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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

‘Rio de Sangre’ Brings New Blood to Milwaukee Opera

Florentine delivers first world premiere

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When William Florescu joined the Florentine Opera as its general director five years ago, he helped to usher in a new era for the opera company. “The company had, I think, a reputation as financially successful but somewhat insular,” he says.“We’ve turned our vision outward into the community and the world.”

Now in its 77th year, the Florentine will present its first world premiere, Rio de Sangre,by composer Don Davis, librettist Kate Gale and translator Alicia Partnoy. Davis, a prolific composer for the concert stage, is best known for his scores for the Matrix movies. He also orchestrated Toy Story 3 and has won two Emmys. Gale is an award-winning Los Angeles poet, novelist and publisher concerned with the sometimes turbulent intersection of North and Latin American cultures in this country. Partnoy is an Argentine poet and a survivor of the secret detention camps to which she and approximately 130,000 others were “disappeared” when Pinochet took power. The opera will be sung in Spanish, another first for the Florentine.

Florescu deems this part of a re-branding effort that includes the company’s recent productions of the contemporary operas Elmer Gantry and The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Baroque opera Semele, as well as a new commitment to building original productions of traditional repertory instead of renting “opera in a box” from companies located elsewhere.

“We are becoming more about the creative process,” he says. “We are collaborating more with community artists. There is amazing creativity in Milwaukee.It’s about connecting the dots. My colleagues are seeing it more and more, and trying to work together instead of against each other.”

Rio de Sangre
is directed by Paula Suozzi, the former associate artistic director of the Skylight and artistic director of the defunct Milwaukee Shakespeare.Simone Ferro of the UW-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts will choreograph.The opera is set in a fictional Latin American country; Ferro, born in Brazil, is a specialist in the dance traditions of her native country.Holly Payne of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater is the costume designer.Set and lights are by Noele Stollmack, the production director for the Florentine since 2000, who is also currently collaborating with the international performance artist Meredith Monk. Joseph Rescigno will conduct the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.

“I consider all of what we’re doing evolutionary,” Florescu says. “My predecessor did a great job.All the pieces were in place.”

In fact, there was a commission for a world premiere when Florescu arrived, but the librettist had passed away and it was on hold.The company decided to let it go, but donors remained committed to originating an opera in Milwaukee.Florescu heard a recording of parts of the still unfinished Rio de Sangre performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2007. The composer and librettist visited Milwaukee at their own expense to see a production, hear the orchestra and explore the possibility of staging the world premiere here.

“Don loves Milwaukee now,” Florescu says. “In many ways, he sees this as the most important project of his life.”

Florescu says he was drawn to the story, a contemporary political fable, because it’s a return to what opera used to do regularly—namely, comment on contemporary politics. He notes that Verdi was frequently forced by Italian censors to rewrite his works because they struck too close to home. But he also points out that Rio de Sangre is not specific to any country or political situation, and that Davis and Gale were “very specific about it’s being not specific. It’s about politics in the largest sense of the word; ideals are raised and crushed.”

A fan of new opera, Florescu is also excited by Davis’ score.“Don comes from outside the opera world, so he’s not worried about breaking opera rules,” he says. “He writes whatever is required for each scene.

“Somebody had to stick out their neck to do Tosca for the first time,” he continues. “We owe it to the lineage of our art form to do our part in bringing new work to life. It’s an interesting time to make this leap—in the middle of an economic downturn. It’s a tightrope walk without a net. We want to keep our traditional audience and bring in new audiences, especially the audience for new theater.”

The Florentine Opera presents Rio de Sangre Oct. 22-24 at Uihlein Hall, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.