Frost Opera Theater takes a leap forward with world premiere of “The Leopard”

By Lawrence Budmen

Baritone Kim Josephson (seated) director Jeffrey Buchman and mezzo Robynne Redmon rehearse The Leopard at Frost Opera Theater. Photo Gonzalo Mejia

When composer Michael Dellaira attempted to read Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s 1958 novel Il Gattopardo in college, he says that he could not sustain enough interest to get through the entire book. Years later on a trip to Sicily, Dellaira’s wife was reading the book on the plane and her enthusiasm caused him to take a second look at Tomasi’s historical epic. 

This time he was fascinated. Enough for Dellaira to turn the story into his latest opera, The Leopard, which will receive its world premiere Saturday by the University of Miami’s Frost Opera Theater.

The most ambitious offering in the history of UM’s opera department, The Leopard will be presented at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay—the first time a Frost opera production will be produced off campus. 

The Leopard is the story of impoverished Sicilian nobleman Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (known as the title creature). Corbera is caught between the traditions of his class and the history-making forces of the Risorgimento—a revolutionary movement led by General Giuseppe Garibaldi, which called for unification of numerous states to form the Kingdom of Italy between 1848 and 1871. 

Among the Risorgimento’s most ardent supporters was Giuseppe Verdi whose operas Nabucco and I Lombardi were basically Risorgimento polemics masked as historical dramas. (The chorus “Va pensiero” from Nabucco became a Risorgimento anthem.) Tomasi’s novel was turned into a 1963 film by Italian director Lushino Visconti, starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale. 

The opera’s libretto is by the late poet and writer J.D. McClatchy. Previously Dellaira and McClatchy had collaborated on The Secret Agent and The Death of Webern, which Frost Opera Theater presented in a concert performance in 2015 and recorded for Albany records. Dellaira said that McClatchy refused to watch the Visconti film, preferring to craft his own treatment of the novel’s drama.

The result of their collaboration is a two-act opera of 12 scenes, plus a prologue and epilogue. Dellaira said he relished “the opportunity to write an old fashioned Italian opera with ensembles and arias.” Dellaira feels that, more than a historical drama, the opera’s story has great contemporary relevance, citing the novel’s most famous line “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change.” 

Composer Michale Dellaira collaborated with librettist J.D. McClatchy on The Leopard.

The composer, speaking from his home in New York, said he endeavored to encompass the sound of the book and to create a score in which “all the characters must sound as part of the same musical world.” During a three-year residency  at New York’s famed Actors Studio, Dellaira worked with actors and directors who cared about how music enhanced the drama. He says he wanted to give singers a similar feeling of freedom. 

Frost Opera Theater artistic director Alan Johnson feels that the score represents Dellaira “at the peak of his powers.” At times, he notes, the fourth wall is shattered as the characters speak directly to the audience, commenting on the action of the drama.

The opera’s thirteen roles will be sung by a combined cast of Frost faculty and students. Baritone Kim Josephson, who joined the faculty in 2019, will sing the leading role of Don Fabrizio.

Josephson is an artist with a significant record of participating in first performances of works by major composers. Most notably, Josephson created the role of Eddie Carbone in the world premiere of William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge at Lyric Opera of Chicago, an opera adapted from Arthur Miller’s play.

Josephson, who has also sung numerous Verdi baritone roles at major houses including the Met, finds working with contemporary composers to be like tapping “into minds of gold.” and the process of bringing his craft and artistry to new work delightful. 

The baritone believes the role of Don Fabrizio is “the story of everyman in modern times, like looking at ourselves in the mirror.” Josephson pictures the protagonist as “a very wise man, totally aristocratic.” The opera pictures his life cycle with the upheavals both personal and political around him.” He describes Dellaira’s vocal writing as very modern with big leaps in the vocal line and meters constantly changing. (Josephson is joined in the production by fellow Frost faculty members Robynne Redmon and Frank Ragsdale and former faculty member Kevin Short.)

Frost Symphony Orchestra artistic director Gerard Schwarz, who has led the premieres of many new works over his long career, will conduct his first opera production since joining the Frost faculty in 2018.  

For director Jeffrey Buchman, The Leopard “is not a heavy tragic opera” but a tale of personal tragedy for Concetta (one of Don Fabrizio’s daughters) who has lost the love she so greatly desired as a result of her father’s decisions, partly in reaction to the unstoppable societal shift. The opera is told in flashback through the eyes and viewpoint of Concetta in her seventies. Her commentary on the events in the prologue and epilogue is McClatchy’s invention, not part of the book or film. 

Buchman wants the production “to tug at the heartstrings” and capture the inner struggles of the characters He finds the story comparable to Downton Abbey as both a family drama and a tale of historical events shaping the family’s life and world. Buchman singles out Concetta’s scenes as having their own unique color and “moments of very romantic long phrases.” 

One element of Visconti’s cinematic version that Buchman and set designer Cameron Anderson have retained are the lace curtains (in the movie’s opening scene) that look out at the Sicilian world. At times, the violence of the civil wars being fought outside will be pictured through those curtains. Buchman praises Anderson for her “poetic touch” in stage design.

Director Johnson feels this production provides a unique opportunity for his students.

“Our educational mission is to expose students to music from the past four hundred years to the past ten years,” Johnson says. “With voice teachers working together on stage with many of their students, this forms a dynamic similar to the jazz department,” where instructors and student players commonly share the stage. 

He calls the South Dade theater “a wonderful venue.” With 900 seats, an orchestra pit seating forty musicians, fly space and a lighting grid, for the first time the opera theater will not have to improvise. Previous productions have been presented on campus at the Gusman Concert Hall which lacks a pit and basic staging facilities.  

Johnson believes the premiere of an ambitious new work in a real theatrical house will make the students aware that “the art form is in good hands, vital, thriving and revivified.”  

Frost Opera Theater presents the world premiere of The Leopard by Michael Dellaira, 3 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.

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Tue Mar 1, 2022
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