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Milwaukee is finally starting to get the street cred it deserves. The New York Post called Milwaukee “hip,” the Quadracci Pavilion at the art museum tops Reuters’ list of the 10 sexiest buildings, and Florentine Opera has been chosen to premiere an opera. These are good days for the Cream City. Río de Sangre (River […]

Milwaukee is finally starting to get the street cred it deserves. The New York Post called Milwaukee “hip,” the Quadracci Pavilion at the art museum tops Reuters’ list of the 10 sexiest buildings, and Florentine Opera has been chosen to premiere an opera. These are good days for the Cream City.

Río de Sangre (River of Blood) is the first world premiere and also the first Spanish-language opera the Florentine has ever performed. The title doesn’t sound particularly uplifting, but the story is riveting. I sat down with the Florentine’s General Director Bill Florescu, so audiences can know what to expect.

How did you select this work?

BF: I get prospective pieces sent to me all the time. Río de Sangre came across my des, because Don Davis’ publicist knew of us, and since Río de Sangre was still a work in progress, they could only send me a recording of excerpts from the piece. Being a former singer, things have to resonate with me on a certain level, and both the music and the story were great.

Having a story with political undertones is interesting with how it connects to the history of opera. Verdi and Mozart tackled political subjects in some of the earliest operas – along with love, sex and death. It was a big part of opera in the 19th century. Also, this work is a completely original libretto, not many people do that anymore. Most other contemporary works are based on literature. And, of course, I was familiar with Don’s award-winning work as a film composer from The Matrix film trilogy and others.
 
What’s the story line, in a nutshell? (for non-Spanish speakers)

BF: It’s in some ways a traditional piece. It’s really a grand opera – it has a big orchestra, big chorus, large cast and dancers.  What I like about it from a literary standpoint is that it has elements of magical realism. It takes a specific area of the world and its specific political issues, but it tells a universal story in terms of the unfortunate cyclical nature of how our political systems work. 

There is a love story, too. It has elements of both Othello and MacBeth: There is a right-hand man who turns against the lead guy, a wife driven by power and a husband who is somewhat weak willed. All the classic Shakespearean tensions are there.

From a dramatic standpoint, the most fascinating element is bookending the piece with these idealistic speeches. The piece starts with the protagonist having just overthrown a disputed government, and through the course of the opera, through natural elements like an earthquake and the spiteful side of human nature, the protagonist is toppled, and the guy who topples him gets up and essentially makes the same speech. But, of course, none of that would matter unless it was wedded to some great music and some really interesting interpersonal relationships. Let’s be honest, dysfunctional relationships make great theater.

And not to worry, there will be English translations projected on a screen above the stage.

Do you find that people have a hard time understanding more modern opera? How do you combat that and connect with your audience?

BF: Well as far as art forms go, opera is the most tradition-bound. What’s fascinating about newer audiences is that they have a completely different approach. They are attracted by visual elements or the story.  For a 30-year-old who hasn’t seen much opera, Río de Sangre doesn’t mean any more or less than Tosca does.

Nobody reads only the same book over and over, and nobody sees the same movie over and over, but in opera, the tradition or safe thinking is that I have to throw in Carmen or La Boehme every season. That thinking is fading. The way you engage people is a whole different game. The position of traditional opera companies is an eroding shoreline. The companies that are thriving are taking risks, but since opera is also the most expensive art form, the risk is multiplied.

We started really rebranding who we are about two years ago with Semele and last year with Elmer Gantry. It’s an interesting challenge. The ship of perception in the Midwest is a slow ship to turn. We are trying to evolve, as we don’t want to leave behind our history, just open up who we are.

We were very self-contained for many years, and now we are working with many other members of the arts community to do what we do. This won’t be the last Spanish opera we do, especially when it’s becoming so prevalent in our society, plus it’s a beautiful language to sing. I also purposely didn’t make it an all Latino cast to show that everyone can be a part of it. We have a partnership for these performances with Latino Arts and Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee, but we want this to be a portal for them to be introduced to our work, not just a one-time affair

Your only chance to see this world premier is Oct. 22-23 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, and tickets start at just $30. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here or call the box office at 414-291-5700 ext. 224.

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