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Italian Opera Festival planned for Dana Point begins raising needed $2 million

November 17, 2009 | 12:00 pm

LanternBayParkKelsen Professional opera is back on the monetary scoreboard in Orange County, if not yet fully back in business.

The Dana Point City Council voted last week to appropriate $50,000, plus free use of Lantern Bay Park (pictured), overlooking the Pacific, for the Italian Opera Festival, whose organizers aim to make it an annual event, with the first one scheduled Sept. 10-19, 2010. A successful launch would put opera back on the O.C. cultural map from which it has disappeared for a year and counting since the 23-year-old  Opera Pacific went bankrupt after failing to establish a strong enough donor pool to carry it through last fall's economic meltdown.

The impetus for the Italian Opera Festival comes from the mother country of opera, where conductor Stefano Vignati runs the annual Tuscia Operafestival in Viterbo, a small city about 65 miles from Rome.

For Vignati, the prospective festival's artistic director, and his allies in Dana Point, the heavy lifting toward a projected budget of about $2 million begins Saturday with a Founding Members Gala at the St. Regis Monarch Bay Resort, priced at $500 and $1,000 per ticket, with assorted extra perks for donors who give $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000.

Programming for the festival, which will seat an audience of about 1,300 for each of the seven or eight planned performances, is to be announced at the gala. Barbara Manconi, a spokeswoman for the Italian American Opera Foundation established to organize the festival, said there will be one fully staged opera and several concerts that offer an assortment of operatic highlights or an opera done in concert form.

"It's going to be a big production, very high end," she said; tickets will go for $40 to $250, with comfy seating and a well-appointed temporary stage promised for Lantern Bay Park.

The inaugural event is scaled down from the 22 days and $3-million to $4-million budget that StefanoVignati was projected when planning for the festival was first announced last May; on second thought, Manconi said, organizers decided that "we are better off building this gradually."

While Puccini's "Suor Angelica" and Verdi's "La Traviata" are on the agenda for next summer's Tuscia Operafestival, the plan isn't simply to transport them here, Manconi said, but to offer a different program featuring both Italian and American singers and instrumentalists.

While the plan is to raise most of the budget from international corporations, she said, an additional local cash infusion is expected to come from the board of a newly formed consortium of the four big resort hotels in Dana Point, which has pledged $200,000 to the festival. That money -- earmarked from a new, $3 nightly room surcharge that goes into effect Jan. 1 and is expected to yield  $750,000 a year for promoting Dana Point as a tourist destination -- will be forthcoming once the opera festival's fundraising passes "certain benchmarks" that make it clear the festival is going to happen, said Jim Samuels, general manager of one of the hotels, the Marriott-run Laguna Cliffs Resort & Spa.

Samuels said the opera festival promises to bring in cultural tourists during a post-Labor Day period that "typically is very slow for us."

Corporate sponsors are being recruited now, Manconi said, with an eye toward making the Dana Point festival "a signature event for Italian brands in the United States." Academia Barilla, a culinary institute in Parma, is on board, sponsoring this weekend's gala meal. Lisa Bartlett, mayor of Dana Point, which has declared itself Viterbo's sister city, said that Academia Barilla is providing 20 prize culinary vacations to be raffled off next spring as a fundraiser for the opera fest.

The Italian Opera Festival may owe its existence to the demise of Opera Pacific. Vignati had been invited to Orange County last year by leaders of Opera Pacific, Manconi said. With that company no longer around to partner with, he wound up early this year as a guest speaker at a Rotary Club meeting in Dana Point, talking up his vision of finding a place for an Italian opera festival along the Southern California coast. Bartlett was at the meeting and, well aware that a large chunk of her city's budget comes from hotel room taxes and tourism, immediately corralled him for a 2 1/2-hour tour of her city.

"When maestro Vignati looked at Lantern Bay Park, he thought it was a perfect, stunning setting," she said.

-- Mike Boehm


Hope stirs, but the sounds of silence linger at OC opera scene since Opera Pacific folded

Italian opera festival comes to the OC in 2010

Opera Pacific's future in doubt

Photos: Lantern Bay Park in Dana Point; Stefano Vignati. Credits: Don Kelsen/Los Angeles Times; Tuscia Opera Festival (Vignati).