Il Signatore: A Synopsis

An opera in four acts. Music by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto in Italian by Giacomo DeFede, based on depositions taken by Miami-Dade County officials.

While operas based on contract disputes are relatively rare, Il Signatore, or The Signature, seeks to bring the excitement of bureaucratic governmental wrangling to a larger audience. On its surface, it is a straightforward story about a relatively minor conflict encountered during the race to build a new performing arts center in Miami, Florida. In truth, however, Il Signatore, like all good operas, is a tale of betrayal and vengeance, whose characters are surrounded by allegations of deceit and treachery. Though still in preproduction, this piece could easily be completed to coincide with the opening of the performing arts center in 2002 and would make a striking debut.

The curtain rises on Miami in the summer of 1996 and the action concentrates on two friends, Alfredo Brizuela and Alberto Ribas, business partners in the engineering consulting firm Brizuela & Ribas. Business is good; the men are happy. They sing joyously about their futures and the lucrative contracts piled high on their desks. While toasting their good fortune, they give thanks to a company known as Church & Tower, which has blessed them with subcontracting work on numerous projects. One particular project causes Ribas to deliver the opera's first aria, "Dieci, O, Dieci," in which he celebrates his firm's inclusion in a deal to build a magnificent new performing arts center in downtown Miami. Brizuela & Ribas will be part of Church & Tower's construction-management team, overseeing the building of the great concert halls; as the title of this aria suggests, Ribas believes he will receive ten percent of the management contract, or about $340,000.

The aria concludes with Ribas triumphantly signing what is known as a letter of intent stating not only that he is to receive ten percent of the work but also that his firm is minority-owned. After signing the form, Ribas is once again joined by Brizuela. The two men celebrate by taking their families on vacation to Cancœn, Mexico.

In this short scene, we are introduced to Jean Lesly Duret, an employee of Brizuela & Ribas. With his bosses away in Mexico, Duret believes himself to be in charge. He is flush with power. Although Duret works for Brizuela & Ribas, he has a separate office at Church & Tower; the audience quickly grows to doubt his loyalty. As the first act comes to a close, we see Duret furtively rummaging through paperwork for the performing arts center proposal.

A year has passed; it is now the summer of 1997. For reasons that are never made clear, Brizuela and Ribas are no longer friends and their business partnership comes to a dramatic end. Ribas assumes responsibility for those contracts still outstanding and renames the firm A2. But more misfortune is set to befall Ribas. Officials at Church & Tower abruptly fire him from several jobs, contending his work is unsatisfactory. Panicked, Ribas rushes to county hall to examine the paperwork in the performing arts center contract. He fears he will be cut out of that deal as well and seeks reassurances that he cannot be summarily dismissed. Frantically he pores over the documents and discovers the letter of intent he signed. But wait! It is not his signature. And instead of ten percent participation, he is slated to receive just five percent of the contract. He tries without success to resolve the matter with officials from Church & Tower, who angrily dismiss his claims. Furious, Ribas swears vengeance against the company in the bitter "La Maledizione" ("The Curse"). With nowhere to turn, he notifies county officials the signature is a forgery.

Upon receiving Ribas's complaint, the county manager orders a team of inquisitors to question under oath everyone involved. The inquisitors are John McInnis, an assistant county attorney; Yanette Bravo, a specialist in the county's Department of Business Development; and Miriam Singer, the assistant director for that same department. The inquisitors have the forged letter of intent, which is dated August 9, 1996. They also have another letter of intent, this one dated August 1, 1996, signed by Ribas and filled out for ten percent participation. Ribas turns this document over to the inquisitors in November 1997 and claims it is a copy of the form he originally sent to Church & Tower before leaving for vacation in Cancun.

