An Encore For Opera

By Michael McLeod
Last year, Gabe Preisser, a widely-traveled baritone whose extensive resume includes more than 40 operatic and musical theater roles, officially joined forces with Opera Orlando as its general director.

No bell rings and no buzzer buzzes when you press the button at the entranceway to Kathy Miller’s house. What you hear instead is:

Ah oh ah oh ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha haaaa! 

Ah oh ah oh ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha haaaa! 

Ah-oh-ah-oh-ah ha ha ha ho, ah ha ha ha ho, ha ho ho aaa ha hao ah oh ah ha ha oh ah ah oh HA ha, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha HA ha ha ha ha!!!

Quick: Name that tune. Sorry: Time’s up.

It’s the Queen of the Night’s “dagger” aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, emanating from inside the palatial, Venetian-style mansion in such an intoxicating silvery-soprano cascade that you might be overtaken by a compulsion to push the button again.

Go ahead. We’ll wait.

Encores are nothing new to a Winter Park home dedicated to keeping opera alive. The Miller residence is an elegant outpost for a band of roughly two dozen local opera devotees who are determined to do just that. Better yet, they may well have succeeded.

The group formed after the demise of Orlando Opera, which went bankrupt eight years ago in a perfect tempest triggered by an economic downturn and management mistakes.

With 8,000 subscribers, several full-time and part-time employees, and a $3 million annual budget, the company had been a towering presence on the local cultural landscape for a half-century, bringing stars such as Beverly Sills and powerhouse productions such as  Madame Butterfly, Faust, The Mikado, Salome, and Pagliacci  to the Bob Carr Theater.

Kathy Miller, who was classically trained at Southern Methodist University before moving to Orlando in the late ’70s, sang in the chorus and had several minor roles. So did numerous other volunteers among dozens who donated both time and money to the opera.

Some worked backstage, some worked onstage, only too happy to silently mill about in the background as the assorted servants, gypsies and shopkeepers who live in all those mythical operatic towns filled with high-strung characters prone to working out their love lives in booming bel canto tones.

It was a handful of those behind-the-scene supporters who began creating a new, non-profit, small-scale company soon after the old one’s collapse, calling it Florida Opera Theatre.

“We had to,” says Miller, who grew up in Madison, South Dakota, in an Irish family for whom music wasn’t recreation, but sustenance. “We just couldn’t believe the community would let opera disappear from Orlando without taking drastic measures. So we did.”

Winter Park’s Kathy Miller and Rita Wilkes were among the stalwart supporters who kept opera alive after the region’s previous professional company went bankrupt eight years ago. “We just couldn’t believe the community would let opera disappear from Orlando without taking drastic measures,” says Miller. “So we did.”

Opera is anything but a grass-roots, lemonade-stand sort of enterprise. With its acrobatic musical scores, thoroughbred performers and lavish production requirements, it’s a notoriously high-maintenance art form. As the 18th-century French dramatist Molière put it: “Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.”

Florida Opera Theatre had to operate on the economy plan. No elephants and superstars onstage. No elaborate sets evoking ancient Egyptian temples. Staying within a tight budget was a priority.

“We never put on an opera where we didn’t already have the money in the bank to pay for it,” says Judy Lee, who served as the company’s president.

Members foraged through their garages and closets for costumes and stage props. “People would just show up at the door,” says Miller, “and ask, ‘Is this the kind of lamp you want?’”

Volunteers dipped into their personal bank accounts to hire singers, directors and accompanists. Most of the performers agreed to work at bargain-basement salaries on behalf of the cause. And since the company couldn’t afford to rent theaters for every production, they also had to scout out inexpensive — sometimes ingenious — locations.

They staged The Telephone, a one-act opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, near the Telephone Museum next door to the Maitland Art Center. They startled a few lounge lizards and drew second-takes from moviegoers by creating a pop-up, open-air operatic concert at the breezy Eden Bar outside Enzian Theater.

(The performers sang — what else? — the drinking song from The Student Prince. You can still find Enzian president Henry Maldonado’s video of the event on YouTube.)

But there was one venue they counted on the most: the Millers’ spacious home. Kathy and her husband, Steve, had built it in 2002, when Orlando Opera was still thriving. Steve Miller is the retired founder of Sawtek, a Central Florida company that developed and marketed microelectronic communication technology.

