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Sarasota Opera Safely and Successfully Concludes 62 Season With DIDO AND AENEAS

24 performances of four fully staged productions took place for socially distanced audiences inside the historic Sarasota Opera House.

Sarasota Opera Safely and Successfully Concludes 62 Season With DIDO AND AENEAS It is a story that couldn't be completely told until the final curtain fell. On Sunday, April 25th, 2021, Sarasota Opera concluded its 62nd season with a fully staged performance of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas to a live audience filling 20% of the seating capacity of the Sarasota Opera House. The safe conclusion of the season resulted from many months of preparation to plan and implement lengthy protocols designed for the health and safety of the artists, crew, staff, and audience. Dido and Aeneas was one of four operas chosen specifically to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The other three 60-90-minute operas included two early Rossini works, L'inganno felice and Il signor Bruschino, and Pergolesi's La serva padrona, all selected for their shorter length requiring no intermission, their small casts, smaller orchestra, and the related lower costs that enabled the company to perform in front of an audience less than 1/4 the capacity of the Sarasota Opera house.

The "pivot"

The season was a dramatic pivot from the grand scale operas that Sarasota Opera audiences have come to love and expect. Original plans for 2021 included Puccini's Tosca, Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, and Verdi's Attila. Following a six month pause after the premature end of the 2020 season in March, in November 2020 the company experimented with a presentation of four "socially-distanced" concerts of opera arias at outdoor venues and in the Sarasota Opera House. The success of the fall performances inspired the creation of the "redesigned" 2021 season.

Big things often have small beginnings

The company holds certain advantages that contributed to the success of the season. Sarasota Opera has owned its own theater since 1984 when insightful leaders purchased the building for $274,000. Additionally, the company owns a 30-unit apartment complex, the Steinwachs Artist Residences, opened in 2016, a ten-minute walk from theater. Thus, in the midst of the global health emergency of 2021, Sarasota Opera was able to tightly control the environment in which its artists would live, and they, the crew, and staff would work.

Navigating new waters

While Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi and Executive Director Richard Russell began to research early operas with smaller casts and orchestras, they also undertook the task of developing protocols for safely reopening the opera house to the fully staged works "authentic to the composer's original intent" that are the hallmark of Sarasota Opera. Russell researched information from the CDC, State, and local health authorities. He looked into the policies and protocols being developed by other opera companies and the unions representing backstage crew, gathering as much information as possible, synthesizing all information into protocols for every department involved in the process of putting on an opera. The final protocols were reviewed and approved by a medical health professional as well as the local health authorities.

Protecting the artists

Upon arrival in Sarasota, the artists were initially quarantined, after which they began regular COVID testing. The first rehearsals took place via videoconference. Only after each artist had tested negative did they gather in person for rehearsals. All staging rehearsals were conducted with artists fully masked. The artists and everyone who had contact with them were kept inside a strict quarantine "bubble" with visits to restaurants, grocery stores, gyms, or any other indoor venue prohibited. Onsite testing and a daily health check-in process for all employees of Sarasota Opera was also implemented.

Protecting the audience

Despite Florida's lack of mask mandates, the audience at Sarasota Opera was required to wear masks throughout the performance, in addition to undergoing temperature checks and social distancing protocols in all public areas of the Opera House. The production department worked closely with patron services to arrange for all backstage pre-production activities to be completed by 45 minutes prior to curtain, so that ticket holders could proceed directly to their seats instead of gathering in the lobby areas. The opera house also has an outdoor courtyard that was recently reopened for refreshments and seating before the performance.

The community responds

Sarasota Opera goers were grateful that their beloved opera company was back. "It was truly thrilling to be inside a theater again and feel comfortably safe." states Sarasota resident Robert Wilk. "We're indebted to you, Sarasota Opera, for bringing some magic back into our lives."

From his post outside the Opera House before and after every performance, Richard Russell observes that people passing by expressed appreciation that the opera's presence signaled that normalcy will one day return. He says, "I can tell you of the unmitigated delight and joy that is shared by our audience members as they leave the theater after every performance. Uniformly they express their appreciation - sometimes emotionally and through tears- at hearing a live performance again."

"We could not remain silent."

Russell continues, "When our Winter Opera Festival was suddenly cut short on March 13, 2020, none of us imagined that opera houses, theaters, and concert halls around the world would be mostly shuttered for a year (and counting) and that most of our artists would be out of work. As we navigated the uncertainty of the situation, we realized that we couldn't remain silent. Despite the health emergency, we felt it was important to keep a connection with our audience, community, and artists." Sarasota Opera's 2021 season employed 70 artists, orchestra, crew, and production staff, most of whom had not worked since mid-March of 2020. With the exception of a brief furlough for three employees, the company has kept its administrative staff of 25 employed throughout the pandemic.

The Show Will Go On

On the continuing efforts to produce opera under such extraordinary circumstances, Maestro DeRenzi concludes, "When we pass this crisis, people will want to be with others even more than in the past. Great art has survived wars, depressions and pandemics. It will be up to us to restore the arts to their place of importance in our society."

2021 Season available for streaming

Tickets for online streaming performances are $25. For more information, visit SarasotaOpera.org, or contact the Sarasota Opera Box Office at (941) 328-1300. The box office is located at 61 N. Pineapple Avenue, Sarasota, FL 34236.


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