A grassroots group keeps opera alive through the commitment of arts angels like Kathy Miller, whose living room has become a stage.
This should be an exciting month for Kathy Miller. She’s going to get a chance to go out to the opera for a change.
Kathy Miller has opened her home to opera performances for three years.
Emphasis on “out.” Ordinarily, it works the other way around: Over the past few years, it’s the operas that having been turning up at her door.
Miller is artistic adviser, cheerleader and de facto hostess for Florida Opera Theatre, a group of volunteers who have spent the last
5 ½ years creating a nonprofit opera company in Orlando.
Their efforts will be elevated by a couple of octaves this month with the staging of Mozart’s comic masterpiece, Così fan tutte, to be presented in the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on March 27 and 29.
Which will give Kathy Miller’s living room a break.
That is where most of the group’s productions have been performed until now—just inside the front doors and beneath a massive crystal chandelier in the marble-columned, Mediterranean-style Winter Park mansion overlooking Lake Maitland that she shares with her husband, Steve.
Florida Opera Theatre is a grassroots organization that sprang up after the demise of Orlando Opera, which went bankrupt in 2009 in a perfect tempest of management mistakes and an economic downturn.
Cosí fan tutte cast members Sean Christopher Stork and Anthony Ciaramitaro practice their parts with Robin Stamper at the piano.
That company had 8,000 subscribers, 12 employees and a $2.7 million annual budget. With a record of bringing ambitious, highly acclaimed productions to the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, it had been a towering presence on Orlando’s cultural landscape for half a century, and you can still run across a few of the ruins thrown clear of the wreckage when it collapsed.
Some of its ornate set pieces wound up with a second career in the tourist industry after being auctioned off in the bankruptcy. They’re now part of the décor in the hallways of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter attraction. The lavish paintings that local artist Larry Moore created for posters and programs of some of the opera’s glory-days productions—the likes of Madama Butterfly, Faust, The Mikado, Salome and Pagliacci—now line a fifth-floor hallway of the Grand Bohemian Hotel in downtown Orlando.
With its acrobatic musical scores, thoroughbred performers and lavish costumes and sets, opera is one of the art world’s most expensive, high-maintenance enterprises. This makes it something of a canary in a coal mine when times are hard. Many of the country’s opera companies, large and small, have collapsed over the past few years in circumstances similar to those that killed off Orlando Opera.
All of which has made Florida Opera Theatre organizers a budget-conscious lot.
They spent their first two years appealing to private donors for funds, tending to the paperwork of establishing a nonprofit organization, and rehearsing and staging a series of concerts and recitals at the Miller home.
In late 2011, they pushed the living room furniture out of the way, replaced it with a few set pieces, and produced their first opera. It featured high drama in close quarters. In the climactic scene, a shot rang out, followed by a blood-curdling scream that all but rattled the crystals off the home’s chandelier.
That exquisitely well-modulated blood-curdling scream was courtesy of the formidable diaphragm of Susan Neves, an internationally acclaimed Verdi soprano and Metropolitan Opera star with family ties to Orlando. She had been coaxed into performing the lead role of Madame Flora, a conniving clairvoyant with a drinking habit, a bad temper and an itchy trigger finger, in Gian Carlo Menotti’s two-act opera, The Medium.
Florida Opera Theatre has produced several small-scale operas since then. The company contracts with performers from other parts of the country and blends them with local talent, most often students from the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, and Stetson University. All the performers are paid through donations.
Productions usually open in front of an invited audience at the Miller home, with follow-up performances in small theaters or high school auditoriums. An annual “Opera in the Park” concert series has also become a popular addition to the Winter Park arts scene. In a solid partnership with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, the company has provided choruses for the one or two full-scale operas that the Phil began producing each year after Orlando Opera’s demise.
Florida Opera Theatre’s president, Judy Lee, sees this month’s production of Così fan tutte as a milestone that will expand the ambitious young company’s reach. She hopes it will be the first of many productions to be staged at the performing arts center. So does the group’s most effusive volunteer.
Kathy Miller is a small-town girl whose horizons expanded considerably when she fell in love with the likes of Mozart, Puccini, Menotti, and Verdi at a young age. She grew up in Madison, South Dakota, in an Irish family for whom music wasn’t just recreation; it was sustenance. “We ate. We slept. We sang,” she says.
It wasn’t her family that fueled her early fixation on opera, though. It was seeing the first opera ever commissioned for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors, a one-act opera by Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber.
Miller went on to earn a degree in music, with a concentration on teaching and voice, from Southern Methodist University. She began singing in the chorus of Orlando Opera soon after moving to Orlando in 1978 with her husband, founder of a company that manufactured microchips for use in mobile phones.
When they built their home in 2000, they asked Orlando architect Mark Nasrallah to create an acoustically sound living area suitable for informal singing at post-performance parties. He designed a wide-open, symmetrical, two-story living room/dining room area just inside the home’s front doors, with balconies supported by marble columns on either side and a spectacular view of Lake Maitland through a series of floor-to-ceiling windows.
Kathy Miller had no way of knowing a living room meant for entertaining would be enrolled on behalf of a cause. But it’s one she will never abandon.
“The masters of this art form were geniuses,” she says. “They weren’t ordinary people. What they created must go on.”
Toward that end, she vows to keep her front door open—though she’s only too happy that for one month, at least, that won’t be necessary.