What they had in mind was casual, piano-side, post-performance gatherings when they moved into the home, which sits along the eastern shore of Lake Maitland. They had worked on its design with Nasrallah Architectural Group, a company with an impressive track record of creating homes that evoke historic architectural traditions.

Mark Nasrallah’s Winter Park firm once landed a contract to design and build 28 homes, each in a style from a different time period, for an exclusive mountainside community in China — creating a spectacular array of homes that evoked modern styles as well as ancient Greek, Renaissance, Neoclassical, mid-Victorian.

The Miller home is designed to resemble a classic Venetian palace. Its focal point is just inside the entranceway: a two-story grand room encircled by marble columns, with a massive crystal chandelier in the center.

Steve and Kathy Miller’s Lake Maitland home has been the setting for several full-scale opera productions. The home’s focal point, where the performances were staged, is just inside the entranceway: a two-story grand room encircled by marble columns, and a second-floor balcony.

A row of narrow, arching, velvet-draped floor-to-ceiling windows on the far wall offers an unimpeded view of the lake. The other three sides of the great room are open to the second floor, creating the effect of a wraparound balcony.

It’s perfect for elegant entertaining: singers at a piano on one side of the great room, hors d’oeuvres at the dining area on the other, a shimmering lake in the windows, cocktails all around. That was what the Millers initially had in mind. Not full-fledged theatrical productions.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be using it the way we have,” says Kathy Miller.

The company’s first major production at the home was in 2011. It was a benefit performance featuring Susan Neves, a powerhouse soprano with Orlando family ties. The performance was Gian Carlo Menotti’s two-act opera, The Medium, about a conniving, homicidal clairvoyant with a bad temper who abuses a mute, innocent young man named Toby.

A performer of Neves’ caliber has a window-rattling ability that can set even the largest hall on vibrate. Opera singers aren’t  just artists, but athletes. Squeezing a voice like that into a smaller space can bump a performance up to white-knuckle-thrill-ride territory.

You don’t just hear that trained, painstakingly conditioned voice if you are close enough. You feel it in your bones, literally: Your sternum picks up the vibrations.

Miller remembers hearing a mini-review of The Medium from a slightly shaken audience member who was sitting just an arm’s length away from a scene in which Toby flees for his life after a violent and voluble attack from the raging madwoman. “Afterward, she told me: ‘I wanted to stand up and say, ‘Toby! Don’t come back!’”

Apart from staging performances, the Millers also opened up the home as a rehearsal hall and a place for guest artists to stay — one at a time, Miller is quick to qualify. “Two singers in one house don’t get along,” she says. “Sharing the rehearsal time. And the refrigerator.”

She shrugs off the inconveniences.

“It can get a little crazy. But you know, passion overtakes you. When I go to bed at night, I hear this little voice on my shoulder, this little voice in my soul, telling me: ‘It’s all right. We need to do this.’”

The little voice will be happy to hear that reinforcements have arrived.

Last year, Apopka native Gabe Preisser, a widely traveled baritone whose extensive resumé includes more than 40 operatic and musical theater roles, officially joined forces with the company, taking on the role of artistic director.

One of Preisser’s first suggestions: Start fresh, and change the name from the more generic “Florida Opera Theatre” to the more specific “Opera Orlando.”

“People need to know who we are, and that we’re here to stay,” Preisser explains. His next move was to call a former FSU classmate with directing experience and local ties: Winter Park High School graduate Vincent Connor, who was head of the Opera Workshop at the University of Delaware.

Preisser — along with Connor’s Winter Park family — coaxed him into returning home to take up the post as Opera Orlando’s general director.

The reinvigorated company staged four operas at the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theatre at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts last year: a double bill with Mozart’s The Impresario and Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias; Donizetti’s three-act comedy Don Pasquale; and the Menotti holiday favorite, Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was performed for an invited audience at the Miller home and then staged at the arts center.

Then, this year, a pivotal development: As Opera Orlando was preparing to stage an ambitious version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the Pugh Theatre, the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra announced a partnership with the newly constituted organization.

Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi was one of several productions hosted by the Millers. The cast included (left to right): Austin Hallock, Jennifer A. Boles, Edward Washington, Jane Christeson, Russell Franks, Samantha Barnes, Daniel Makendy and Jacobs Daniel Johanson.

The Phil had been producing operas on its own. But given the cost and complexity of the productions, and with the emergence of Opera Orlando and its successes, the time seemed right to pass the baton.

