85 Years With the Florentine Opera Company: An Oral History

Meet the talented – and dedicated – folks of the Florentine Opera

The Florentine Opera Company is Wisconsin’s oldest fully professional performing arts organization and the sixth-oldest opera company in the United States. This season, it celebrates its 85th anniversary with a commemorative concert of legendary arias and ensembles from the past, present and future.

The Cast

Florentine Opera


Chorus master and associate conductor who has been with the Florentine for 40 years

Florentine Opera


Mezzo-soprano and Studio Artist alumna who has had principal roles and is also making her directing debut this year with the children’s touring opera of The Three Little Pigs

Florentine Opera


Soprano and Studio Artist alumna who has had several principal roles with the company

Florentine Opera


Interim managing director who has been with the Florentine for six seasons, most recently as director of advancement


Grandson of John-David Anello, who in 1933 founded the Italian Opera Chorus, which evolved into the Florentine Opera Company


Mezzo-soprano with the Florentine Opera Chorus since 1984

A Changing Art Form

Eric Lind: John-David Anello, the Florentine’s cultural father, was a true visionary. It may surprise people who think of Milwaukee as a smaller cultural market that we were really leaders in bringing culture to the community back in the ’30s.

John Anello III: When my grandfather started the company, there wasn’t a lot of music available, so he and my grandmother did many of the arrangements. He also had to teach the chorus to read music and sing. My grandmother organized women to make the costumes.

Lind: The art form of opera itself has been changing since 1933. By the 1960s, there were as many American composers writing opera as European. Focusing on American work became part of the spirit of this organization.

Scott S. Stewart: One of John-David’s founding principles was developing and nurturing local talent. That helped the group move quickly from a chorus doing operatic scenes to one doing complete operas.

A Sense of Community

Lind: The Florentine is a producing company in our hometown. These aren’t shows built in New York and brought in.

Cindy Thomas: The beauty of being in the chorus is that we are like a family – we have a social life together outside of the chorus. And we sing together in other ways, such as being Dickens carolers during the holidays.

Colleen Brooks: I joined the Florentine family in 2008 as a Studio Artist. We received main-stage roles, worked with professional directors and conductors, began networking and were mentored by professional singers … My favorite backstage memories are of taking ridiculously goofy pictures in costume.

Alisa Jordheim: The backstage team is incredible. … For my most recent Florentine appearance, I portrayed Venus in Venus & Adonis for the first half of the performance, and then during our 20-minute intermission I had to completely switch gears to portray Belinda in Dido & Aeneas for the second half. The makeup team had me come in early before the show to get my upper body spray-tanned for Venus, and then they came to the dressing room during intermission with the wardrobe team to help me switch costumes, wigs and makeup for Belinda.

Kate Royal in Prince of Players. Photo by of Kathy Wittman/Ball Square Films

Mentoring Aspiring Singers

The children’s opera A Busy Bee.

Jordheim: Being a Studio Artist was a wonderful experience, especially doing outreach in the schools.

Anello: That’s something my grandfather would so appreciate. He started the Pillow Pops, where kids would come in their PJs with their blankets and pillows.

Lind: The outreach tour is a big undertaking. It goes from January through April throughout the five-county area, reaching [over 17,000] students. Our education department teaches chorus parts, and the students make costumes and sing alongside our professionals.

Brooks: There are many ways we reach out to the community at large: public performances in local libraries and museums, the Florentine Opera @ Colectivo Cafes summer concert series and singing at the beer gardens.

Brooks: And the current Studio Artists are coming to mentor UW-Milwaukee students this spring through a master class. It will be for college-age students preparing for their graduation audition and for graduate students preparing for their next step into the professional world.

A Time of Change

Nerone’s costume in Coronation of Poppea

Lind: This is a season of transition. In addition to our search for a new general manager, we’re expanding the repertoire, not just to look forward but to look back. In October, we launched a world premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Prince of Players. Baroque is becoming a bigger part of our repertoire: In March, we’re doing Monteverdi’s classic masterpiece The Coronation of Poppea, with an ensemble using authentic Baroque instruments.

Stewart: We may even venture into “popera,” or pop opera, which takes the repertoire and updates it to be more accessible.

Lind: The 85th Anniversary Concert in May will be a celebratory one. We’ll welcome our remarkable group of patrons, subscribers and chorus members, current and past. Part of the concert will be chosen by the audience through our website – we’d love to know what Milwaukee opera fans want to hear.

Notable Events


John-David Anello founds the Italian Opera Chorus, which begins rehearsing at a community center on Jackson Street.


Anello changes the name of the group to the Florentine Opera Chorus, “to honor the birthplace of opera as we know it.”


The organization changes its name again, to the Florentine Opera Company, and begins staging complete operas. The chorus swells to 100 members.


The company produces the American premiere of Lowell Liebermann’s opera The Picture of Dorian Gray


Don Davis’ Spanish language Rio de Sangre receives its world premiere at the opera, a recording of which goes on to win a Grammy Award.

“Aural History” appears in the March 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning Feb. 25, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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