When Opera Memphis launches its 2011-2012 season Saturday night with Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca," it will deliver a celebrated work that's a combination of political thriller, film noir and soap opera, which is to say, just what we expect from an Italian opera about passion, love and death.
The performance also marks the inaugural season for the company's new general director, Ned Canty, who took the post in January after the departure of longtime director Michael Ching. Canty was selected from a field of 40 candidates after a national search. He is a stage director with credits from such companies as Glimmerglass Opera, Wolf Trap Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Santa Fe Opera and New York City Opera. The nonprofit Opera Memphis was founded in 1956.
Performances, in Italian with English titles, will be Saturday and Tuesday, both at 7:30 p.m., at the Orpheum. The opera was directed by Matthew Lata; orchestral conductor is Willie Waters.
"It feels fantastic to have 'Tosca' as the first opera of my first season at Opera Memphis," says Canty. "It's such a great opera and a fantastic work of art, and it's great for people who have never been opera fans. It's a perfect beginning."
Saturday's performance will be bookended by the Opera Memphis Season Premier Gala, a black-tie event that begins at 5:30 with dinner under a grand canopy outside the Orpheum and continues after the show with a cast party. Tickets are $150 a person. Call Renee Davis Brame at (901) 202-4533 to purchase tickets.
Puccini (1858-1924) spent four years composing "Tosca," which premiered in Rome in 1900. The violent and melodramatic tale of the singer Floria Tosca; her lover, the artist Cavaradossi; and the relentless police chief Scarpia, whom Tosca kills in one of opera's most famous scenes, is set in Rome in 1800, with Napoleon's invasion of Italy as backdrop. While renowned for the beauty of its music and its ravishing arias, "Tosca" has also been dismissed for its tabloid plot; musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it a "shabby little shocker."
For Opera Memphis, the role of Tosca will be sung by Scottish soprano Lee Bisset; Cavaradossi by tenor Gordon Gietz; and Scarpia by baritone Louis Otey, a graduate of the University of Memphis and a veteran of almost 100 Metropolitan Opera performances. The Opera Memphis performance of "Tosca" marks Bisset's North American debut; she also recently sang the role with the Northern Ireland Opera.
"I'm particularly thrilled that Louis Otey is here singing the role of Scarpia," said Canty. "He was in the second opera I ever directed."
Drivers in Memphis cannot avoid seeing the striking billboards advertising "Tosca" and featuring a woman seen from the back, concealing a dagger, the instrument with which Tosca murders Scarpia.
"What's funny about that," Canty said, "is that we had billboards in the same spots last year, but there's something about that arresting image that has gotten people's attention. We have the same footprint, so to speak, but we've received a better response."
The season for Opera Memphis continues with Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," Jan. 21 and 24, and Donizetti's "Don Pasquale," March 31 and April 4.
Opera Memphis: "Tosca," by Giacomo Puccini
Saturday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., at the Orpheum, 203 S. Main. Tickets: $15 to $90. Call Opera Memphis at (901) 257-3100 or visit operamemphis.org.