“We are proud of the past eight seasons of opera that the OPO has presented and as we look to the future, we know that this is the right moment to hand off the artistic and administrative leadership to the capable hands of Opera Orlando,” said R.K. Kelley, Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra board president, in the announcement.

What it means is that from now on, Opera Orlando will take over the business of developing operas, and the orchestra will provide the accompaniment. It also opens the door to a hoped-for new home: the $203 million Steinmetz Hall, a 1,700-seat acoustic theater tentatively scheduled to open in 2020 on the arts center’s downtown campus.

“It’s a natural evolution,” says Preisser, of the handoff from the Phil and the opportunity for Opera Orlando to stage its productions in the new, state-of-the-art hall. “But it wouldn’t have happened without the tenacity of Kathy Miller and all those people who kept the flame going.”

Miller thinks that, eventually, the company will be able to stage one major opera a year at the new hall — most likely one of the classics that devotees relish: Carmen, perhaps. La Traviata. Madame Butterfly.

In the meantime, Miller’s door will remain open for rehearsals, performances and the billeting of visiting opera stars, one at a time.

She is optimistic about the future, but realistic about it, too. The larger the opportunities, she says, the bigger the challenges — both artistically and financially.

“We need sponsors,” Miller states. “It’s not easy. Don’t get me started.”

Other longtime veterans of the opera-in-Orlando wars view the new era with a similar blend of gratitude and realism. “It’s amazing how it’s all fallen together so well after all these years,” says Rita Wilkes, another stalwart supporter who goes back to the early, bygone heydays of Beverly Sills and big-budget productions. “I just hope we can keep it going.”

Wilkes was stage manager for many of the old Orlando Opera shows. “You want to know why my hair is gray? It’s because I stage-managed two productions of The Magic Flute,” she says.

One of those productions was at the Walt Disney amphitheater at Lake Eola. The plan was to create a dramatic entrance for three supernatural sprites by having them arrive via one of the Lake Eola swan boats. During the evening performances, a spotlight had to be aimed at the boat as it approached the amphitheater — not an easy task in the darkness.

One night, Wilkes remembers, the spotlight operator whispered to her: “I got ’em! I think I got ’em!” as he shined a beam on a startled family of tourists, peddling away, blinking in the bright light like escaping convicts caught just short of the wall.

“We joked about it,” she says. “There’s a line in the opera, ‘The three sprites will guide you.’ We said we had to change it to, ‘A family from Des Moines will guide you.’”

Like Miller, Wilkes is enthusiastic about the renewed interest in opera. But her excitement is tempered with a weary sigh that bespeaks years devoted to the thankless pursuit of asking for favors and seeking out donors.

“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” she says. “But isn’t it funny that we get this recognition all of a sudden, now that we’ve got these two new good-looking guys on board? I guess people get tired of saying: ‘Uh-oh. Here come those little old ladies again.’”

Preisser (left) recruited his friend and former FSU classmate Vincent Conner (right) to take the post of general manager. The pair is outside the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where the Opera Orlando has staged four productions.

Opera Fans, Listen Up!

Opera Orlando has a full slate of performances coming up, plus a tribute to a longtime booster. Here’s what’s on the bill:

Before the 2017-18 season opens, the company will honor longtime supporter John Ruggieri with a gala, The Gilded Age on the Gilded Stage, at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on May 20 at 6:30 p.m.

The season officially gets underway with Opera on Park, featuring three vocal recitals, at the University Club of Winter Park on August 6, 20 and 27.

Three fully staged, costumed productions, with accompaniment by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, follow. Those performances are all at the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater, located at the arts center’s downtown Orlando campus.

Giacomo Puccini’s beloved La Bohème, one of the most-performed operas in the world, runs November 15-19. This version of the passionate, timeless tale of love among young artists in Paris, which was originally written in 1896, is set in the 1920s.

Metropolitan Opera Roster Artist Cecilia Violetta Lopez will make her Opera Orlando debut in the iconic soprano role of the doomed Mimi. Artistic Director Gabe Preisser will perform the key baritone role of Marcello.

Other confirmed principals include bass-baritone Nathan Stark as Colline and baritone Brian James Myer as Schaunard. All three were featured this past August in an Opera on Park recital.

Amahl and the Night Visitors, a traditional Christmas opera, will be presented Dec. 9 and 10. Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella will conclude the 2017-18 season March 21-25, with Eric Jacobsen, the Phil’s music director, making his Opera Orlando conducting debut.

Visit for information.

Share This Post