It’s hard to imagine, but the man whose name is synonymous with opera in Sarasota – Victor DeRenzi, celebrating four decades as the Sarasota Opera’s artistic director and principal conductor – says if he hadn’t come to Sarasota in 1982, he “probably wouldn’t be in opera now.”
“I don’t like the wandering life, I don’t like to travel,” says DeRenzi, 72. “This company has allowed me time to study, time to teach myself the opera and the time to teach it to the company, and we all have the time to do it for an audience. If you freelance a lot, you don’t have that situation.”
When he responded to the Asolo Opera Company’s search for an artistic director – just as it was becoming the Sarasota Opera and moving from The Ringling to the recently purchased former A.B. Edwards Theater downtown – DeRenzi was a brash 32-year-old with a beautiful wife, a 4-year-old daughter and 12 years of conducting under his belt, including with New York City Opera. He also had a vision for what a company could be, based on years of embracing and rejecting practices he’d observed ever since falling in love with the art form as a young boy, commuting from his family’s home on Staten Island to Manhattan for standing-room-only tickets to the Metropolitan Opera.
For the past 40 years he has steadfastly pursued that ideal. But when he first arrived in Sarasota – on a typically hot, humid summer day, with “no intention of living here” permanently – he had no surety that either the organization or the city’s inhabitants were ready for what he had in mind. Sarasota was not then the arts town it is today. There was no ballet company, an unheralded orchestra and prospective audience members were mostly Midwestern retirees with unsophisticated opera palates.
“My thought then was that I would take this and make it as good as it could be, but I didn’t know then how good it could be,” says the man now known to most of his colleagues as “Maestro.” “I did know that in my second season we would be in a new theater, which meant there was no template, there was nothing people were going to protect and say, ‘We’ve done it this way for years.’ I knew I could try out the ideas I had gathered.”
A vision of opera ‘as it used to be’
Foremost among those ideas was the conviction that operas should represent, as authentically and accurately as possible, the work and intent of the composers who had written them. He wanted to produce opera as it was performed in the time of his favorite composer, Giuseppe Verdi, when the conductor didn’t just wave a baton, but oversaw every aspect of a performance, from the notes to the sets to the costumes. He foresaw that the situation in Sarasota might offer him that degree of control and oversight. And he was right.
“Victor has created the environment of the company,” says the opera’s general director Richard Russell, whom DeRenzi first tapped as a singer more than 30 years ago and who has been part of the company’s administrative staff since 2005. “Victor feels a responsibility and always has for everything that goes on, even to making sure the company is a congenial place to work. That’s the kind of communal environment he has crafted. It pervades everything and has for 40 years. And it’s all in service to the art.”
DeRenzi’s approach has been called “conservative,” even “old fashioned,” by others who have preferred to modernize the art form by restaging operas in contemporary times, places and situations. He prefers to call it “romantic.”
“Actually, in a way we do very avant-garde opera here because the status quo now is to be different,” he says. “Very few companies have the mission we do, which is to represent the composer’s vision. We are the only place that does this, as far as I know, very specifically and intentionally.”
DeRenzi also wanted to create what he likes to call “community” – not only within the circle of performing artists, but among local opera aficionados and between lovers of the art form worldwide. In the beginning, those grandiose aspirations were limited by the size and reach of the organization. But as Sarasota itself began to grow in size and sophistication, so did the opera, gradually adding the elements that would allow for DeRenzi’s dream to take shape.
The addition of an apprentice program during his first season, and a Studio Artists’ program several years later provided a base of talent to draw from and produced a polished and full chorus. Purchasing properties to house those guest artists early on proved to be a shrewd investment creating financial stability. Later, a youth opera program was added, which premiered several children’s operas.
In 1989, DeRenzi started a Masterworks revival series that drew opera lovers from afar, some of whom became so enamored with the town and the company, they moved here. In 1991, the organization formed its own orchestra. And after piecemeal improvements to the opera house over many years, a major renovation was finally completed in 2007, giving the company a performance space as impressive as its burgeoning reputation.
