Nearly two decades ago, Judy Lisi sat at a table in a crowded Tampa restaurant, picking at her lunch salad.
“What do you think of the idea of opera in Tampa?’’ she asked. “Of having a company of our own?”
Her visionary question would soon be answered. In 1996, after much effort and encouragement, the curtain rose on Opera Tampa and its inaugural, home-grown production of “Madama Butterfly.’’
A second season followed, then a third, and soon the resident company of the then-Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center rode on its own artistic momentum.
But the real work had just begun.
“We had to build an audience,’’ says Lisi, a former opera singer who served as general manager of the New Haven Opera Company before taking over Tampa’s arts center in 1992. “And to survive as an opera company you have to keep building your audience.’’
Opening its 19th season this weekend with its inaugural production of Mozart’s “Magic Flute,’’ Opera Tampa not only has found its faithful, but draws younger audiences through the cross-over appeal of touring Broadway shows. These cash cows help subsidize opera produced by the Straz Center, such as the recent musical theater adaptation of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.’’
This balance, although controversial, underscores the economics behind these expensive endeavors. Although “Magic Flute’’ might come close to selling out its two performances, ticket sales on average account for less than 40 percent of production costs. The rest has to come from somewhere else — or opera dies like an Italian diva.
“Opera as an art form will always go through these challenges,’’ Lisi says. “But as long as we get the support, if we get the funding and people buy tickets, we’ll continue.’’
Artistically, Opera Tampa grew at the hands of conductor Anton Coppola, who in 2012 retired after 17 years at the podium. At 95, the rigors of rehearsals, travel, and live performances became too much. Coppola also gave the company its most rewarding moment: the world premiere in 2001 of his own opera “Sacco & Vanzetti,’’ which drew international media attention.
Coppola handed the baton to Daniel Lipton, formerly of Opera Ontario, who hopes to strike a balance between the popular and adventurous. This season, Lipton opts for the former as he leads the company in “Magic Flute’’; a potpourri of opera and Broadway nuggets called “Popera!’’ next weekend; and in the return of Bizet’s “Carmen’’ in March.
Lipton believes such conservative or repetitive fare (this will be the company’s third production of “Carmen’’) speaks to Tampa audiences. Such works as Weber’s “Freischutz,’’ Janacek’s “Cunning Little Vixen,’’ or even an early opera by Wagner, will have to wait. Next season, however, Lipton takes a chance by staging a new production of Andrea Chenier’s “Giordano.’’
“I ran an opera company in Canada, and when thinking about a new season demographics always came into play,’’ he says. “But choosing the operas here is very much left in my hands. I discuss my choices with the board and present my ideas, and Judy is always very accommodating. She goes along with my suggestions.’’
Lisi says Opera Tampa has to play it safe until it can afford to take chances without losing money or support from core subscribers who like a steady diet of Verdi and Puccini.
“We really have to stay with the ABCs,’’ she says. “Even when we’ve done Puccini’s lesser-know works, it’s been a challenge. So, we have to meet the audience where they are. People are comfortable with the familiar.’’
The same argument can be made with most regional opera companies across the country, which don’t enjoy the government subsidies of their counterparts in Europe. Nor do they have the budget or tradition of larger companies like the Metropolitan Opera in New York. However, Lisi says the issue isn’t so much about playing it safe with the same masterworks, but doing them better each time.
“We have to strive to do opera well or not at all,’’ she says. “Because there’s nothing worse than bad opera.’’
‘THE MAGIC FLUTE’
When: 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Straz Center, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa
Tickets: $34.50 to $84.50; (813) 229-7828 and www.strazcenter.org