Sarasota Opera Returns to a Season of Full-Size Classics Amid the COVID Pandemic
During his 40 years at the helm of the Sarasota Opera, Artistic Director Victor De Renzi faced a variety of obstacles in building the company’s reputation as a home to Verdi’s works and productions that remained true to the composers’ intentions.
But the COVID pandemic has been a unique challenge. The company, which had to halt performances of its 2020 season, found a way to bring the opera back to audiences last year with small-scale productions of shorter, rarely seen chamber pieces by Rossini, Pergolesi and d others that were offered in person and home streaming viewing.
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Him and Managing Director Richard Russel prepare to welcome more than 250 singers, musicians and backstage crew to work on four life-size productions this season, with an emphasis on performance and safety.
“I don’t want to see one of those stories that say Sarasota Opera has canceled performances,” DeRenzi said. “Fortunately, everyone feels the same. We have a company that is very concerned and concerned about each other and the situation.
It has seen the Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Ballet, Asolo Repertory Theatre, Florida Studio Theater and Westcoast Black Theater Troupe, among others, having to modify, delay or cancel programs due to one or more cases of COVID.
Russell said they are hopeful that because most of the guest performers live in accommodations provided by the Sarasota Opera and not around family members who are out and about in the community, the company might be able to to avoid or at least diminish the exposure that other arts face. groups.
These artists are in Sarasota for a season featuring popular and less frequently produced works, beginning with Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca,” followed by Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment,” then Georges “The Pearl Fishers.” Bizet and ending with “Attila by Verdi.”
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The four shows, with choirs filled with apprentices and studio artists, were originally announced for last season but were postponed for a year due to the pandemic. “Tosca” is one of the most produced works of the company, most recently seen in 2015, while “The Pearl Fishers” was such a hit in 2000 that it was brought back in 2003 and then again in 2013. “Attila” was last produced as part of the company’s Verdi cycle in 2007 (and will again feature Young Bok Kim in the title role). “The Daughter of the Regiment,” a lighthearted romantic adventure, hasn’t been seen in Sarasota since 1987, during one of the company’s first seasons at the Sarasota Opera House.
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DeRenzi said that while it’s not easy to spend hours each day conducting rehearsals with face masks on, “doctors wear masks all the time and they don’t complain. We all understand that we can make opera happen if we are all careful.
Singers wear masks during rehearsals and can remove them once they start singing on stage, although other members of the production team (conductors, directors and stage managers) keep their faces covered .
“Honestly, nobody complains about the masks,” he said. “They say, ‘I really want to play and if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I’ll do. I probably complain more than the others.
Russell said the company has budgeted for lower attendance and reduced the usual number of performances. Unlike other companies, he says, “we didn’t go for a season of opera’s greatest hits to attract people. “We made an effort last season to do a variety of things, but we knew the plays would have some appeal to our audience. ‘Tosca’ is popular and ‘Pearl Fishers’ has proven popular and ‘Attila’ is selling well. »
Audiences will also see a greater number of artists who have become more familiar in recent seasons, partly because of their talent and vocal abilities, but also because “we use people we trust on the artistically and to be part of the company and the safety protocols,” DeRenzi said. He’s not a fan of online auditions, so he leaned more towards inviting people who have played leading, supporting, or apprentice roles in previous seasons, as opposed to a big one. number of new arrivals.
“We’ve been really successful in our apprenticeship and studio programs to help people into careers that make them capable of singing lead roles. It says a lot about our program that we have so many people our audience loves and wants to hear from. It would be foolish of us not to use these people,” DeRenzi said.
There are a few debuts, including soprano Ann Toomey, who will portray diva Floria Tosca in “Tosca.” Toomey, who performed frequently with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, said the job seemed almost normal despite safety protocols and testing requirements.
She describes the role as “a really big deal, one of the greatest operas and one of the biggest divas. That’s exciting. I was supposed to do it somewhere else during the pandemic, but it was canceled, so I feel lucky to have the opportunity to do it again.
She had some hesitations about it because “it’s a really great song, but as I was able to sing it and start to stage it, I realize that it goes very well with my voice. It’s exciting and I hope there will be many more Toscas in my future.
She plays a jealous diva in a story that involves an escaped political prisoner who is friends with Tosca’s lover, the painter Cavaradossi, who is sung by returning artist Ben Gulley, last heard in Sarasota in 2019 in the role of Ismaele in “Nabucco”. Stephen Gaertner sings the role of Police Chief Scarpia. Stefano de Peppo, who has become a local favorite, returns as sexton. For a March 11 performance, real-life couple Caitlin Crabill, who sang the title role in 2020’s “La Wally,” and Samuel Schlievert, who played Dormont in “The Silken Ladder,” will share the stage as Tosca. and Cavaradossi.
Stephanie Sundine is the director and DeRenzi will conduct the Sarasota Opera Orchestra.
DeRenzi said he was happy to get back to “what we really do. This is the raison d’être of our opera company. We were all really happy doing the short operas and we learned a lot doing them and learned something that we can apply for our future. But at the end of the day, it’s the kind of opera we’re used to doing and what our audiences have come to love.