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Eye on the Arts: Willie Riddle of GENVAS: Bringing world-class entertainment to Broward

By Marc Gave | New Pelican Writer

If the name GENVAS doesn’t come trippingly off your tongue, you aren’t alone. But it is a name to learn and an arts organization to watch.

GENVAS is short for Generation Venetian Arts Society, whose founder and artistic director, William “Willie” Riddle, has been bringing innovative performances to South Florida for the last decade.

Willie Riddle is the founder and artistic director of GENVAS. [Courtesy]

“When we started out in 2011, our mission statement was to celebrate the multicultural diversity of our community through the visual and performing arts,” Riddle says. “Since then, it has changed a couple of times, grown as we’ve grown.”

The origins of GENVAS go back to Riddle’s boyhood. He grew up in the hills of North Carolina.

“Yes, I’m a hillbilly,” he says. “But I had the good fortune of having one of the world’s foremost pianists, Mozart specialist Lili Kraus, who had studied with noted Hungarian musicians Kodály and Bartók, as a neighbor. I always loved to sing, and by the time I was 10 years old, she was teaching me how to read music, my first classical songs, and an appreciation for Mozart.”

Kraus started a concert series called Music in the Mountains, in which Riddle, who became an opera singer, took part. She also held salon evenings she called musicals and invited local people.

Those evenings inspired the concept for GENVAS. Although the art salon is often thought of as a creation of 19th-century France, it actually goes back to Renaissance Italy. That, combined with the view of a canal from the large terrace off Las Olas Blvd where Riddle had a gallery, led to the name Venetian Arts Society.

Riddle explains what he believes sets GENVAS apart. “We’re up close and personal – intimate and interactive. There are no mere observers. Our concerts are artistic, social, and educational. I engage performers with messages that are relevant to today’s society.”

He continues, “The performances of GENVAS are designed for the connoisseur and for someone off the street who doesn’t know a darn thing. Stuffy concert protocol is out the window. There are no programs at the seats. There are receptions afterward. I encourage people in the audience to make comments and ask questions. Music is considered the universal language, but words do help.”

From years of college and professional singing, Riddle has a wide network of contacts who help him in finding performers who thrill to his concept. Because of his background, he has honored legendary opera stars and great artists such as Renata Scotto, Grace Bumbry, and Edward Villella – American dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Miami City Ballet – as Icon of the Arts Honorees, one per year.

The current season, which began in October and lasts till June, consists of three series with a range of performances. The “Bell’Arte” – four concerts each unique in topic and genre at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center – debuted Oct. 15 with internationally celebrated soprano Eglise Gutierrez. “From South Florida with Love!” debuts at Savor Cinema on April 27, 2023, with Didier Castell-Jacomin, French Steinway Artist, at the piano. “Café Society PRIDE” (cabaret style) made its home at ArtServe in early 2022.

Levi Kreis, who won a Tony Award for playing Jerry Lee Lewis in the show “The Million Dollar Quartet” appeared at an outdoor concert at the height of the COVID pandemic, in December 2020, in front of Stranahan House. Policy dictated there could be only 10 guests, but people stopped on the Riverwalk and watched from their balconies, and it turned into a phenomenon. Kreis is returning for the same program, “Home for the Holidays,” on Dec. 6 as part of the “Bell’Arte Series” and on Dec. 7 as part of the “Café Society Pride.”

Visit genvas.org for the complete GENVAS schedule and tickets.

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