Miami Lyric Opera celebrates 20 years of a retired tenor’s successful dream

By Lawrence Budmen

Since founding Miami Lyric Opera in 2002, Raffaele Cardone has brought hundreds of opera performances to Miami audiences.

On Saturday night Miami Lyric Opera will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a gala concert at the Moss (formerly South Miami Dade) Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay. While other local arts organizations have floundered or dissolved over recent decades, this small but intrepid company has survived and flourished due to the vision and dedication of Raffaele Cardone.

“I wanted a small company to cultivate the young people around me,” said Cardone, the company’s 88-year-old founder and general and artistic director. “To cultivate artists and promote the concept of opera to the public.”

Cardone came to his second career as an impresario via the opera stage. After many successful decades as an operatic tenor, primarily in South America, Mexico became Cardone’s home base. Recurrent heart problems led him to relocate to Miami in 2001 after his cardiologist moved to Florida from Texas. 

After recovering from surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital, Cardone decided to stay in South Florida. He gave masterclasses at the University of Miami and coached voice students. 

Cardone thought that the area lacked a showcase for young local talent, which was his impetus for his founding Miami Lyric Opera. After doing concert programs of arias and opera scenes at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana, Cardone produced his first full opera production—Verdi’s Rigoletto at Miami Senior High School in 2002. 

Over the past two decades, the small but adventurous company has produced 23 operas, some in multiple productions.  While repertoire has veered toward the popular, tried-and-true Italian operas of Verdi, Puccini and Donizetti (as well as Bizet’s perennial Carmen), Cardone has also presented such rarities as Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz, Emilio Arrieta’s Marina, the three one-act operas of Puccini’s Il Trittico and Rossini’s La Cenerentola. [An archive of SFCR reviews of MLO productions can be found here.]

After his initial presentation, Cardone soon moved the company to the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road where he found a loyal audience. 

That Miami Beach venue had real limitations—a small stage and lack of a proper orchestra pit. Yet despite these deficits, Cardone’s productions were often more than the sum of their parts.  Sets and costumes sometimes were on a community theater level and orchestra playing was uneven at best. Yet Cardone’s stagings were always true to the composers and librettists’ original concept and period. He feels it is important to “go back to the fountain, to the true concept of opera, to try to save the tradition of opera.”  

MLO production budgets range between $45,000 and $65,000 a show—a pittance in the international opera world but Cardone makes a little go a long way. Above all, Miami Lyric Opera productions are always replete with good (and, on occasion, spectacular) singing. After a brief move to the Olympia Theater (Gusman Center) in downtown Miami, the Cutler Bay venue became available. 

Filling an operatic void at the south end of the county, Cardone now has a real theater with a sizable stage and deep orchestra pit. He has enhanced the visual elements, renting sets from the venerable Sormani company. The move has raised both the musical and theatrical quality of MLO offerings.

Cardone often brings artists to Miami and coaches them for several weeks before rehearsals begin. Beyond basic technique, he believes vocalists must “sing with your heart and express, not just play, the notes—interpret.”

Miami Lyric Opera presented Rossini’s La Cenerentola in 2019.

Cardone sees the company as a “young talent platform.” Some of the singers Cardone has presented early in their careers have gone on to perform at major houses. Mario Chang, a golden voiced tenor in L’ Amico Fritz in 2011, won first prize at Placido Domingo’s Operalia Competition, joined the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist program, and now sings on leading stages in North America and Europe.  

The excellent baritone Nelson Martinez covered the role of Giorgio Germont in La Traviata at the Met and went on for an ailing Thomas Hampson, winning rave reviews. Bass baritone Stefano De Peppo has sung with the opera companies of Washington, Los Angeles and Palm Beach and on European stages. 

Soprano Daniella Carvalho, Suzel in MLO’s L’Amico Fritz, has assayed Wagnerian roles at South American opera festivals.  Leyla Martinucci, a fiery Carmen in 2018 and a frequent presence on Italian operatic stages, is the daughter of Italian tenor Nicola Martinucci and part of the operatic tradition that Cardone so strongly believes in. For his contribution to opera internationally, Cardone was awarded Ufficiale della Stella D’Italia by Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

Cardone was born in Bari, Italy, to a musical family. His mother was a singer, his father a musician, and his grandfather an artist manager.

Vocal studies led to a stage debut at the Teatro Circuolo in Rosario, Argentina as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto. The Italian tenor Bruno Landi, a stalwart of La Scala, became an important mentor and influence.

Baritone Carlo Tagliabue, who Cardone considered “a second father,”  coached him for five years for free. Tagliabue led an itinerant opera company that played in many cities in South America. With the Tagliabue group, Cardone sang leading tenor roles in The Barber of Seville, Pearl Fishers and L Elisir d’Amore. His singing career would take him to opera stages in Mexico, Malta, Switzerland, Belgium and many provincial Italian houses. The title role in Mascagni’s L’ Amico Fritz and the difficult role of Arturo in Bellini’s I Puritani would become specialties. 

Raffaele Cardone in his singing days as Arturo in Bellini’s I Puritani at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

Cardone shared the stage with such operatic luminaries as soprano Elena Suliotis, baritones Tito Gobbi, Mario Sereni and Cornell MacNeil and bass Nicolai Ghiaurov. Cardone views his time on world opera stages as “a vital part of my life.” On the symphonic circuit, Cardone sang both the tenor and baritone parts in many performances of Orff’s Carmina Burana.

Like many opera and theater producers, Cardone relates that he faced emergencies and even humorous situations on the eve of and even during performances. Once the sets did not arrive. The truck that was bringing them broke down somewhere between New Jersey and Miami. A sketch took their place as the backdrop. 

A soprano who was to sing Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata called in sick. After Cardone had obtained a replacement, the original lead decided she could sing after all so he wound up with two Violettas. At an alfresco performance of Marina at the North Beach Bandshell, the tenor lost his voice during the final act. Cardone (who had done the role during his vocal career) sang from behind the scenery while the ill tenor mimed the words. Cardone was 79 at the time.

While Cardone says he views each MLO production as his children to be nurtured and brought forth, he is especially proud of the 2018 Carmen, a 2014 La Boheme and the Trittico performances. There are two operas, however, that he still longs to present: Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Donizetti’s rarely heard La Favorita. Both have been scheduled and cancelled due to lack of sufficient funding, casting diffculties, the Covid pandemic or a combination of such problems.  He feels that finally bringing this repertoire to the stage will be the culmination of all his efforts.

Even though Miami Lyric Opera is a small company, funding has been a continual problem. “Opera needs lots of resources,” Cardone said. “I am not a politician and am not good at asking for money.” He finds the process of obtaining grants from Miami Dade County difficult and feels grant-makers do not give sufficient credit to smaller arts organizations. 

Despite the ongoing need to raise funds in order to cover production costs, Cardone has kept ticket prices low. He strongly believes opera should be accessible to a wide audience. Cardone is concerned about the future of opera. He believes that “people have the wrong idea of what opera is” and that view must be changed in order for the art form to thrive and to nurture new audiences.

During this 20th anniversary season, in addition to the concert on Saturday night, Miami Lyric Opera will present Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in March and two productions yet to be announced. 

For two decades, the little Miami company has exceeded expectations, introducing gifted singers and offering traditional productions of operatic chestnuts and less frequently heard repertoire. In no small way, Raffaele Cardone has accomplished more than he ever could have imagined while greatly enriching South Florida’s cultural life.

Miami Lyric Opera presents a 20th Anniversary Gala Concert 7 p.m. Saturday at the Moss Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay.

Miami Lyric Opera has presented Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love).

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Wed Nov 16, 2022
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