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ArtSpotlight

Robert Swedberg
General Director, Orlando Opera

The closing of the 2004-2005 season marked the completion of General Director Robert Swedberg's fifteenth year of making vision and imagination come alive for Orlando Opera. During his tenure he has brought world-class talents such as Placido Domingo, Carol Vaness, Marquita Lister, Greer Grimsley, Denyce Graves, Jerry Hadley, Samuel Ramey, and Cecilia Bartoli to Central Florida, and has more than doubled the size of the company from $1.2 million to $3 million in annual revenue. Orlando Opera just ended its fiscal year with a balanced budget and has recently assembled more than $1 million in endowment funds, (up from $100,000 when he started with the company). Swedberg has also initiated significant education programs such as the Heinz Rehfuss Singing Actor Awards, which he founded in 1993, and the Negro Spiritual Scholarship Foundation, which he helped get started in 1995.

 

The Heinz Rehfuss Singing Actor Awards is one of the most exciting talent competitions in the country, rewarding young singers who are focused on balancing the operatic skills of singing and acting. For the past 12 years, as many as 200 talented young artists have competed each year for cash awards ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, and a nine-month contract as an Orlando Opera Resident Artist. Since its inception, more than $520,000 in funds from the estate of the legendary bass-baritone Heinz Rehfuss has been distributed to competition finalists, to the development of the Orlando Opera Resident Artists program, and to direct support of Resident Artists with Orlando Opera. Swedberg founded the program at the request of Heinz Rehfuss estate trustees Carlo and Melisse Pinto, who selected him to lead this effort because of his experience and reputation as a developer of talent through previous posts with other opera companies since 1978.

 

Orlando Opera works with the "Negro Spiritual" Scholarship Foundation to sponsor a vocal competition for sacred music performed by the solo voice in characteristic Negro spiritual style. Senior high school students of eleventh or twelfth grade level who are of Afro-ethnic descent may enter a statewide vocal competition to rehearse and perform Negro spirituals, an art form that NSSF is also charged with preserving. Winners (one male and one female) claim the coveted GRADY-RAYAM PRIZE In Sacred Music, and a college tuition assistance grant for $3,000. Swedberg helped NSSF director Father Rudi Cleare craft the vocal competition, and also arranged for the new organization to share office and meeting space in the Orlando Opera headquarters at the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts, a relationship that continues today. Swedberg was a founding member of the NSSF Board of Directors, and was honored with their Lifetime Achievement Award last year.

 

Swedberg's early training was as a brass player. He attended California State University Northridge on a tuba scholarship, and became a voice major after discovering opera as a sophomore. As a singing actor, he won several important competitions and performing opportunities, including the western regional Metropolitan Opera finals, the San Francisco Opera Merola program, and appeared with the New York City Opera, Seattle Opera, Anchorage Opera, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Swedberg minored in theater, so directing was part of his early training, and he became active as a stage director while on the staff of the prestigious Pacific Northwest Wagner Festival in Seattle Washington.

Prior to taking his position with Orlando Opera, Swedberg spent three years as general director of Syracuse Opera in New York, was manager and director of North Carolina Opera for five years, and director of education for Seattle Opera for another five years. He was also director of opera studio programs at both the University of Central Florida and Syracuse University.

 

As General Director in Orlando, stage direction had to take a back seat to running the company, and to that end, he also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Central Florida in 1989. Still, Swedberg managed to direct at least one production each season, preferring to specialize in the more unusual and challenging operatic repertoire. Some of these productions staged in Central Florida include Samson and Dalila, The Tales of Hoffmann, Don Pasquale, L'Enfant et les Sortileges, Gianni Schicchi, La Clemenza di Tito, and Abduction from the Seraglio. As the company grew and more day-to-day operations could be shared with senior staff, (and as Swedberg's children entered University) he began to be able to do more directing, broadening that activity to other companies as well. In 2003, he directed The Magic Flute for the Macau Music Festival, and Beijing Music Festival in China. He also produced and directed the sold-out, double bill presentation of I Pagliacci and Carmina Burana for Orlando Opera, featuring choreographer Debra Brown and her troupe of Cirque du Soleil performers. More recently he directed a new production of Strauss's Salome for Orlando Opera, and La Sonnambula at the Calvia Music Festival, Mallorca, Spain.

 

In September 2006, Swedberg will be traveling to spread the magic of opera to Hof, Bavaria, to direct La Bohème for the Hof Theater. Last May he met in Vienna with the Hollaender Agency (that represents the theater) to discuss preliminary issues such as choice of designers, approach to the piece, rehearsal, and many other aspects of the production. In July 2006, he travels to Bavaria for ten days to stage the chorus, and goes back in September again for rehearsals and the opening on September 23, 2006.

In Orlando Opera's upcoming 2005-06 season, Swedberg will be directing Giacomo Puccini's Tosca. This production will feature the exceptional soprano, Carol Vaness, a former classmate of Swedberg's at California State University Northridge. Her career has encompassed regular appearances at all the world's major opera houses.

 

"I can't imagine a more exciting job than being the director of an Opera company. It is often a very challenging job, as opera is a very expensive art form that never pays for itself, and we are constantly juggling the vision of what we would like to do with the reality of our limitations. Still, I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish with opera in this community. I know we have touched thousands of lives with mainstage performances of great quality, and we have introduced hundreds of thousands of students to the wonders of this art form. I am also happy to call Orlando home. It is a great place to raise a family, and I know that I am privileged to have been able to do that and bring opera to this community at the same time. Now I look forward to the next fifteen years and the new challenges that lie ahead as we continue to offer more performances, build our endowment, and eventually build a performing arts center where we can really flourish!" Swedberg said recently.

 

Swedberg can also be heard Sundays at 6:00pm on 90.7 WMFE-FM, where his program Opera with Robert Swedberg has been on the air since 1993. He lives in east Orlando with his wife Melissa, who teaches music at Walker Elementary School, and plays viola in the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. Their daughter Olivia graduated from Florida State University in May with a degree in Music Therapy, and their son Erik just finished his freshman year as a chemistry major at the University of Florida. Swedberg enjoys hiking, fishing, and camping, and is also a certified yoga instructor.

Click Images to Enlarge


Heinz Rehfuss 2005 Winners and
Robert Swedberg


Robert Swedberg &
Samuel Ramey


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