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"Carmen" of the Finger Lakes 

In recent years opera companies, symphony orchestras, and other arts groups have made headlines with their financial difficulties, and some have folded or reorganized — for example, Rochester's Mercury Opera is no longer a presenting company, but as the Opera Guild of Rochester, the organization supports other operatic events. And Rochester Lyric Opera, formerly Empire State Lyric Theatre, for now concentrates on small-scale productions and recitals.

Finger Lakes Opera is bucking the trend, not only by starting a new group, but as its inaugural production, will present a full staging of one of the great operatic crowd pleasers, Bizet's "Carmen," at SUNY Geneseo this weekend.

The artistic director of Finger Lakes Opera, Gerard Floriano, is an Eastman School graduate in choral and orchestral conducting and is director of choruses at SUNY Geneseo and a former board member and co-artistic director of Mercury Opera. (Last month, Floriano was appointed music director designate of the Rochester Chamber Orchestra.) With several years of experience conducting opera during summers at the Brevard Festival in North Carolina, and in Verona, Italy, Floriano was interested in helping fill the local operatic gap.

"The Finger Lakes seemed like a great location for a summer festival," he says, and he also thought that SUNY Geneseo offered excellent performing facilities. After meeting with then-Geneseo president Chris Dahl (who is also an opera fan), Floriano was encouraged to come up with a business plan for a new opera company, which resulted in him conducting a gala fundraising concert of opera favorites last summer.

That "live test marketing event," as he calls it, was a hit with the audience and with the performers. "We had a really good crowd. And at the end, when we announced 'Carmen' as our first staged production, there was a palpable buzz." And he happily reports that the buzz has been translating into good ticket sales for "Carmen."

That is not too big a surprise: Local opera lovers have to travel several hours to see productions at Cooperstown's Glimmerglass Festival, but Geneseo is a much shorter drive away, and the college campus has well-appointed performing spaces in a beautiful central New York setting.

If starting a new arts group of any kind is a poker game, Finger Lakes Opera is coming to the table with a few aces in its hand. The association with SUNY Geneseo provides the company with the resources that many start-up companies would envy, including the school's marketing department and business school — and, not least, its music department, whose students are supplying several voices for the chorus.

Floriano already has ideas for next year's festival, which he hopes will include a staged opera production, a musical theater revue, and some chamber music concerts. He has a strong ally in the college itself, which he says in interested in new types of community engagement, and has included Finger Lakes Opera among the organizations benefiting from the Geneseo Foundation.

"Carmen" was Floriano's choice for Finger Lakes Opera's inaugural staged production, and he chose wisely. This popular piece has not been seen in Rochester for a while, and it has been a favorite since — well, not quite since its Paris premiere in 1875, which amazingly was a flop. But soon afterward it became a staple of the operatic repertoire.

The opera's simple, dramatic story is as easy to follow as a Hollywood movie — the one about a sensual Gypsy woman and a soldier's obsessive love for her. But it's even better as an opera: Bizet's score is chock-full of immediately recognizable tunes, from the first measure of the prelude to the violent final scene.

The colorful production design for the Finger Lakes Opera's "Carmen" combines traditional and contemporary elements, and the staging calls for near-constant choreography and movement. Floriano will conduct a 38-piece orchestra including several musicians from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. The Genesee Valley Children's Chorus also plays an important part in the opera.

This production also boasts two high-powered lead performers. The Carmen, mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges, is a Young Artist at Lyric Opera of Chicago who has already been compared to another famous Carmen, Denyse Graves. And tenor and Rochester resident Gregory Kunde, the Don José, is well-known in Europe for his interpretations of French opera, as well as the bel canto works of composers like Rossini and Donizetti and, more recently, the dramatic roles of Verdi. "If you want to see Greg sing Don José again," Floriano says, "you'll have to go to Europe."

The cast is rounded out by soprano Danielle Pastin as Micaela, and baritone Luis Ledesma as Escamillo, who gets the "Toreador Song" — that tune is one of the opera's greatest hits, but in fact, Floriano notes, every character in "Carmen" gets great stuff to sing.

"The entire opera is full of color and drama," Floriano says. "Bizet wrote many familiar tunes, but as I study the score I am also amazed by things like his comic timing and his sense of dramatic irony. Things like that are what make 'Carmen' still so much fun to watch."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected. Micaela was initially referenced as Don Jose's sister, which was incorrect.

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