35 years and going strong: The Florentine Opera celebrates Maestro Joseph Rescigno


35 years and going strong: The Florentine Opera celebrates Maestro Joseph Rescigno

By Kelly Schlicht, Development Manager


The career path of the longest-serving principal opera conductor in the United States happened almost by chance.
“I hadn’t even heard of the Florentine Opera until 1979,” said Joseph Rescigno. “I’ll never forget it. I was walking through Riverside Park [in Manhattan] on a beautiful afternoon and I saw [soprano] June Anderson sitting on a park bench, reading. We caught up for a moment, as I’d conducted her in various productions before. She said ‘I just came back from the most terrific little company in Milwaukee, called the Florentine Opera.’ And I said ‘Oh, really? That’s great, but if it’s in Milwaukee, why is it called the Florentine?’”
Just a few short years later, that little company with an interesting name would start the biggest artistic endeavor of his career.
A native of New York City, Rescigno was tapped to guest-conduct a production of La Gioconda in 1981. The Florentine General Director at the time, John Gage, originally wanted Rescigno’s uncle, Nicola Rescigno, to conduct the production. The elder Rescigno, who was a founder of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Dallas Opera, was busy with another engagement. He recommended his nephew for the production—and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I had a wonderful time doing that production in the spring of ‘81, and in August, they called me and offered me the principal conductor position, where I’ve been ever since,” said Rescigno.
Joseph Rescigno:ConductorThis spring, he’s celebrating his 35th anniversary with the Florentine Opera. He is now the longest-serving principal conductor of any company in the United States, with the retirement last year of James Levine from the Metropolitan Opera.
Rescigno said he has welcomed the ability to lend his artistic vision to the company, and collaborate with the three general directors during his more than three-decade tenure.
“When I first joined the company, and John Gage was the general director, we did a lot of Italian and French operas, what you’d consider the traditional repertoire. With Dennis Hanthorn, we branched out in to doing more Wagner and Strauss. And with the arrival of Bill Florescu, the emphasis has been on doing contemporary works, in addition to other repertoire. I think that’s a healthy sign, that the company continues to evolve,” said Rescigno.
Rescigno said the variety of works produced by the Florentine has kept him interested, and wanting to come back season after season.
“I said when I started that we should try to have one out of the three [mainstage productions] be something new to Milwaukee,” he said. “And all of the general directors have believed in a balance of works between the very popular, and something that Milwaukee wasn’t as used to seeing.”
He says his favorite Florentine Opera productions that he has conducted include Elektra in 1994, Tristan and Isolde in 2004, and The Flying Dutchman in 2014.
The maestro said the city has also played a role in his long, happy career with the Florentine Opera.
fullsizeoutput_2bd2c“The company has remained as thriving as the city,” said Rescigno. “The health of the arts is an indicator of the health of a city, and I think because it has such a rich arts scene for a city of its size, Milwaukee has flourished.”
With no current plans of retiring, the maestro sets his sights on continuing his legacy, as well as the Florentine’s.
“This company is doing a lot of important things to advance the art form. The Studio Artist program has fostered so many great careers in the past decade, with these young singers going on to perform at the Met and other companies. But the most important thing of what they do is that they bring what they love into the schools,” said Rescigno.
Rescigno said programs like the Opera in the Schools tour, as well as free community performances, are vital to keep opera in Milwaukee thriving.
“If we lose the knowledge and the exposure of it, then we don’t keep this as a living art form,” he said. “What the Florentine is doing in schools for thousands of children is helping to fill the gap that’s being lost by a lack of arts education. It’s certainly not a replacement for music lessons, but it’s important.”
The maestro said that the possible cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts have left him feeling troubled.
“To cut the funding entirely, that sends a bad message. It says none of this is important. But think of the Renaissance. Hundreds of years from now, when people look back at our civilization, they won’t remember the names of the politicians, they’ll remember the names of the artists in history. They’ll remember the people who create. What we do is important because it’s what distinguishes us as humans, and separates us from other animals,” said Rescigno.
But, Rescigno said he has confidence that the Florentine itself will continue to thrive, despite any changes to the political or economic climate.
DudleyJohnson-Florescu“We have such a wonderful sense of community here between the board and the donors. For them, it’s not just writing a check. They’re really involved. They come to the shows, they want to meet the singers,” he said. “And it’s the tremendous collaboration between the patrons, the staff and the production team, as well. The company stays vibrant and produces the highest quality of work that rivals companies of a much larger size.”
The Florentine Opera will honor Maestro Joseph Rescigno with a cocktail reception at the University Club of Milwaukee on Thursday, May 4, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35. If you have a special memory or picture of the maestro from throughout the years, please let us know! We will share them at the event on May 4.
Additionally, our spring fundraising campaign features the Maestro’s Challenge. We are working to raise $250,000 to name the rehearsal hall at our Riverwest opera center after Maestro Rescigno.
To donate, or to RSVP for the party, please contact Development Manager Kelly Schlicht at 414-291-5700 ext 212 or kschlicht@florentineopera.org
If you have a special memory or picture of the maestro from throughout the years, please let us know! We will share them at the event on May 4.
Maestro Rescigno will take the baton for The Barber of Seville on Friday, May 5 and Sunday, May 7. For tickets, contact Box Office and Patron Services Manager Grace Felion at 414-291-5700 ext 224.
And in case you were wondering…here’s how General Director William Florescu explains the Florentine Opera name: “The original name, the Italian Opera Chorus, became somewhat problematic during the first part of World War II, given which side the Italians started out on. The solution was to honor both the company’s roots and the birthplace of opera by using the name Florentine, after the city of Florence, Italy. The rest as they say, is history.”

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