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Bay area opera tells its own epic tale


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001

You might say it all started with Norma Tina Russo.

That's not a name you're likely to hear bandied about this week as the Tampa Bay area prepares for the world premiere of the opera Sacco and Vanzetti, but it deserves a mention. For in a town far more interested in sports and skylines, Russo long ago insisted that there was a place for that most esoteric of the performing arts, opera.

"She was this warmhearted, colorful Italian lady who worked very hard to bring opera to Tampa," said Rosalia Maresca, a soprano, whose first contact with Russo was singing in a production of Carmen in the early 1960s in Tampa.

From the 1940s until shortly before her death in 1977, Russo produced opera and concerts of opera highlights in the bay area. Her companies sported a variety of names over the years, from Sun State Opera to San Carlo Opera, Tampa Grand Opera to L'Opera de Florida.

She and later Maresca, whose own company, Florida Lyric Opera, was a successor to Russo's, brought in some big-name singers, including Robert Merrill, Licia Albanese, Robert Weede, Dorothy Kirsten, Salvatore Baccaloni, Anna Moffo, Roberta Peters, Jerome Hines and many others.

"It was the best opera in Florida," said Walter Afield, a Tampa psychiatrist and president of Florida Lyric Opera. "We did the first (production of the Bellini opera) Norma in the state."

Now, because one of Russo's frequent conductors was Anton Coppola, opera in a way has come full circle in the area with Friday's premiere of his opera on the Sacco-Vanzetti case.

In the performing arts, things don't get any bigger than a new opera. In any opera encyclopedia, the first piece of information in entries on works both great and not so great is the when and where of the premiere.

So Coppola's opera is a historic occasion for the area. With a $700,000 budget, it is probably the biggest homegrown stage production ever.

Still, its importance has been slow to register. Advance sales have picked up lately, but the three performances at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center were far from sold out last week.

"It's shaping up as a late buy," said TBPAC president Judith Lisi, who also heads the center's Opera Tampa. "We see ticket sales coming later and later for everything at the center."

Russo and her compatriots from earlier opera efforts could relate to the sluggish box office.

"We usually did well with Madama Butterfly, Carmen, La Boheme and La Traviata," Afield said. "But when we got away from the hits, we'd struggle to sell 400 or 500 tickets."

After Russo's death, opera in the bay area -- like so much else -- became balkanized as a separate company was formed in St. Petersburg. Alliances and even a marriage or two were made and broken in the course of the infighting. Bitter feelings and a lawsuit ensued.

"The personalities are something that I have not seen the likes of in 39 years as a psychiatrist," Afield said in a letter to an opera task force of the Tampa Bay Business Committee for the Arts. "There were constant efforts to try to get the warring factions to get together and function. Finally, I gave up."

The St. Petersburg company eventually folded, and Maresca's survived in reduced fashion, putting on a yearly children's production of Amahl and the Night Visitors.

Another company, Tampa Bay Opera, came and went. As many as five different opera societies continued to exist, though they mainly confine their activities to having luncheons, getting together to watch operas on video, sponsoring scholarship contests for student singers and attending productions in Sarasota and Orlando.

In the past five years, operagoers have been able to enjoy some first-rate performances as Lisi, a onetime singer herself, has made opera a priority at TBPAC. Still, whenever she has strayed from the standard Italian repertoire -- such as a holiday production of Hansel und Gretel or last fall's Marriage of Figaro -- sales have lagged.

In the end, I imagine Sacco and Vanzetti will play before pretty full houses, based as much on the magnitude and marketing of the event as on any intrinsic interest in opera by many of those attending. There may be more than a few experiencing the ultimate art form for the first time, and that's great.

Coppola's opus could even be the creative landmark that takes opera to a higher level in the area.

However it turns out, Russo's legacy remains. Last Sunday, there was a memorial tribute to her at the Friday Morning Musicale, a restored old theater in Tampa's Hyde Park. About 200 people turned out to hear arias and show tunes performed by singers who used to work with her -- getting up in years now, to be sure -- as well as some youngsters. Proceeds went to a campaign to have a memorial plaque to Russo installed at the Italian Club in Ybor City.

"My mother was very determined," said her daughter, Lya Russo Gillespie. "She had to be to put on opera in Tampa."

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