If you didn't know better, you would never guess from looking at Victor DeRenzi's completely uncluttered desk-not a scrap of paper anywhere-that he's devoted his life to the emotionally messy world of the opera, where rape, murder, melodrama and revenge loom large.
Well, yes, there is a Verdi poster on the wall of his office, but otherwise not much to indicate the passion and theatricality of the opera DeRenzi loves and has presented for the past 20 years as artistic director and principal conductor of the Sarasota Opera. Nor does the bearded, bespectacled DeRenzi, sitting casually with his feet up on that empty desk, seem the picture of a temperamental conductor, fiercely exhorting singers and orchestras and working himself up into a lather of sweat.
But those who've seen him in rehearsal or in the pit during performances can attest to his fervor, especially when conducting his favorite composer, Verdi. It's something he's felt ever since his adolescent years growing up on Staten Island, the only child of a lower middle-class Italian couple who never really listened to "serious" music.
"My mother played the radio, and my father played LPs," says DeRenzi. "And I do remember hearing Caruso records on my grandparents' Victrola."
But it wasn't until seventh grade that the boy who would become a maestro saw his first opera-appropriately, Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," accompanied by piano. "There was a very small opera company on Staten Island, and my math teacher built sets for it-mostly cardboard sort of stapled and painted. We [the students] liked him, and he was annoying us to go see the opera, so we went. I liked it." Before he knew it, the young Victor was attending performances at the Met three or four times a week. "A very important part of my education was just being at the theater," he says. "I loved the sense that people were creating this world for you." So did a few of his friends, and they soon formed a small, close-knit group of teens who preferred Mozart to the Monkees.
"We had a community," he says. "We differed only about who our favorite singers were or what our favorite opera was. I loved Italian, of course, and growing up in New York I saw great Italian singers singing Italian opera. I was a big Renata Tebaldi fan. She made me love singing."
But, as DeRenzi says in his famously raspy voice, "If you've heard me talk, you know I'm not a singer. And I couldn't really be a great pianist because I fell off the Christmas tree at age 3 onto a metal toy train and severed a tendon in my hand. Besides, I knew I wanted to be a conductor since I was 13."
And from the beginning he wanted to focus on the world of opera, not necessarily symphonic or choral music. "Opera is such an inclusive art form-music, words, sets-and you're part of the whole thing," he explains. Through the years of playing bassoon in his high school band and majoring in music theory at Queens College, DeRenzi held fast to his dream of conducting opera.
And he always knew what kind of opera company he wanted to conduct, from the singers to the productions he would choose. "I grew up with a whole generation of singers who gave their lives to performing," he explains. "Their singing was so vital, never stale. A great deal of that has disappeared from opera now; the performers are safer, less willing to take a risk." He also favored the classic productions he grew up with, before the current craze for reconstructing operas according to the director's creative impulses.
"When I was a kid, every 'Tosca' looked the same way," he says. "Now everything is something different. You very seldom see it how the composer wanted it. But every great opera was written by a musician who understood theater. What an opera looks like is as much as part of their conception as what it sounds like. The music reflected what the sets were."
That doesn't mean he wants to reproduce every element from the past, he adds. "Some things have changed for the better, including acting standards. But what I want to do is live the life of the character. And if something is fake or false, you take me out of the drama."
Luckily, after a few years of lifting the baton with small opera companies around the country (St. Louis Opera Theater and the New Orleans Opera among them) and eventually conducting productions at New York City Opera, DeRenzi found a small but flourishing opera company in Sarasota that seemed ripe for his approach. After performing for years at the old Asolo Theater, the newly named Sarasota Opera was getting ready to expand its sights and move into a building of its own downtown on Pineapple Avenue.
"Everything was open," says DeRenzi of what drew him to an opera company in a small Florida city, far from the hub of New York. "The idea of moving into a new opera house, where I could completely develop the artistic personality of the company-that was irresistible."
