Opera Tampa Gives Voice To Young Performers

For most of us, life is anything but a song. For Ashley Dannewitz, it's a veritable opera.

This upcoming weekend, the 24-year-old Clearwater resident steps onto the big stage in her debut as an opera singer, and from there, she can only dream of what curtains will rise on her new career. "This is my first role in a professional opera, and it's a real role,'' she says. "This is so cool.''

In performances Friday night, April 29, and Sunday afternoon, May 1, Opera Tampa unveils its lavish, $250,000 production of Verdi's "La Traviata" at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Tampa. Dannewitz sings the role of Annina, a maid who serves the opera's tragic lead character, Violetta.

Dannewitz and the other principal singers have been in rehearsals for weeks, often 12 hours a day. The demands are enormous: A command of Italian and proper diction; knowing where to be on stage at every moment; blending of vocal tone with other singers; and projecting the unamplified voice so it can be heard at the back of 2,500-seat Morsani Hall. She also must know how to act if she hopes to bring Annina to life.

"There is so much to do to prepare for an opera,'' she says. "Singers have to learn the role and practice it on their own, have it completely memorized, and then two weeks prior to show time, rehearsals start. In those two weeks, we rehearse from 10 in the morning until 10 at night, working on staging, singing, and putting everything together with the other characters and orchestra."

By the end of this week, rehearsals will morph into the real thing, and Dannewitz will be in front of a paying audience. Nervous?

"They say if you don't get nervous, you should be nervous," she jokes. "The adrenaline is helping."

It helps to be preparing for one of the greatest operas ever written, and one of the ripest and most refined of all Italian romantic melodramas.

"Traviata" is one of the best-loved works in the repertoire, and among the top five most-performed operas in the world. Based on the novel "Camille" by Alexander Dumas, the opera has enough elements to keep audiences entertained: rich character contrasts, disease, passion, emotional detachment, moral conflicts and, of course, tragic death.

Replicating Bourgeois Romanticism

Set in Paris in the mid-19th century, the story tells of a sickly and unscrupulous woman named Violetta and her love for Alfredo, a man from the upper class. Violetta is beautiful but lives a lustful life that irritates Alfredo's father, and he tries to break the two apart. The young couple separates and wallows in their isolation. After a great deal of frustration, the two reunite, but only as Violetta's illness returns, and she dies. "Traviata" epitomizes bourgeois romanticism in art.

" 'Traviata' is a masterpiece," Dannewitz says. "It's beautiful and dramatic and I feel it's an opera everyone should see once in their life."

Born and raised in Clearwater, Dannewitz went to Gibbs High School in Pinellas County and the University of Florida in Gainesville. She always enjoyed singing, and discovered the power of her voice while doing student musicals.

 "I got interested in opera in high school, was accepted into the arts magnet program in St. Petersburg and started my classical training there," she says. "At that point, I had no idea I would eventually sing opera, I just knew I wanted to sing on stage. The more I studied the art form and the languages and all that encompasses opera, the more I fell in love with it."

She carried her love of singing to the University of Florida, where as a sophomore she had the opportunity to study in Europe during the summer. It was in Austria where she decided on her career. After attending a performance of Rossini's "Barber of Seville'' in Vienna, she was convinced.

"Seeing live, grand opera is unlike any experience I had ever had," she said. "It was at that moment I knew I wanted to be on stage, singing live for audiences of all ages.''

What Dannewitz needed was serious training, and a chance to cut her teeth in real-world opera experiences. Enter Opera Tampa and its apprenticeship program for new artists. Dannewitz was a natural, says Maria Zouves, Opera Tampa's associate director.

"She came to us as one of the young participants of our Generation X program, for singers 20 years and younger, and she had a lot of potential,'' she said. "Ashley was very shy, but she had a voice. Once we chose her and she started working with us, she became a serious artist.''

Giving Voice To Young Talent

Dozens of other young artists in Opera Tampa's apprentice program hope to follow Dannewitz into the performing arts. But even if they don't choose that path, their training prepares them for challenge, Zouves says.

"These young artists are a fundamental part of Opera Tampa,'' she says. "If they study opera or any other serious discipline, they grow and become so self-aware that they know they can do anything. After that, everything else is cake. It's wonderful to watch these young people evolve."

Dannewitz's evolution from a shy young singer to a soprano full of soaring confidence rubs off on everyone around her. "My parents are very proud of what I'm doing with my voice," she says. "And all my friends are impressed and some are coming out to support me. Being in an opera is definitely not lame.''

Nor is opera in general lame. Over the last 30 years, attendance among the more than 115 professional opera companies in the United States has increased by nearly 40 percent. Although opera traditionally has appealed to older audiences, this isn't the case today. About 25 percent of opera audiences are made up of people under 35, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Tampa has developed an opera following. Since its first production in 1996, of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly,'' Opera Tampa has enjoyed steady success. Under president Judith Lisi, the center early on catered to the public's love of Broadway musicals, which are now its cash cow. A symbiotic relationship between opera and musical soon formed, and as a result, profits from Broadway shows have helped subsidize Opera Tampa, its apprenticeship program and the dreams of young artists.

A $1 million donation to the company last year came from a Pinellas County  physician. The money will be used to help pay for talented principal singers in upcoming seasons. By 2016, the arts center hopes to reach its goal of a $100 million endowment, the interest on which will help fund operations, productions and Opera Tampa.

Now, a young woman from Clearwater with operatic ambitions can finally share her dream through a classic story in front of an audience full of family and friends.

 "Being as young as I am, it's a reward just to be a part of such an amazing production and to study a leading role that I will hopefully play later in life," she says. "It will be fun to finally get to sing with the other characters on stage and not just to myself in a mirror at home."

The La Traviata performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, downtown Tampa. For more information, call (813) 229-7827.

Kurt Loft is a Tampa-based writer who has covered the Tampa Bay region's arts scene for 30 years. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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