Music

Florida Grand Opera opener moves 18th-century Italy to 20th-century Miami Beach

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
November 8, 2022 at 12:08 PM

The cast of Florida Grand Opera’s “El Matrimonio Secreto” rehearses a scene. Standing is Phillip Lopez as Geronimo. Seated, from left, are Catalina Cuervo as Elisetta, Michael Pandolfo  as Count Robinson, Vanessa Becerra  as Carolina, and Erin Alford as Fidalma. (Photo courtesy of Eric Joannes)

Florida Grand Opera is putting a 20th-century spin on an 18th-century opera and firmly planting it in Miami circa the 1980s complete with the Italian text translated into Spanish.

Successful entrepreneur and father, Geronimo is at the center of “El Matrimonio Secreto” (“The Secret Marriage”), where he wants to marry off his two daughters, especially his oldest to a wealthy Count. Complications abound, of course, with mistaken identities and plot twists in the quintessential opera buffa.

Stage Director Elena Araoz, center, rehearses the cast of Florida Grand Opera’s “El Matrimonio Secreto,” from left, Erin Alford (Fidalma), Phillip Lopez (Geronimo), Catalina Cuervo (Elisetta), Vanessa Becerra (Carolina), and Michael Pandolfo (Count Robinson). (Photo courtesy of Eric Johannes)

Composer Domenico Cimarosa’s two-act opera could play just fine in its Italian original, but Florida Grand Opera has taken a different tact. As part of its Made for Miami series, the setting is now 1980s Miami Beach and Geronimo is the proprietor of Hotel Paraiso, an Art Deco hotel. He’s a Cuban businessman running the inn with the help of his daughters Elisetta and Carolina.

Susan T. Danis, general director and CEO of FGO, says she had been floating the idea of presenting the opera for quite some time, assured that her audiences would enjoy the familiar sound of Cimarosa’s composition despite him not being a household name.

“(Cimarosa) was writing around the time of Mozart so stylistically the music will sound familiar,” she says.

Making it even more appealing to her audiences dawned on Danis while she was a patron at a hair salon in the Calle Ocho neighborhood of Miami, where a large Cuban population resides.

“I was in the salon getting my hair done,” Danis recalls. “And there was a bridal party, a group of Cuban-American women, getting ready for a wedding,” she says. Watching the drama unfold in front of her, she says that the bride began “melting down.” She saw the rumblings of sibling rivalry and jealousy emerging. “One of her friends in the wedding party had a bigger diamond ring than she had. She was taking note that maybe some of the bridesmaids and her sisters were more attractive than she was on her big day.”

Then the idea struck. “There were so many of the same elements in ‘Matrimonio.’ I thought, ‘What if I moved this opera to Miami?’ ” And what if the Italian was translated to Spanish?

She had another goal. “I wanted to tell the story from a female perspective because the original is so patriarchal.”

Geronimo (Phillip Lopez) introduces Count Robinson (Michael Pandolfo) to his eldest daughter, Elisetta (Catalina Cuervo) in a rehearsal shot from Florida Grand Opera’s “El Matrimonio Secreto.” (Photo courtesy of Eric Johannes)

She signed on Crystal Manich, herself a Latina, a Puerto Rican opera director with tons of artistic excellence under her belt and experience directing everywhere from Boston to Brazil.

Former FGO music staff, conductor, and composer Darwin Aquino, and his wife, Italian mezzo-soprano Benedetta Orsi were enlisted as the translators. Although the characters are Cuban, the translation is “Caribbean Spanish,” according to Aquino with “Espanenglish” terms tossed in. There will be supertitles in English and in Spanish, which are the norm for FGO productions.

Danis calls the production “a love story to Miami.” She says the plot is reminiscent of the recent remake of the American romantic comedy “Father of the Bride,” which was focused on two Latino cultures and starred Andy Garcia and Miami’s own Gloria Estefan.

“Our sense of funny has changed over the centuries, let alone just a couple of decades. So when I think about (our version of ‘Matrimonio’) I think about the sitcoms of 20 years ago,” Danis says.

Florida Grand Opera cast of “El Matrimonio Secreto” are, from left, Michael Pandolfo (Count Robinson), Ashley Shalna (Elisetta, Sunday matinee), Phillip Lopez (Geronimo), Vanessa Becerra (Catalina), Joseph McBrayer (Paolino), Erin Alford (Fidalma), Page Michels (Carolina, Sunday matinee). (Photo courtesy of Eric Joannes)

While the setting of 1980s Miami Beach is colorful and comic — think pastel suits and vintage brick cellphones, which were a major status symbol of the day — there is an emphasis, too, on cultural sensitivity.

“We didn’t want to do anything that would offend anyone so what I did was I sent to Crystal what I affectionally call my Cuban-American female posse – women of various ages that were involved with the opera in some capacity, on the board level, staff, patrons. She spoke with these women and it really did change the direction in which she decided to take the opera,” Danis says.

Manich says she started interviewing people and, while her Puerto Rican roots helped her in understanding Cuban culture, she says she learned inside stories and much more from the women. “There were customs brought here from the Old World that carried over to their American lives, funny little quirks,” she says. “I took (so much of my conversations with them) and what I know about immigrant families in general and created this concept where we are setting the story in a hotel in Miami.”

Despite the modern setting, Manich says she’s adhered to her convictions about opera. “Operas really stand on their own and they are relevant no matter what time period you put them in as long as you are adhering to what the core story is. That’s what I’ve tried to do is make the core solid,” she says.

Manich also believes in what FGO is doing with its focus on local culture. “Sometimes I feel like companies want to be recognized outside of their community more so than within. I really admire this approach by FGO to serve people within the community. It makes a difference.”

Tenor Joseph McBrayer and soprano Vanessa Becerra as the secretly married couple, Paolino and Carolina in Florida Grand Opera’s “El Matrimonio Secreto.” (Photo courtesy of Eric Joannes)

She hopes audiences that wouldn’t usually put attending an opera at the top of their entertainment to-do list think differently because of the modernity of this production.

“Oddly enough, I believe that people are afraid to go to the opera and laugh even when they are supposed to. I think that opera has a reputation of being stodgy or stuck up and this will quell that notion. I really encourage people to come to this show with an open mind and allow themselves to laugh when they want to laugh,” Manich says.

Danis says Lindsay Fuori’s set is yet another reason to come to see the production, where especially the hotel’s pool on stage is a point of pride.

“It is one of those glass blocks pools from the era . . . with real water in it,” she says.

WHAT: “El Matrimonio Secreto” (“The Secret Marriage”)

WHERE: Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Ziff Ballet Opera House, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.

WHEN: 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, 2 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 15

COST: $16, $21, $39, $44,  $51, $73,  $85, $89, $101,  $138, $155,  $179, $210,  $230. Prices vary depending on performance.

INFORMATION: 800-741-1010 or fgo.org and arshtcenter.org

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