Although Sarasota Opera’s artistic vision is resolute and its productions are undeniably alluring, it caters to a conservative taste, usually from a predictable demographic. At the panel, DeRenzi joked about the average age of Sarasota residents; anyone under 55 is considered young, especially among frequent operagoers.
“You change relationships when you change settings,” said DeRenzi, adding that modern, adventurous productions that deviate from traditional settings are “killing opera.” His aesthetic is of a fantasy-world, in which audiences lose touch with reality during a performance. “The best way to do it is not to distort opera, but to stage works honestly.”
However, the company does strive to build a new generation of opera fans with its superior youth programs. The Sarasota Youth Opera introduces children age 8 to 18 to the ins and outs of opera, with choirs, workshops, and even full productions. The company partners with the Sarasota County Schools and exposes young students to the history, culture, and context of opera. More experienced apprentices and studio artists are also nurtured and often participate in season highlights, as well as in concerts and recitals, including the ones that took place the week of the Verdi cycle grand finale.
The company did take a stab at 20th century opera, with a short-lived run of three American operas: Ward’s The Crucible in 2011, Barber’s Vanessa in 2012, and Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in 2013. Although artistically well received, dwindling ticket sales didn’t make the excursion into non-standard repertoire worthwhile; the experiment clearly showed that Sarasota Opera’s main body of patrons would rather hear more Verdi, Puccini, and Bizet, which is just as well for the company, given the financial gain of, say, another ambitious Verdi production.
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Following the closedown of the Orlando Opera, the Orlando Philharmonic has produced a series of semi-staged operas at the Bob Carr, including a 2014 small-scale production of Verdi’s La traviata, set in 1920s Paris. Next Friday (April 1), its three-performance run of Mozart’s The Magic Flute will open, staged at the orchestra’s recently-acquired venue The Plaza Live. Although it’s not the ideal place for opera, the movie-theater-turned-rock-venue allows for a great opportunity to do something unique and exciting with the opera, taking an approach justifiably different than that of major opera houses in Florida. “We’re exploring some of the inherent humor and drama involved in rehearsing and performing an opera – at times evoking the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera and backstage farces like Noises Off, but also providing a commentary on the relevance of The Magic Flute today,” stage director Alison Moritz, who comes to Orlando from the Minnesota Opera, is quoted in a press release. “Opera and classical music are not only art; they’re entertainment, and The Magic Flute has always been a prime example of that.”
Soprano Jamilyn Manning-White, whom the Wall Street Journal praised as “a knockout Lucia” for her recent performance in Heartbeat Opera’s radically offbeat Lucia di Lammermoor, will tackle the stratospheric coloratura passages and vengeful persona of the Queen of the Night. Under the baton of Eric Jacobsen, a progressive artistic leader and contemporary music advocate, this production will potentially refresh the image and relevance of opera in Orlando.
The aforementioned Opera Orlando is taking a similar approach, with small-scale productions in non-traditional settings. “Our big thing is ‘classics reimagined.’ We want to do it differently, put ourselves in the map and attract younger audiences,” Gabriel Preisser, the newly appointed executive and artistic director, said in a phone interview.
We want opera to survive and make our productions accessible. We want it to be moving and thought provoking.”
The company’s three-day run (opening on April 22) of Mozart’s comedy The Impresario, staged at the 294-seat Alexis & Jim Pugh Theatre at the Dr. Phillips Center, will be set in “modern-day Orlando,” no less, and it will depict a struggling opera company trying to stay afloat in dire financial straits. A bantering wink at the way opera has fared in Orlando? Maybe. The opera will be juxtaposed with Poulenc’s surrealist The Breasts of Tiresias: the wealthy Mr. Deep-Pockets from The Impresario saves the opera company from impending doom with one small request – that it hire singers ‘Everly Shrills’ and ‘Bethany Squeals’ (Julia Foster and Bridgette Gan, respectively) for their next production, the Poulenc. A jocular and imaginative approach by director Eric Pinder, the production also has the voltage for a riotously fresh take on opera.
Preisser, who first performed with the Orlando Philharmonic in its 2013 production of Madama Butterfly, and starred in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti with the Florida Opera Theatre in 2014, also has a vision for contemporary repertoire. “What’s important about contemporary opera is to develop and educate your audience. I hope that over time we can get to that level. If we do contemporary opera, we’d collaborate with other organizations,” he said. By offering a summer opera institute and education programs, as well as keeping ticket prices affordable, Opera Orlando, like the Orlando Philharmonic, is making an effort to remain relevant and accessible to today’s changing patrons of classical music and opera.
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What can smaller emerging opera companies (and similar performing arts companies) in Florida learn from the success story of Sarasota Opera? The old adage of sticking to a clearly-defined mission and vision is true; after all, artistic purpose is what gives arts organizations their reason for being. And it worked for Sarasota Opera, a company that started by presenting small chamber operas in a 320-seat theater at the Ringling Museum – not much bigger than the Pugh Theatre – turning, over 57 consecutive seasons, into an artistic shrine of international acclaim in Southwest Florida, with an $8 million budget.
The thing that makes this Verdi cycle different is that there is a consistent aesthetic, even though it has changed over the last 28 years,”
said DeRenzi, looking back at the company’s specific artistic intention, through which the company became a one-of-a-kind opera house, producing pieces very rarely performed anywhere else. By 1994, it had focused its mission on performing all of Verdi’s operas, with impeccable attention to historical detail and a high-minded scholarly approach. In 2016, the closing of its ambitious Verdi cycle merited international attention, including guests of honor Angiolo Carrara Verdi and Maria Mercedes Carrara Verdi (the composer’s heirs) on the final week.
The key for the sustainability and artistic integrity of an arts organization seems to be the ability to work around obstacles, to anticipate changes and trends, and to persevere toward a worthy goal, supported by clarity of purpose and a strong aesthetic. And that might be hard to pinpoint and fully develop over years of dedication, and trial and error – the Sarasota Opera is not an exception. The trend in Florida, though, especially in opera in Orlando, seems to be modern settings and modest productions that artistically justify their undertaking, revitalize the public image of this venerable art form, and make it relevant in our modern, fast-paced society. And for Verdi, who – according to Cambridge professor Stefano Castelvecchi – didn’t live to see La Traviata staged as a contemporary drama, the way he always envisioned it, this might just be the right way to go about it.
- To return to part one, click here.
- To visit the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra’s website, click here.
- To visit Opera Orlando’s website, click here.
- To visit Sarasota Opera’s website, click here.