DeRenzi’s magnificent obsession
There have been many highlights along the way, though one remains the most obvious – the “Verdi Cycle,” DeRenzi’s magnificent obsession to perform and conduct not only every opera, but every known note the Italian composer ever wrote. Though he hadn’t yet set the goal, it began with a production of “Rigoletto” in 1989 and was originally timed to end with the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2013. A recession delayed the final note until 2016, but the 28-year triumph remains DeRenzi’s signature accomplishment and the one that’s most likely to be the first line in his Wikipedia entry.
“If I have to look back, that’s always the first thing that comes to mind,” he says. “No one has ever done it and it took a long time. It also took an audience’s belief in it, their feeling that, even though they’d never heard of something, it must be good. As they enjoyed the works, even the ones they knew little about, they became more knowledgeable. That also helped create what we have here.”
When asked about the corresponding low points during his tenure, DeRenzi says they were mostly temporary periods of financial constraint that meant cutting back on certain productions. Perhaps surprisingly, he sees the past two years, as the company was forced to deal with a global pandemic, as something to put on the positive side of the ledger. Despite intense restrictions, the opera produced a full season in 2020-2021, without a COVID outbreak in its ranks. Though this year has seen a few breakthrough cases (everyone in the organization is tested twice a week), they have forced no cancellations.
“One of the highlights for me is what this company has accomplished during COVID,” he says. “During a time when people went in a very different direction, with digital performances, or not doing anything at all, we actually produced five operas very much within the mission of our company. That will always be a very important part of our history.”
What lies ahead
For years he has been gathering information for books, but DeRenzi says he is in no hurry to complete them. He has not considered retirement and is still deeply invested in the music and bringing it to the stage in a way that produces “impassioned performances that make an audience feel how I felt when I first fell in love with opera.” Russell says his deep relationship with DeRenzi and the organization has left him well-groomed should he one day be tapped to step into the maestro’s shoes, but it is not something he anticipates soon.
“I’m not asking for that to happen and I’m happy to work with Victor as long as he’s happy to be here,” he says. “The strength of this company is going to be his legacy.”
Though DeRenzi finally gave up his New York apartment in 2017 and now lives in Sarasota year-round, when the time comes to step down, he says he will neither hand select his successor, nor hang around to critique.
“Not only would I not like to be involved in that, I absolutely should not have a hand in it,” he says. “The worst thing that can happen to any organization is for the previous person to stick his nose in. I’ve seen that happen, people hovering around, and it’s not healthy for the organization or the person.”
A grand finale?
He is willing however, to consider what opera he might like to conduct as his grand finale, and to humorously fantasize about a literally “last” performance.
“It would be Verdi, certainly,” he says, surprising no one in earshot. “Maybe the ‘Requiem,’ with me dying at the end. But it ends softly, so the place to die would be in the middle, in the Dies Irae” – Verdi’s terrifying choral depiction of Judgement Day – “which is very dramatic. That would be the perfect place to clunk down. But then they’d say, ‘And he conducted 1,200 and … one-quarter performances.’ What a lame history is that?”
On a more serious note, DeRenzi suggests he’d like to be remembered as “someone who would never do anything to sell out the art form.”
“I guess some people would say that I qualify as rigid,” he says, “but for me the most important thing is to never do anything to compromise the music. I’ve never used this company on a deal, never had to compromise to get something, never settled. And I never would.”
For now, he remains content to plunge into the moment and the music, without projecting about what might lie beyond the score and production he is working on today.
“I think if people ask why I’ve been here so long, it’s because I believe in opera, I believe in this company and I believe in its history and its future,” he says. “I think the world of the arts would be better off if people were committed to what they are doing, instead of what they will be doing next.”
Contact Carrie Seidman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-238-0392.
Sarasota Opera Jubilee Concert
6:15 p.m., March 26 at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota. Tickets are $50 (or $175 to attend a grand reception and the concert). 941-328-1300; sarasotaopera.org.
The event will feature soprano Anna Mandina, mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez, tenor Jonathan Burton, baritone Joshua Benaim, and bass Kevin Short. Special video tributes to the Maestro will include numerous past members of the company and celebrities who have performed with opera companies throughout the world.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota Opera's Victor DeRenzi celebrates 40 years