Florida Grand Opera’s Romeo et Juliette brings an unexpected pair of star-crossed lovers to the stage

Arts / Article

By Stefanie Hew, Florida Grand Opera

Unfolding behind the scenes at Florida Grand Opera’s (FGO) production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette is a budding romance.  It is not the star-crossed lovers you would expect, but rather two sword fighting opera singers on opposite sides of the Montague-Capulet fence. They are real-life opera couple Ryan Milstead and Courtney McKeown. The pair met as members of FGO’s Young Artist Studio and will play opposite each other for the first time in the tumultuous sword fight scene at the center of the plot.

Milstead, a baritone, is Gregorio, Tybalt’s right hand man and a devoted servant of the Capulets. McKeown is a mezzo-soprano, a voice type that often portrays adolescent male characters, and sings the role of Stephano, Romeo’s pageboy. “Being a mezzo and a baritone, it is harder to come up with situations where we would actually get to play opposite of each other, which is kind of a bummer,” said McKeown. They have both sung in La rondine and Rigoletto, but have never performed roles that allow them to interact with one another on stage – until now.

Rehearsals are currently underway for the famous love story and the two singers are enjoying the production immensely, speaking highly of director and fight choreographer David Lefkowich. An enthusiastic newcomer to sword fighting, McKeown is finding ways to work parts of her spunky, feminine personality into her role as a 14-year-old boy. Milstead, who got his first taste of stage combat back in 2005, is excited to have another stab at it while working closely with the person he trusts most.

Interestingly, their relationship and deep trust makes fighting easier. “I think it is wonderfully ironic that the first thing we do together involves a huge sword fight … [but] being a couple makes it much easier to make our fight realistic,” said Milstead. Their relationship affords them unparalleled trust and a genuine rapport needed for the demanding and often comical sword fight.

“Our dynamic as a couple is one of great fun and humor, so it works so well in this fight,” said McKeown.  “Stephano is trying to prove himself … and just wants to look cool. At one point, I poke him [Milstead] in the butt with my sword and he gets mad; it’s cute and funny.”

Contrary to what they both thought it is actually Gregorio (Milstead) who wins this fight. “While it might have been a pleasant surprise to wind up with the upper hand in this fight, I will gladly admit that Courtney is quite often the one who wins our fights, but that is just fine with me because I am so happy to have her,” he says.

Watch the chemistry of this real-life romance play out on stage. Romeo et Juliette opens April 21 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, please visit www.FGO.org.