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The Merry Widow Kicks Off
St. Pete Opera Season 14,
Oct. 18 at The Palladium

By Frances Brennan

The St. Pete Opera kicks off its 2019-2020 Season next month with The Merry Widow on Fri. Oct 18. The season also includes productions of Pinocchio, Rigoletto, and La Fille du Regiment, along with special Season 14 presentations of its Maestro Series, Holiday Sparkle, Creative Collaborations, Pops Spectacular, and Broadway Cabaret.

Kelli Butler stars in the lead of SPO's production of Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow at the Palladium Theatre Oct 18, 20 and 22, with Jesse Donner as her love, Count Danillo. Catie Shelly sings the role of Velencienne, the Baron's wife, Pedro Barbosa sings Camille, her admirer and John Seesholtz appears as the Baron. The production also includes Matthew McGree, John-Andrew Fernandez and Dylan Morrongiello. The French opera, with stage direction by Adam Crittadon, will be performed in English with subtitles.

The Merry Widow tells the story of Hanna Glawari, a glamorous widow worth 20 million francs that the devious Baron Zeta wants to keep in his country. Count Danillo holds the key to her heart. The Austro-Hungarian operetta is an update of the 1861 comedic play by Henri Milchax, "L'attache d'embassadore" (The Embassy Attache), about a rich widow and her countryman's attempt to keep her in the country by finding the right husband. Its best known selections are it's final waltz duet, "Lippen Shcweizan," known popularly as "The Merry Widow Waltz" and the soprano's Act II aria, "Vilja."

Pinocchio at Opera Central Nov 16, 22 and 23, part of SPO's family series, is a production of John Davies' one hour adaptation of the classic children's story using the music of Mozart, Offenbach, Verdi and Donizetti with easily understood English lyrics. It offers a perfect introduction to opera suitable for all ages and ideal for young people. Taylor Alexis Dupont stars as Pinocchio with Kevin Mitchell opposite as Giupetto. Holly Fleck sings the role of Olympia, a mechanical doll, and Remas Karnavicus sings Dr. Dulcamera. The production also features Ashley Thunder, Chris Romero, Brian Hupp and Richard Randall. Pinocchio is presented in conjunction with the Pinellas Schools A.R.T.S. program. More than 700 third graders will be bussed to Opera Central for special mid-morning performances.

Verdi's Rigoletto, at The Palladium Jan 24, 26 and 28, is a story of trickery, tragedy, revenge and redemption, featuring the famous tenor's aria "La donna e mobile" (the woman is flighty) and the soprano's "Caro nome" (sweet name). This quintessential Verdi work has been said to include some of the most powerful, stirring music ever composed. Its story of the licentious Duke of Mantua and his campaign to seduce Gilda, beloved daughter of hunchback court jester, Rigoletto, is a masterful balance of the stormy forces of darkness and the unwavering light of love. The SPO production will be sung in Italian with subtitles.

Rigoletto, based on the Victor Hugo play, Le roi s'amuse, is considered to be the first operatic masterpiece of Verdi's mid career, The opera drew objections from Austrian censors even before its first production. They disliked its portrayal of an evil monarch, the fact that the evil character is never punished in the end, and its grim final scene. It was originally titled "The Curse" (La maladrone), because a curse delivered prior to Act I drives the action throughout. Rigoletto has already been cursed when the opera opens by a count who he ridculed after HIS daughter's seduction. The Opera's evil lead was originally the French King, and Verdi refused to make changes to the opera before its debut, but a censor who was his supporter suggested the shift to a fictional Mantuan Duke and a change in the jester's name, originally "Triboulet" to the lighter "Rigoletto" (Rigolo means funny in French).

The St Pete Opera presents La Fille du Regiment by Gaentano Donizetto at the Palladium May 29, 31, June 2, 5, and 7. The opera centers on themes of love and loyalty, telling the story of Marie, a canteen girl for the French Army's 21st Regiment, who falls in love with Tonio, a civilian. Just as she does, her long lost aunt arrives to whisk her away to be married to a Duke. Sung in its native French with English subtitles, La Fille is a relatively recent work, first performed in Paris in 1940. Donizetti is known for his love of the high C, and Tonio's aria "Ah mes amis" contains nine.

Season 14 also includes presentations of SPO's Maestro series, an inside look at upcoming main stage productions with Creative Director Maestro Michael Szorfini at the St. Petersburg Museum of Modern Art (Mornings with the Maestro) and the Iberian Rooster (Cocktails with the Maestro); Holiday Sparkle, a musical journey with soloists, chorus and orchestra through sacred to popular holiday classics, Dec 12-15 and 19-22 at Opera Central; Creative Collaborations, a unique experience where genres converge and musicians who might not normally perform together collaborate in new configurations, March 13 and 14; Pops Spectacular, the opera's annual 4th of July Palladium Theatre celebration with a 45-piece orchestra, chorus and guest soloists, July 3, 4, and 5th, and Broadway Cabaret, Jan 18 and March 23, a chance for the company's professional opera singers to let their hair down and show their love for musical theater, belting out their personal selections of the best of Broadway. This season features the casts of Rigoletto and Daughter of the Regiment .

Creative Director Michael Szorfini has been the driving force in SPO's 14 fruitful years in St. Pete. He has said of the company's inception, "people who love St. Petersburg like the idea that a city that is having a cultural renaissance would have a professional opera company. And a quality one."

The leader of the innovative and successful non profit is a composer himself whose orchestra and chamber works have been commissioned and performed by symphonies and orchestras throughout the U.S. including The Florida Orchestra and Tampa Bay Symphony. He has written and produced several one-act operas and music programs based on operatic repoertoire using professional singers and orchstral musicians. His acclaimed Concerto for Clarinet and Bassoon debuted in 2018. He served as principal basson for The Florida Orchestra from 1992 to 2007, Artistic Director for the prestigious chamber music Encore Series at the Palladium Theatre, Music Director of the Pinellas Youth Symphony and co-founder of Flori Mezzo, where he served as Artistic Director for five years. He is the music director and conductor for the Tampa Bay Symphony.

The germinant event in SPO's founding came in 2005, when Maestro Szorfini was invited to guest conduct a one-time production of Madama Butterfly at the Palladium. The sold out show led him to a rekindled passion for opera, "When I conducted that," he recalled, "I just felt like I was supposed to be doing opera," This passion led to SPO's establishment and his driven its growth for 14 seasons now.

The Opera's donor quarterly kicks things off the season on Sept 25, with a special sponsors presentation of The Things We Do for Love at Opera Central. The first edition of Mornings with the Maestro at The St. Pete Museum of Fine Art and Cocktails with The Maestro at the Iberian Rooster follow on Oct 3 and 4, respectively. The Merry Widow, the first main stage production of the new season, begins on Oct 18th at The Palladium Theatre.

Tickets, including season tickets, are available at stpeteopera.org.


The St Pete Opera Presents The Merry Widow at The Palladium Theater 253 5th Ave N, St. Pete, Fl 33701
The St. Pete Opera's 14th Season includes productions of The Merry WIdow, Rigoletto, and La Fille Du Regiment along with special Season 14 presentations of its Maestro Series, Holiday Sparkle, Creative Collaborations, Pops Spectacular, and Broadway Cabaret.

BELOW: Video from last season's closing edition of "Mornings with The Maestro" at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts. The company presents a new edition this season for each of four main stage production.