Culture Watch: Checking in on Our Opera

Can Southwest Florida support two competing companies? A report on how they’re doing.

BY May 26, 2015


It’s a late Sunday afternoon in February and 19 singers are clustered on an unused altar at the First Christian Church in Fort Myers. They’re filling the old sanctuary with tunes from Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, a comedic opera set in Japan.

Director Louis Dall’Ava (also cast as Poo-bah) observed with critical eyes and ears, shifting a performer further to stage right, listening for off-kilter notes.

The show, performed at the church and two other venues, is part of a season of reinvention for Steffanie Pearce, the founding artistic director of Opera Naples. She had been dismissed from her company in May 2014 in what publicly has been described as a difference in philosophies and privately as, well, who knows.

Pearce didn’t wallow—within months, she had regrouped, re-launched as regional troupe Gulfshore Opera—and voila! By February, she was marking her inaugural season’s midpoint with several successes, including a well-attended fundraiser featuring tenor Michael Fabiano, a sold-out performance by acclaimed Irish tenor Anthony Kearns and overall marked improvement in ticket sales since her debut show Viva Verdi in November.

Pearce had long harbored dreams of serving Collier, Lee and Charlotte and says the Opera Naples split provided the catalyst for doing so.

“This new company is something the three counties can feel ownership in,” she says.

Meanwhile, her former group was celebrating its own big news: its 10th anniversary season and the opening of its long-awaited headquarters and performance hall at 2408 Linwood Ave., a project two years in the making carved out of what used to be a bar and office condos. It’s a big deal for a company that has spent much of its life performing in various rented spaces.

“We’ve moved into a whole new era,” says executive director Carol Shaw, who came on board a year and a half ago. In addition to the building, the company has a new artistic director, Ramón Tebar, the Spanish-born principal conductor of the Florida Grand Opera and artistic and music director of the Palm Beach Symphony.

It’s good news all around for lovers of classical voice and the classic arts. Nevertheless, one has to ask: How much opera can one region support? After all, for many Americans, knowledge of opera is relegated to the plotline of Phantom (a musical, not an opera) or to those old Bugs Bunny cartoons (The Rabbit of Seville, anyone?).

It depends how these directors work it.

“The ones that are successful, they have a bent, they have a personality to them,” says Patricia Kiernan Johnson, spokeswoman for Opera America, an umbrella group for professional opera companies.

Multi-company towns are hardly rare, Johnson says. “Here in New York, you’d be amazed at the dozens and dozens of opera companies we have.”

That’s New York. This is Southwest Florida. Even so, Johnson can cite a number of small cities in which multiple companies flourish—Milwaukee (population 599,164, three companies); Pittsburgh (population 305,841, three companies); Madison, Wisconsin (population 243,344, two companies), to name a few.

The key, Johnson explains, is for each company to carve its niche—and that’s what both companies are working to do.

Pearce sees herself as a community-
based collaborative, with a focus on making classical voice accessible, inclusive and affordable.

“Opera, in America especially, to some people seems an elitist art form that they have no business being involved in,” Pearce says. “And if you start your ticket prices at $95 per person, you are automatically making it exclusive.”

Her tickets start in the $25 range—with higher-priced ones available for patrons who want perks such as post-performance receptions. And her programming decisions—like the lighthearted Mikado, kid-friendly Hansel and Gretel and sophisticated works by Verdi—are designed to appeal to broad audiences.

Expanding to three counties through Gulfshore Opera, moreover, offers both new audiences—and potential new donors, Pearce says. “It’s basic economics.”

More traditional in scope and structure, Shaw’s Opera Naples will leverage its new home and new artistic director to shape its future. The company’s 10th anniversary season included operatic mainstay La Boheme; Cosi fan tutte, the first work performed in the new David and Cecile Wang Opera Center; and the fiery Maria de Buenos Aires and Tango, which featured dancers and cabaret- style seating.

“The good thing is the seating is very intimate. It makes you feel like you are part of the production,” Shaw says of the 259-seat performance hall. Prices there are in the $50 to $80 range.

Shaw hopes more than voices will resonate from the new hall. She wants the building, located in a city redevelopment tract, to become a destination for the arts hosting everything from dancers to film directors to comedians.

Like Pearce, Shaw knows audience development is essential.

“You have to alleviate the fears,” Shaw says. Opera Naples uses subtitles to translate the works to English, and both companies are offering children’s programming and performance

Longtime vocal arts supporter Jim George of Sanibel thinks both companies are going to be OK. 

“I was a little bit leery when I heard about the split, but I’ve been following them closely in the past year, and I think it’s going to be good for the area,” says George, who publishes an e-newsletter and runs a website called “Ensemble” dedicated to choral news and events.

Having two companies broadens the repertoire and diversity of works presented in Southwest Florida. “Their programming is going to help the general audience enjoy opera and grow the opera market down here,” he says.

As for Pearce and Shaw, neither appears concerned about competing with the other: “We have very different audiences,” Shaw says, and if attendees support both, that’s OK, too. “If they love opera, they love opera. That’s fine with us. It’s a love of the art form.”


It’s a Mystery

You know a community is populated with artists when it continually tries to scheme up new and interesting ways to spend a Friday night.

Captiva artist René Miville, owner of The Franklin Shops and gallery in downtown Fort Myers, is the creator behind downtown’s latest monthly event, MysteryWalk, which will be held for the sixth time in May.

“We decided to call it ‘MysteryWalk’ because we didn’t know what theme we would do,” Miville says.

The event, held the second Friday of every month, features an eclectic range of performers and themes, celebrating everything from electronic dance music to New Orleans jazz.

April’s event called for transforming downtown into a giant drum circle and uniting the community through rhythm. May’s theme, as of Gulfshore Life’s press time, was still a “mystery.” It’ll be a little smaller than the in-
season events, but Miville promised it still would be action-packed: “It’ll be a Mallory Square atmosphere, taken up three levels.”

For a schedule of downtown events, visit


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