Of course, choosing to make a career outside the major centers of opera presented challenges as well as opportunities. "Here, one could do the best 'La Boheme' ever, and no one would see it," shrugs DeRenzi. "In Sarasota, you were not going to be written about [in the opera press]. But I have a certain type of repertoire I like, and a lot of that matches what the audience here likes and what our stage is capable of presenting." Plus, DeRenzi had another idea to bring attention to little Sarasota: presenting every piece of music Verdi ever wrote, in what has come over the past two decades to be called "the Verdi cycle." Besides giving the maestro a chance to pay tribute to his favorite composer, it meant that opera lovers from anywhere in the world who wanted to see Verdi works they had never seen before would have to come to Sarasota, Florida. Eventually, many did, also enjoying the chance to see productions of neglected operas, like 1989's "La Wally," in the opera's Masterworks Revival Series.
"The year we did 'Alzira,' people came from Spain, Germany, England," DeRenzi recalls. The opera press started noticing, too, with favorable reviews in national magazines and newspapers. Last season, one New York Times review of "Oberto" opined that DeRenzi "knows his Verdi and led a better performance than is heard some nights on the world's major stages."
Local critics are generally full of praise, too. Richard Storm, who frequently reviews the opera for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, has found much to admire in DeRenzi's work.
"Given his mission as he sees it, and I believe the opera board and management agree, to make it a Verdi house, he's done an excellent job," says Storm. "His conviction that he should do the operas the way Verdi would have done them has its limitations, because it can mean all these painted flats, floral arrangements and fussy little details."
But, Storm adds, "He's done a wonderful job in organizing an increasingly good orchestra. The stress of performing opera in repertory is incredibly hard, and the fact that they do, and sell as many tickets as they do, is quite an achievement."
Storm, a choral singer with Key Chorale, also has a more personal appreciation of DeRenzi, after singing under his guidance with Key Chorale in Verdi's "Requiem" last year. Initially he was wary of working with DeRenzi, knowing the conductor's absolute belief in his own opinions and his fierce and sometimes biting wit. "I thought he'd be a nightmare," Storm admits. Instead, Storm discovered that "he was wonderful-demanding and driven, but he really had some sort of mystical connection with the 'Requiem,' and he transported the performers and most of the audience with him."
The "Requiem" was to be sung at the exact time of Verdi's death, says Storm; and at the moment the singers were to launch into it following another piece (8:40 p.m. Jan. 26, Eastern Standard Time) DeRenzi pulled out an enormous gold pocket watch and just stood there "with absolute concentration," staring at the watch. "It may sound silly, but it made it meaningful to the orchestra and singers," says Storm. "In rehearsal when we weren't quite where we should have been, he would scream, 'You're dead, don't you get it? You're going to hell.' This 'Requiem' is meant to be terrifying, and he terrified us."
On the other hand, Storm says that DeRenzi is also good at praising musicians, something "many conductors don't do."
Perhaps not surprisingly, DeRenzi's wife, Stephanie Sundine, herself a longtime opera singer and now a stage director, concurs. Starting out in her career, she auditioned for DeRenzi, who immediately singled her out not only professionally but personally. It didn't take long for Sundine to respond. "We met on a Tuesday and were living together by the next Wednesday," Sundine says. "On one level, I was so impressed with his passion for music and the way he dealt with us as singers, the patience with which he worked with us and how much he wanted us to share his feeling for the material. On another level, I just loved his sense of humor. He was very sweet, and he was devoted to me."
Nevertheless, she laughs, "We waited two years to get married. Victor wanted to be with me for the rest of his life, he wanted to have children, but he thought that marriage was bourgeois. I said fine, but I wouldn't have children without being married. One day I finally said to him, 'So when are we going to get married?' And he said, 'Oh, that doesn't matter.'" To which Sundine replied, "If it doesn't matter, then why not do it?" Floored by superior logic, DeRenzi caved. (The couple has a daughter, Francesca, 19, who's not falling far from the artistic family tree; she's a dancer.)
