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Friday, Nov. 29, 2013

The Florentine After Dark and The Florentine Opera's New Cabaret Series @ the Center

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As New York's Metropolitan Opera spends fortunes on productions few can afford to attend and the New York City Opera folds for lack of the wealth to compete, it's a rich pleasure to see Milwaukee's Florentine Opera invest in a new cabaret series for $15 a ticket.

 

Directed by Chorus Master and Associate Conductor Scott Stewart and informally hosted by the Florentine's General Director William Florescu, the full length shows of the “@ the Center” series are presented in the modest rehearsal room of the company's Riverwest home on Burleigh St. Florescu recently addressed a casual Saturday night audience of about 50, introducing each of several sections of “The Florentine After Dark, the second show in the series, as though we had joined him in his living room, which in a sense we had.

 

For decades, the Florentine has been defined solely by full-scale opera productions at the downtown palace called the Marcus Center. The company's new digs—a one-story brick warehouse nestled in a real neighborhood—along with the welcome given to the company's summer performances at what's now Colectivo by the Lake, encouraged Florescu to take this risk.

 

The performers are the Florentine Studio Artists, four young singers from around the country, each with advanced degrees, respectable awards and early career credits. A new quartet is hired each season to play small roles in the operas and give educational performances to schools and organizations in the area. Accompanied by the wonderful pianist Ruben Piirainen, this series will let them explore a variety of works and build personal relationships with the audience.

 

Florescu compared the style to Weimar German beer hall cabaret and such postmodern manifestations as the Cafe Carlyle in New York. He might also have mentioned several venues in Milwaukee. “@ the Center” isn't conceptually unique. We have excellent cabaret artists here, though sadly none can make a living at it. What's special about “@ the Center,” if specialness is even a value, are these particular artists. In a brightly lighted room with the building's large metal garage doors as backdrop, these young people performed with understanding and feeling, their trained technique entirely in service to the music.

 

They are soprano Julie Tabash of St. Louis; mezzo soprano Erin Gonzales of Danville, CA; tenor Aaron Short of Kansas City; and baritone Pablo Siqueiros of San Diego. As individuals, they have clear, pleasing voices. As an ensemble, they are goose bump raising heaven.

 

The show opened with a medley. At a stool just in front of the audience, Siqueros sang Rufus Wainwright's "I'm Leaving for Paris, No. 2." The low sustained endings of each phrase sent vibrations through my belly. The others entered slowly from the side to harmonize a seamless segue into Kern and Hammerstein's "The Last Time I Saw Paris." Their combined musicianship took my head off. This gave way to Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg's "April In Paris" (what gorgeous, gorgeous music!) and a stirring arrangement of Cole Porter's "I Love Paris." You could bathe in it.

 

A tender, soulful Gonzales singing Jacques Brel's "La Chanson Des Vieux Amants" was alone worth the price of admission.  Other first act highlights included Short's light, winking delivery of the tongue twisting Cole Porter patter song "They Couldn't Compare To You"; Siqueros' dark rendering of a quiet Marc Blitzstein ballad, "Monday Morning Blues"; and Tabash's bravura performance of "Sing But Don't Tell," a Sam Carner and Derek Gregor performance piece in which the soprano, in unrequited love with her pianist, makes the performance at hand her case in point. Pianist Piirainen countered perfectly.

 

Creamy jazz harmonies by the quartet in "Harlem Nocturne" were followed by two gorgeous Kurt Weill songs—"Lonely House" sung by Short and "It Never Was You" sung by Siqueros and Tabash—to make an ideal second act opening, ending with "The Ballad of Sad Young Men" sweetly sung by the men.

 

The final set consisted of well-chosen solos for each performer. Short sang Billy Joel's "Vienna" as though it were written for him. Gonzales did the same with Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today." Siqueros proved himself a master interpreter of Blitzstein with the composer's "The New Suit Zipperfly," a song about the American Dream, and Tabash brought the audience to tears with "I Won't Mind" by Annie Kessler and Libby Saines in which she convincingly played a childless aunt devoted to her sister's children; if they see her as their mother, she won't mind.

 

The series continues as follows: "Home For The Holidays," Dec. 20-21; "Opera's Greatest Hits," Jan. 31-Feb. 1; "Scott Johnson's Studio Artist Alumni Recital," April 11-12; and a workshop performance of the new opera "Sister Carrie," May 23-24. Call 414-291-5700 or visit www.florentineopera.org