Sarasota Opera plans a grand return next season

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
A scene from the Sarasota Opera’s 2013 production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers.”

Having just completed a full season of indoor performances – something few other companies did during the coronavirus pandemic – leaders of Sarasota Opera are looking forward to a return to something that better resembles normal next year.

The company produced four small-scale, limited-cast, fully staged one-act operas, most of them rarely seen works, between February and April for its 62nd season. Audiences were limited to about 250 people in the 1,100-seat theater, but the company video recorded the productions and offered them for home streaming to stay connected with audiences who were not ready to attend in person.

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A new season of music:Sarasota Orchestra plans return to normal for 2021-22

“Streaming is a euphemism for film,” said Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi. “We can call it whatever we want, but for me, there’s nothing in the world that compares with live performance.”

Still, those streaming shows allowed the company to keep “a connection with our patrons and our community and provided performances to them in ways that were comfortable,” said Richard Russell, the company’s executive director who recently signed a five-year contract extension that will change his job title to General Director.

“It was not the season we planned, with an audience and a full staff,” Russell said. “But we’re pleased with how it went and in a way, I’m glad we went through what was a herculean effort.”

Young Bok Kim in the title role of the Sarasota Opera’s 2007 production of “Attila.” The company will bring the Verdi opera back for its 2022 winter season.

The season that was planned has been pushed back a year and will now make up the 2022 winter lineup. It opens Feb. 12 with Puccini’s “Tosca,” followed by Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” and Verdi’s “Attila.”

Only the fall season will differ from what was originally announced in February 2020. To save costs and test how quickly audiences will return in large numbers, the company will delay its planned revival of “Don Giovanni” and fill the fall season with Giaochino Rossini’s “The Silk Ladder,” which will run Oct. 29-Nov. 13. Rossini wrote two of the four productions that were staged earlier this year – “The Happy Deception” and “Il signor Bruschino.”

Russell said he is “optimistic with the new CDC guidelines that we can open to 100 percent capacity in November” but he is budgeting for attendance closer to about 50 percent. Projections for next winter are slightly higher, he said, but there will be 26 performances instead of the normal 32. “We’re being conservative in terms of what we can sell,” he said.

DeRenzi said the smaller productions allowed the company to produce rarely seen works in the style that has defined Sarasota Opera for decades and follow the intentions of the composers.

Victor DeRenzi, left, will mark his 40th season as artistic director of Sarasota Opera in 2021-22. Richard Russell has signed a five-year contract extention and will have his job title changed from executive director to general director of the company.

Next season will mark DeRenzi’s 40th anniversary as artistic leader of the company.

Audiences also indicated that they enjoyed having a shorter evening for a change. Most full-scale operas run at least three hours, but some of the winter season productions had running times closer to an hour. 

Like many other performing arts organizations, Sarasota Opera survived the pandemic “through the generosity of our donors and many of our patrons who donated back their tickets or didn’t ask for refunds” and supporters who made contributions to cover costs.

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There was no question about the company persevering, DeRenzi said.

“Opera has been around since the year 1600. It’s been through major catastrophes, pandemics, war, depressions, cholera, and it always returns to the same thing, people being with other people, enjoying something live in a theater,” he said. “That’s one of the appeals to me and to most of our audience that you’re in a theater. It’s very different from watching the same thing on streaming or film.”

That makes him more confident about people returning for more performances in the months ahead.

“There’s something about that shared community being together at a specific time for a specific event,” he said. “When television started, it had that. Everyone was watching ‘I Love Lucy’ at the same time. Now they don’t watch anything at the same time because they can watch whenever they want. It is nice to know there are 1,100 people in our theater watching the same event simultaneously.”

Russell said his new job title is a better reflection of the work he has actually been doing since he was first named executive director in 2012.

At some cases, the title general director is used for a single person who runs both the business and artistic aspects of a company.

A scene from the Sarasota Opera's 1987 production of “The Daughter of the Regiment,” the last time the company presented the Donizetti opera.

“There have been companies where two people share the leadership as Victor and I do,” he said. “This was a request of mine. You don’t hear the term executive director as much any more. And I think Victor would agree that I have more input in the artistic side of things than in some other companies. We collaborate more. It is his domain, but I talk more about opera than generally one would think of an executive director.”

DeRenzi said that is “because he received very good training here as an apprentice.”

Russell first came to Sarasota Opera 32 years ago in the apprentice training program and returned as as a studio and principal artist. He left to pursue a career in banking and then served as the company’s marketing director from 2005-2010. After two years as general director of Opera New Jersey, he came back to the company.

During his tenure, the company said it has increased individual giving by more than 50 percent and more than doubled its endowment. He led the fundraising and construction for the Steinwachs Artist Residences, a 30-unit apartment complex used by up to 70 visiting artists, and the purchase of a historic collection of opera costumes, which was announced shortly before the pandemic.

DeRenzi said their collaboration works comfortably.

Some of the costumes Sarasota Opera acquired in late 2019 from Malabar Ltd. in Toronto. The company plans to use the historic collection of more than 30,000 pieces for its own productions and through a rental business. Some have been worn by such stars as Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti.

“We certainly have our own aesthetics and things we like, but we agree with what the company should be like. Richard likes more different music than I do, but that applies to just about every person in the world. But we both know what Sarasota Opera is about.”

Though the costume rental business dropped off because of the pandemic, “if we did not have the collection, it would have been difficult to do the season we did,” DeRenzi said. “If we were renting as we often did, we would not have been able to afford it.”

That idea extends to other aspects of the company’s operations, Russell said.

“That’s true of everything. If we didn’t have the Opera House, or our apartments or a stock of sets and the costumes, we would not have had a season. We surely were able to do more than most companies because of all those things.”

Sarasota Opera 2021-22 season

61 N. Pineapple Ave. Sarasota

941-328-1300; sarasotaopera.org

“The Silken Ladder,”  Oct. 29-Nov. 13

“Tosca,” Feb. 12-March 19

“The Daughter of the Regiment,” Feb. 19-March 18, 2021

“The Pearl Fishers,” March 5-19

“Attila,” March 12-22

Jay Handelman, arts editor and theater critic, has been an editor and writer at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since 1984. Read more of his arts and entertainment stories. And please support local journalism by subscribing to the Herald-Tribune.