Besides Verdi and Sundine, another passion of DeRenzi's is the opera company's education programs. "I love teaching, and my staff does, too," says DeRenzi. "It's my dream that the kids in the Youth Opera will go into opera or just really love it. If I could do anything I wanted, I'd do a season where everyone in the productions was once part of the Youth Opera."
"He's managed to hold a level of commitment from those kids," agrees Storm. "The Copland opera they did last year was wonderful."
DeRenzi and Sundine divide their time equally between their apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and their downtown Sarasota condominium, living in each for five months of the year and traveling the rest of the time. DeRenzi also does occasional conducting for companies in the United States, Canada and abroad (most recently in Montreal, Hong Kong, Nice and the Canary Islands). But wherever he is, DeRenzi admits, opera consumes his time and energy, with "not much" in the way of competing interests. "I love to read, history especially," he says. "And traveling, but only when connected with Western civilization in some way.I've been to the beach maybe five times in 20 years here."
Of course, no one lasts 20 years in the sometimes fractious world of Sarasota arts without a few bumps in the road. DeRenzi's bumpiest period may have come in the last few years of longtime executive director Deane Allyn's tenure, when it was frequently rumored that the two no longer even spoke to each other. DeRenzi will say only that "the past is the past," but adds that he and current executive director Susan Danis "have a wonderful relationship. She's very interested in the artistic product. We share plans in the very earliest stages, and we both have very special long-term ideas for the company."
Danis elaborates on those plans. For example, "Victor came to me saying we really need a bigger pit. And I agreed that if we do that, we're going to need a bigger stage. We've already begun feasibility studies on that."
For this season, DeRenzi is looking forward to conducting the French version of "Il trovatore," "La Trouvere" ("I always do the Verdi," he says), and Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," a first-time Strauss production for the opera. He'll be working with Sundine as stage director on that one.
During his 20-year tenure, Sarasota Opera has earned a reputation as one of the most successful small companies in the country, with tremendous financial support from the community and near sell-out seasons. He credits Sarasota's arts-loving residents for much of that success, but he admits he wishes they would take a few more chances. "We're lucky in that our audience knows a great deal about theater, but I'd like to get them to try something beyond what they've seen. It's all right not to like something, but that doesn't meant it shouldn't be done," he argues.
And ultimately, he says, he'd like to see more people of every age and background in Sarasota fall under the spell of opera. "I wish more members of the community would come and that they would realize they don't have to dress up and study five days ahead do it," he says. "Even if they've seen it on or TV or heard the records, it's not the same as live. Opera is for everybody-the arts are for everybody."
Known for his pronouncements on everything from cuisine (Italian reigns, of course) to art ("I don't believe in background music," he says sternly), De Renzi is an entertaining conversationalist who manages to be both autocratic and endearing. Here are some of his reflections on his own career:
On staying so long in Sarasota:
"Most people in opera do tend to move around. What's important to me is that the company grows and I grow with it, and that the community be involved with it."
On the Sarasota Opera's limitations:
"We can't do big Wagnerian opera, but we can do Mozart in this theater as well as any company and better than most. Here we try to achieve direct communication with the audience; they're up close and involved."
On his strengths as an artistic director:
"I see opera as a complete form. I don't cheat one aspect of a production for another. And I can help people do their best. I prod people into questioning what their limits are, to get them to go beyond themselves. I've never been afraid to take chances on unknown people-the ones who could be horrible or great, but not mediocre. Risk is part of live performances. It's bad for an audience to expect perfection from live theater. If they want that, they should listen to recordings"
On his most memorable moments here:
"Verdi's 'Requiem,' because performance is all about how you affect an audience, and people were moved. The opening night of the first season at the opera house was stupendous, because we had an incredible cast working together against all odds. 'Fidelio' in 1986 was major-we all said what we wanted to say. In 1992, when we did both versions of 'Simon de Boccanegra,' people started coming who had never been here before-and they kept coming."