Setting the stage for ‘Tosca’
Scott Flaherty can almost hear the clock ticking. The countdown to the May 5 debut of Puccini’s heart pounding opera “Tosca” in Charleston at the Gaillard Center has begun. As producing director of the star-studded show, a gala performance benefitting the Daniel Island Performing Arts Center (DIPAC) and other area arts organizations, Flaherty knows more than anyone the significance of the grand effort - and the quest to get it right.
“It’s a crazy timeline,” said Flaherty. “There is zero room for error…We’re going to keep the engines rolling. I let myself feel comfortable for one day last week, when I climbed a big hill, and as soon as I got down I sat back and took a breath and said ‘wait a minute, there is no time.’ We’ll be a full tilt from here to the end.”
Full tilt means expertly managing preparations for a performance that will feature more than 130 handpicked artists, many of them local. Set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, Tosca tells the story of a dramatic struggle of political power. At the heart of it all is a love triangle involving a fiery prima donna, her rebel lover and a treacherous chief of police. Several in the powerhouse cast have appeared in their respective roles on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, including acclaimed principal performers Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs and Mark Delavan. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra will provide 60 pieces for the production.
“We’re mounting an event with a budget that in the real world should be at least triple,” said Flaherty. “We have a lot of folks coming in because of the mission. It’s an all Metropolitan Opera-leading cast which in and of itself makes it pretty unusual here in town. And the choral ensemble we’ve put together? I dare say it’s the best you’ll hear in Charleston.”
According to a press release, the performance will be presented by DIPAC in partnership with the City of Charleston and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. Other sponsors include Synovus Bank, Sea Fox Boats, the Butz Foundation, Knight Printing & Graphics, and Blue Zero Homes.
“We are thrilled to be a partner in this exceptional event,” said Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg. “Charleston is home to a vibrant arts community, and I look forward to the opportunity for our citizens to enjoy the sounds of Tosca while contributing to a great cause.”
“Charleston deserves to have opera productions throughout the year,” added Nigel Redden, executive director of Spoleto Festival USA, which will kick off at the end of May. “I applaud the team mounting Tosca.”
The case for Tosca
Why Tosca and why now? There is no shortage of high quality musical theatre in Charleston, explained Flaherty, but the Daniel Island Performing Arts Center wanted to undertake something a bit more high profile – and something you wouldn’t always see offered to Holy City audiences.
“We wanted to do something that is a rare occurrence here,” he said. “You don’t see Puccini and Verdi in this town very often and yet there is certainly an audience demand for it and a taste for that. When we chose Tosca we went with title and the quality of the piece. It’s one of the world’s most often performed operas still, 120 years after its premiere more or less. Always in the top 10 worldwide in terms of performances every year.”
And with a growing local artistic talent pool, the timing couldn’t be better, added Flaherty.
“There are several local singers that are in the principal cast,” he said. “The entire ensemble is local. And were hand chosen as well, so we chose 40 that sound like 65!...Charleston’s profile has never been higher and we are getting a really remarkable talent pool that has decided to relocate here. So we thought this was the perfect time to highlight that while we’re making a sincere effort to develop the arts here in Charleston. Not simply to replicate events, but to actually develop the arts.”
Flaherty, who previously produced sold-out performances of Bizet’s “Carmen” in Charleston, is on a mission to see the arts elevated here, a goal shared by those creating the new Daniel Island Performing Arts Center, which is on track to break ground in late 2019 or early 2020. Creating awareness and enhancing arts education are key, he said.
“Audience development is something that is always a hot plate issue with every classical music organization,” Flaherty added. “In arts education, it’s not simply enough to introduce kids to what it is we’re trying to do, but rather to get them involved so they are invested. And through that personal investment, that’s when we see the talent emerge. And finding talent is a bit like digging for treasure.”
The DIPAC connection
For DIPAC, Tosca will provide a meaningful, impactful example of the types of productions the proposed facility will host.
“This production really showcases what we want to do that’s unique to the area,” said Betsy Brabham, DIPAC’s director of advancement. “We want to be complementary to all the arts. We want to elevate the local arts in Charleston, and by having all of these local artists mixed in with this Metropolitan talent, that’s helping to elevate everybody, which is a huge focus of ours, along with education.”
Another idea being pushed around in DIPAC circles is to have the proposed facility serve as an innovation lab where new works are incubated and then potentially brought to bigger venues.
“This would become a hotbed of artist activity,” said Flaherty, of the vision for the new facility. “Not just a replication of time tried formulas. I think the arts template in this country is a little broken, and certainly DIPAC is doing their homework and putting together people that are creative in their discussion of these problems.”
Both Flaherty and Brabham hope the Tosca performance will give DIPAC the credibility it needs to attract not only future talent and patrons, but fundraising dollars. Following the much-anticipated performance, DIPAC will begin a critically important capital campaign to support its building project.
“It’s a very complicated cocktail when you’re looking at generating lead funds for a project of this scope,” said Flaherty. “It’s a tremendous endeavor, and we wanted to create that awareness among not just the residents of Daniel Island, but the business community through our outreach efforts and sponsorships – to let them know what we’re doing and what we intend to do.”
“This is a kick-off,” added Brabham. “We’ve been building all of the components of what this would look like, and it’s been through so many revisions. This can actually help lay that foundation.”
On with the show!
But for now, all of the focus is on Tosca and making sure the performance is second to none. The week prior to the show, principal performers travel in to join the local cast and begin a five-day period they will conduct known as “production week” in their schedule. In addition to top-notch talent, there are other important elements that Tosca will showcase. The production’s original scenic designs, made by Adolfo Hohenstein in Rome in 1900, were replicated for the Charleston show’s large screen, high-definition projections, noted Flaherty. The production will also feature replications of Hohenstein’s original principal costume designs.
“When they come in, Charleston audiences are going to get a peek at what Tosca looked like at the premier in 1900…with the Charleston Symphony joining us. It will be a wonderful blend of contemporary aesthetics in that hybrid arena of opera, musical theatre and orchestra.”
As crunch time ensues towards Tosca’s one and only performance, Flaherty and his team promise they will be more than ready when the stage curtains open for the historic moment.
“We’re both thrilled and tense,” he added with a chuckle. “It’s a fight to the finish line. It’s hard to explain the level of satisfaction that follows.”
And how will Flaherty feel as months of preparations play out in spectacular fashion in Gaillard’s grand theatre? To answer, he reflected back on a review of his Carmen production in a local publication.
“It said the buzz was palpable,” recalled Flaherty. “That’s what was a success for me. You could feel it. I was up in the booth having to call the show live in the moment…and you could literally feel the energy. That’s what I am anticipating (at Tosca)…to feel that energy that I have seen here in Charleston before, about something that is their own.”
WANT TO GO?
Puccini’s “Tosca” Saturday, May 5, 7:30 p.m. | Charleston Gaillard Center | 95 Calhoun Street
A gala performance to benefit the Daniel Island Performing Arts Center and area arts organizations. Presented in partnership with the City of Charleston and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. The star-studded cast includes internationally acclaimed Metropolitan Opera soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, who came to renown in the title role of Tosca with an international broadcast from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for Sirius Satellite Radio; and baritone Mark Delavan, who will play the villainous Baron Scarpia. Delavan has made a touchstone of the role with major opera companies around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, and a national PBS telecast of “Live from Lincoln Center.” Ticket prices range from $48 to $138. To purchase tickets or for more information, visit www.danielislandpac.com or www.GaillardCenter.org.