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A Passion for Opera

by CAROL J. DeFRANK

THIS SEASON MARKS an historic point in the saga of Opera Naples. “We are happy to share two ‘firsts’ for the Company,” says Steffanie Pearce, Founding Artistic Director of Opera Naples, the region’s only professional, self-producing opera company.

“After eight years of performances, we are collaborating with our friends at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts. Our first production was seen on that stage in December, realizing a dream long held by many who have been with us since the beginning, eight years ago. We presented Tosca, which happens to be the very first production the Company, performed in 2006.”

Pearce is rightfully excited about this opportunity. “After years of producing operas in a variety of venues, performing at this first class facility enabled refinement of our production values beyond what has previously been enjoyed by our audience. Opera Naples is a community-based organization and therefore everyone will reap the rewards of this alliance.

“We hope to enjoy a long relationship with the Phil and perform our three grand opera productions there. Besides Tosca, this year’s shows include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Elijah.”

The second ‘first’ is just as exciting. It involves a $500,000 endowment, the Company’s single largest contribution. “This was a gift from David and Cecil Wang. In recognition of their generosity, the Opera is saying thank you by naming the Linwood Avenue building, The David & Cecile Wang Opera Center.”

The building, located in the heart of the Davis Triangle, a redevelopment area focusing on cultural arts, was purchased in 2009 and serves as the Company’s headquarters. “We need a home, even if it’s just simply a place to hang our hats, do administrative work and facilitate our education programs.” The building is used for rehearsal space, education activities, some technical crafts and administrative offices. Within the past three years, the Opera has raised over a million dollars.

Born and raised in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Pearce began her professional career as an operatic soprano after studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the University of Southern California Opera Workshop. She moved to New York and lived there for 20 years before making her home in Naples in 2000.

Pearce’s artistic background is impressive. She was an apprentice with the Cincinnati Opera and the San Diego Opera, the winner of numerous international vocal competitions, including the Pavarotti Competition, Montreal International, D’Angelo, Baltimore Opera, and the American Traditions competition.

She has been a guest artist at many opera companies, including Opera de Marseille, Opera Lisboa, Pittsburgh Opera Theater, San Diego Opera, and the Buxton Festival in England.

Equally at home on the concert stage, the soprano has appeared as a guest soloist at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and other well-known venues.

Before moving to Florida, starting an opera company was the furthest thing from her mind. Pearce performed at the Philharmonic and the Barbara B Mann Performing Arts Hall and set up a teaching studio where she taught classical vocal technique. Local recognition garnered publicity and brought professional attention which turned out to be the premise on which Opera Naples incubated.

“Within a short amount of time several entities approached me about launching a local opera company,” Pearce explains. “I put feelers out in the cultural community and the response was overwhelming.” With local and family support, and drawing upon the knowledge of established opera experts such as Raymond Gniewek, former Concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera, and Judith Blegen, soprano from the Metropolitan Opera, she incorporated Opera Naples in 2005.

“Our initial Board members were all involved in related arts and acted as the Company’s management. They were very generous with their time and talent. My husband, one of my biggest emotional and financial supporters, truly believed in me and proved it by taking out a second mortgage on our home to finance the first project.” It was a Viennese style New Year’s Eve Ball that was hosted by the Community School of Naples and doubled as a social as well as fund raising event. “We literally transformed the field house into a palace by utilizing four 50-foot backdrops and other palatial decorations,” she recalls.

Four months later the second event, held at Gulf Coast High School, was a full scale opera; Tosca. She says, “The 1,200 seat facility was filled to capacity. We had to hold the curtain for 20 minutes because traffic was so backed up.”

The goal of the two events was accomplished: to be a high quality, first class opera company. Fundraising began and one year later it was named Best Performing Arts Group by Gulfshore Life magazine.

In the years that followed, it matured, staff was added and eventually it became appropriate to separate the artistic and executive functions. Tom Smith, a Virginia native, was appointed Executive Director & CEO in 2011. He brought experience in all facets of opera administration and helped the organization grow.

Becoming an integral part of the community is important. Placing great emphasis on community outreach was accomplished by nurturing new opera audiences through educational in-school programs, special matinees for students and offering public lecture/demonstrations at a range of affordable prices. There is also a family friendly opera presented each season.

Pearce says, “We consider education a priority. We do 30-40 in-school programs a year, targeting grades two through five. Our goal is to enrich young lives by offering a positive creative environment that nurtures talent through hands-on experiences and quality performances.”

A Young Artists Program was established as well as a Student Apprentice program, promoting an artistically challenging environment for young American singers entering the opera field by providing training and performance opportunities in the community.

To further promote cultural arts in Southwest Florida, Opera Naples has collaborated with other arts organizations, including Theatre Zone, the music department at Florida Gulf Coast University and the Arts Naples World Festival.

The community has the opportunity to get involved through membership in the Guild, which provides numerous grassroots support, the backbone of any successful arts organization. Members can volunteer by participating in opera study groups, lectures and demonstrations, assisting with fundraising events, traveling to performances by other opera companies, and interacting with arts organizations in the area.

The goal of Opera Naples is to support local talent, entice the nation’s finest professionals to participate, produce at least three operas per season in a variety of styles, (Classic Grand Opera, American Opera, contemporary or lesser-known works and Operetta), and place equal emphasis on theatrical elements and musical values.

Pearce emphasizes, “We are here to enrich the cultural fabric of the entire community, not just to entertain the wealthy. And we have exceeded our initial goals.” •


OPERA NAPLES
963-9050
www.operanaples.org


January-February 2013



Steffanie Pearce











“We consider education
a priority. We are here
to enrich the cultural
fabric of the entire
community, not just to
entertain the wealthy.”


Tom Smith,
Executive Director and CEO


Opera Naples' production
of 'Faust'