William Florescu talks about the Florentine's "Three Decembers," and the company's vision of honoring both classic and contemporary work.

Next weekend, the Florentine Opera Company opens its production of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, a chamber-scaled work about an aging Broadway diva and her two estranged children. It’s another example of the company’s embrace of contemporary American work and world premieres, which has been an important part of General Director’s William Florescu’s vision since he joined the Florentine in 2005. Last week, I talked to Florescu about Three Decembers and the Florentine’s dedication to new work. Here are some excerpts.

On his decade with the Florentine:

We’re a leaner but, I think, a more interesting company. We now have a very clear view of what we want to do and who we want to be. And I think it’s made a difference. We are a company that draws on its roots—presenting traditional opera—but is also exploring new work and finding ways to be relevant to the community in new ways.

The Florentine Opera's WIlliam Florescu

On Three Decembers:

Jake Heggie is one of the most successful young American composers, famous for Dead Men Walking, Moby Dick. Next year, the Houston Grand Opera will premiere his opera based on It’s a Wonderful Life.

Three Decembers premiered in 2008, and it’s his most personal work. For me, it’s the perfect piece of intimate, contemporary music theater — three characters, 11 pieces in the orchestra, one very taut and seamless 90-minute act. There’s not an ounce of fat on it. It’s a great first opera for someone, as well as great for somebody who’s been to 100 operas.

The central role of Maddie was written for opera legend Frederica Von Stade, and the original production in Houston featured Keith Phares, who will be in our production. (The Florentine cast also includes Lucy Schaufer and Rena Harms.)

On making contemporary opera a part of the Florentine’s mission:

It’s certainly a personal interest. But I also think about the repertory that everybody always wants to hear — The Marriage of Figaro, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata — every one of those operas had someone like me, who decided it had to be done for the first time. If we are going to be a living art form that looks to the future, we can’t just be curators of past art. Nobody blinks an eye when the Milwaukee Art Museum has a contemporary exhibit right alongside its permanent collection. The Milwaukee Rep would never do a season of just Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams.

Looking to the future, we’re certainly not leaving behind Butterfly or any of those pieces that all of us love. But we also know that we have to do our jobs as producers of new work because that’s how the art form is going to survive.

Opera has a history of shying away from new work, but that’s changed so much. Three Decembers has had something like seven or eight productions. So much new American opera is being done now. People in America aren’t talking about doing new work as something extraordinary. It’s a part of what we do.

On audiences and contemporary opera:

I think we’re slowly winning that battle. I think one of the reasons people like traditional opera is they know what’s going to happen—in the story and in the music. You go to Turnadot, and you’re just waiting for the beloved aria, “Nessun dorma.”

In a new opera, you have to be willing to go on a journey and not know where it’s taking you. That’s a different aesthetic experience.

It’s a little different than other art forms. In the symphony world you can program a new work, and put it on a program with a Mozart symphony and a Mahler symphony. If you go to an art gallery and there’s a contemporary piece you hate, you just move on to the next piece. When you go to an opera, you’re asking people to buckle in and ride with you for that entire experience, and that’s a different animal.

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