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Sister Carrie’s Star Rises

New American opera in the Florentine’s @ The Center Series

May. 28, 2014
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In the small, high-ceilinged Florentine studio in Riverwest, a kind of chapel for opera, the audience sits within arm’s reach of the singers whose resonant voices penetrate our bones. As the plaintive melodies, cascading piano accompaniment and heart-stopping singing filled the room in the Florentine Opera Company’s workshop performance of the new opera Sister Carrie by Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein, I felt extraordinary happiness. Intense bonds are forged in a workshop situation, as artists and audience members, in communion, discover and experience music that has never been heard before. It was a privilege to be there last Friday, a privilege available to anyone with $15.

Composer Aldridge and librettist Garfein have worked on their opera adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie for several years. Seventy percent is finished and, as they sweetly explained beforehand, this workshop provided them a vital opportunity to hear what they’ve written and feel how it plays. Afterward, they took questions and solicited reactions. Clearly, it played well.

Their previous work includes the 2007 opera Elmer Gantry, given its Midwest premiere by the Florentine Opera in 2010 under conductor William Boggs. A recording of that performance won two Grammy Awards in 2011 and the Florentine will restage it in March 2015. Boggs also conducted this workshop with a firm grasp of the new work’s power. The brilliant Yasuko Oura made the piano orchestral.

The Florentine’s General Director William Florescu shared the directing with David Walsh, director of opera theatre at the University of Minnesota School of Music, where some scenes had been workshopped and where soprano Adriana Zabala, terrific in the title role, teaches voice. Five of their students performed, as did six fine members of the Florentine Opera Chorus and the magnificent baritone Daniel Belcher, whose praises I cannot adequately sing. Hopefully, he’ll play the male lead, Hurstwood, in a full production in Milwaukee with Zabala in a couple years. As exciting as these stars were, the students, especially Charles Eaton and Bergen Baker, can be very proud.

Sister Carrie portrays the once-again-familiar American socioeconomic realities of the 1890s. As Carrie’s star rises, Hurstwood falls into harrowing poverty. In contrast, the Florentine’s exemplary @ The Center Series makes high art available to everyone.


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