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The Villages
Monday, June 17, 2024

Opera took root in The Villages thanks to visionaries 30 years ago

Harold Schwartz, Oscar Feliu and Bill Doherty brought opera to a Villages stage in 1994. They didn’t know what to expect in the small but growing community.

To the trio’s surprise, the Paradise Recreation Center was packed to hear selections from “La Traviata” and “The Marriage of Figaro.”

“That was really the start of everything,” said Maestro Bill Doherty, who on Thursday will help celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Opera Club of The Villages.
Doherty will appear with a host of guest singers on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Laurel Manor Recreation Center. About 140 members of the club are expected to attend the RSVP affair.

Gerri Piscitelli is president of the Opera Club of The Villages and will present scholarship winners at the 30th Anniversary celebration
Gerri Piscitelli is president of the Opera Club of The Villages and will present scholarship winners at the 30th anniversary celebration.

Gerri Piscitelli is the president and driving force behind the Opera Club, which has raised more than $600,000 in music scholarships over the years. She will present this year’s scholarship winners at the Thursday celebration.

Opera Club President Gerri Piscitelli second from right with the late Oscar Feliu far left and Laurie Arnold Bill Doherty and Devin Eatmon
Opera Club President Gerri Piscitelli, second from right, with the late Oscar Feliu, far left, and Laurie Arnold, Bill Doherty and Devin Eatmon.

Schwartz and Feliu are gone, but their spirits live on in the music and fellowship of the Opera Club.
“They thought it was important to have opera in our community,” Piscitelli said. “Eventually, it became a way to raise money for scholarships to help young singers and musicians. We owe so much to them.”
And Maestro Bill Doherty.
“If it wasn’t for Bill Doherty, there would be no opera club,” Piscitelli said. “Bill is our mentor; he does so much for the club and the young people we are trying to help.”
Doherty is equally effusive in his praise for Piscitelli.
“She’s a dynamic force for the Opera Club,” he said. “She keeps the club together and focused, and she contributes so much of her time and energy to raise money for scholarships.”
In a way, the Opera Club story, is Doherty’s story. He was performing in Orlando when Schwartz and Feliu helped convince him to come to The Villages.

Maestro Bill Doherty is a vital force with the Opera Club
Maestro Bill Doherty is a vital force with the Opera Club.

The idea was to bring Doherty’s Central Florida Lyric Opera company to The Villages.

“Before that, there was no opera here,” Doherty said. Eventually, Doherty would do two or three operas a year, and the group would meet monthly to discuss music.
Then, the group was offered a regular Sunday  performance in the Church on the Square, in Spanish Springs. Those popular performances were televised locally for about 15 years.

Fernando Varela and Maestro Bill Doherty perform in benefiit for The Opera Club of The Villages
Fernando Varela and Maestro Bill Doherty perform in a benefit for The Opera Club of The Villages.

After the Sunday concerts ended, Doherty and Feliu came up with the idea of using the Opera Club to award scholarships, and also support aspiring local singers and musicians.
Two of the best known are internationally recognized singer Fernando Varela, and Devin Eatmon. He was awarded an Opera Club scholarship years ago and just earned a two-year residency with the Vienna State Opera, Piscitelli said.
Both Varela and Eatmon often appear at the Opera Club’s annual fundraiser at The Sharon, called Three Tenors Plus One. It’s held every February, and the next one will feature Grant Norman, Christopher Macchio, Clark Barrios and Mary Jo Vitale.
Gerri Piscitelli joined the Opera Club in 2008, and has been president for the past eight years. “It’s an honor and a privilege, and I love it,” she said, adding the club has about 140 members . “It’s such an exciting thing to help these talented kids and see them grow.
“We have past scholarship winners who are music directors and music teachers in local schools. I think these scholarships played a role in their development and gave them confidence.”

Emily Veri of The Villages Charter School is a 2024 scholarship winner
Emily Veri

The 2024 scholarship winners are: Emily Veri of the Villages Charter School; Jason Tejada-Chancey, Montverde Academy; Shepherd Smith, Hampden DuBose Academy; Blake Barnes, Forest High School and Andrea Gamez-Heredia, South Lake High School.

For more information on the Opera Club:   https://www.operaclubofthevillages.com/join-us

Tony Violanti writes about music and entertainment for Villages-News.com. He was inducted into The Buffalo Music Hall of Fame as a music journalist.

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