, the voices that record well.
"If you never saw Maria Callas and just heard her, you might say that she had an ugly voice. But once you saw her, you saw an overwhelming live performer."
An overwhelming live performance and a great recording are what Florescu, and Milwaukee opera fans, hope to get when "Sister Carrie" hits the stage on Oct. 7.
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.
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