The first person formally queried is Juan Carlos Mas, vice president of Church & Tower. Mas professes complete ignorance. He says he has no idea if the signature on the August 9 letter of intent is a forgery. As a matter of convenience, he recalls, Duret was given a copy of the form in August 1996 to pass along to his bosses. A short time later Duret returned it, Mas says, with what appeared to be Ribas's signature. Mas denies that he ever agreed to give Ribas ten percent of the deal and argues that Ribas wasn't even involved in the negotiations, that everything was done with Brizuela. "None of these issues were brought up until Brizuela & Ribas split up," the tenor Mas bellows, suggesting in addition that Ribas may be unstable. "He actually came and threatened to go to the newspaper if I didn't give him more percentages," Mas protests. He concludes his testimony by reiterating his disdain for Ribas: "If I am required to use A2, I will do it, but it is not the individuals who we are supposed to work with on this project. And with this animosity, I am not sure how good of a working relationship we will have."

Mas exits and Jean Lesly Duret appears. The first inquisitor thunders, "Conosci chi segnato la lettera d'intento?" (Do you know who signed the letter of intent?)

Duret warbles unabashedly, "L'ho scritto" (I did). Duret says it was common practice for him to sign documents for the partners when they were away. While Brizuela and Ribas were in Mexico, he was contacted by Church & Tower officials, who told him that a form was missing from Brizuela & Ribas's package and that it needed to be signed. Duret recalls he didn't think twice about taking the form, signing it, and then returning it later to Church & Tower. He adds that the form had already been filled out by Church & Tower, listing Brizuela & Ribas's participation at five percent. He insists: All he did was sign it. The inquisitors show Duret a copy of the letter of intent dated August 1, the form Ribas claims he filled out and signed before leaving for vacation. "I'm not aware of that one," Duret claims. The inquisitors ask Duret where he now works. He tells them that when Brizuela & Ribas broke up, he formed his own firm called Signa Consulting. His major client: Church & Tower.

Ribas disputes the assertions of both Mas and Duret. First he declares that the deal was always for ten percent. This he knows, he says, because he personally handled the negotiations. As for Duret's claim that he was permitted to sign documents on Ribas's behalf, Ribas vigorously denies it and provides affidavits from five of his employees attesting that Ribas always made it clear that no one was permitted to sign his name to documents. Besides, he demands to know, is it really believable that he would leave for vacation without signing the critical letter of intent, especially when he had signed all other necessary forms? Ribas closes the scene with the opera's most powerful aria, "La Forza del Destino," "The Force of Destiny."

Brizuela now appears for his testimony, but he is inexplicably beset by amnesia. He can't recall whether it was he or Ribas who negotiated the contract with Church & Tower. He can't remember precisely what percentages were proposed: "Ten percent could have been discussed, it may have been discussed," he sighs. "Five percent could have been discussed." Ultimately, though, Brizuela sides with Church & Tower, with whom he still does business, and states he believes that the contract called for five percent. He admits, however, that he never authorized Duret to sign the letter of intent.

The final act of Il Signatore is still a work in progress. As it opens, the inquisitors present their findings to Marsha Jackman, director of the county's Department of Business Development. After reviewing the various sworn statements, Jackman makes a startling announcement: She recommends terminating the three-million-dollar contract with Church & Tower "in order to protect the integrity of the process."

Jackman makes no effort to sort out whose version of events she believes. All that matters, she says forcefully, is that everyone agrees Ribas did not sign the letter of intent submitted to the county with the Church & Tower proposal. Such a flaw, she insists, is fatal to the entire contract.

The conclusion of the opera is an exercise in suspense. Bill Johnson, who is overseeing the performing arts center project for the county, will make the final decision regarding Church & Tower. Johnson, however, is expected to have little choice but to follow Jackman's recommendation, as well as the advice of the county attorney's office. Lawsuits and additional threats are likely to follow if the contract is terminated. County officials will be forced to begin anew the process of finding a construction manager for the project, which must break ground next year. Any delay will be extremely costly.

As the curtain falls, the plaintive cries of Parker Thomson and other members of the Performing Arts Center Trust fade to an ominous silence.


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