The Maestro

By staff March 1, 2006

It's 8:30 a.m. as Victor DeRenzi enters the Sarasota Opera House, where he has been artistic director for the past 24 years. His first stop is the Opera Café. There he downs two cups of espresso in quick succession, standing up and keeping a sharp eye on the coffee's preparation. He swallows the coffee in the European style, drinking it right down like medicine. Thus fortified, he takes the elevator up to his third-floor office and checks the box office.

He needn't worry. The Sarasota Opera has been remarkably successful under his tenure, with an international reputation and a season that sells out year after year. Its apprentice program is regarded as one of the best opera teaching experiences in the country, and its Youth Opera, for students 10 and up, is a model for all others. And the opera will soon be expanding, with a $30 million capital campaign under way, which will enlarge its stage and orchestra pit to accommodate even the largest operas, such as Aida and Turandot.

One hopes that the plans will include a new office for Victor, as his current one is a bit of a disappointment-anything but operatic. A small room tucked away on the third floor, it is blandly furnished and faces an airshaft. The most unusual thing about the room is Victor's desk-there's nothing on it. Just two photos of his family and a very old computer, which he's still learning to use.

Behind the desk is a portrait of Verdi, Victor's greatest influence.

This morning he and company manager Sara Thomas are updating the vast body of material he has on the opera's season opener, La bohème. It's contained in a large binder: librettos, notes and articles, pictures of things important in the opera, such as cafés of the period, and even flints, which figure in the action. There are also maps of Paris, including one from the period when the opera took place. "I had to sell my soul to get it," Victor says.

As he works on the binder, putting in new pages and color-coding others by making red boxes around their page numbers, Maestro Michael Spassov, who at 25 is one of the opera's assistant conductors, drops by. "Good morning, maestro," he says to Victor, who returns the greeting.

Manners at the opera are surprisingly formal, in the tradition of the great European opera houses. The members of the music staff are addressed as "maestro," and jeans are rarely worn. There is no specific prohibition against them, Victor tells me, but he dislikes them, and people pick up on this. And during the entire time I spend in the Opera House, never once do I hear a cell phone ring. "I take everything seriously," explains Victor. "That's one of my problems."

He outlines his day. At 10 a.m. there will be an aesthetics class, obligatory for the opera's apprentices and studio artists. At 2 p.m. there will be the first sing-through of La bohème with the entire cast, a most important event, as it will tell him how much and what kind of work must be accomplished before the opening, which is just days away. After that, at 5:30 p.m., he will meet with the principals and "covers" (understudies) and go through the text of the opera, sentence by sentence.

A tenor pops his head in.

"Good morning, maestro."

"Do we have a B flat?"

"Not yet."

Victor manages a look that is both warning and challenge.

The apprentices at the Sarasota Opera are selected by an audition process held at various locations around the country. Typically, they are musically gifted recent college graduates or graduate students in their early 20s. About 250 apply, and 24 are chosen. They come to Sarasota for three months and are provided with a stipend and a place to live, usually in a downtown apartment building the opera owns, Ringling Terrace Arms. They're put through a rigorous program of coaching, learning music and language, group and master classes.

The studio artists are slightly older and farther along in their careers. They're hired for the season to play small roles and cover for the principals. They have more polish than the apprentices, but when put together in a group, it's hard to tell who's an apprentice and who's a studio artist. One does detect, though, a healthy air of competition among them all; "diva" is, after all, an operatic term, and the combination of "apprentice" and "mentor" adds the hint of a reality show, an idea that I don't dare broach to Victor, as he has a famous disdain for popular culture, professing to know nothing about it yet at the same time managing to be a sharp and acerbic observer of it all. But still, you look around and wonder: Who will make the greatest impression? Who will get the lucky break? Who will fall by the wayside? Who will self-destruct?

Since today is the first day of the season, Victor takes the opportunity to explain what's going to happen during the next three months. He settles himself on a bar stool and opens with a little pep talk. He tells them they are all here because he wanted them here. "You are the best," he says.

He then outlines the way the Sarasota Opera works: "We are the only opera company that has a consistent artistic policy. We do romantic opera, full voice. We follow stage directions. That is our intention."

As Victor continues to discuss opera, it becomes clear that he is more than the company's artistic director. He is its direct link back to the golden age of opera in the 1950s, when opera singers were world-famous celebrities and he, barely a teenager, would go to the Met four times a week. There was an opera world back in those days, and it shaped everything about him and, consequently, everything about the Sarasota Opera. He became part of that world, one of the obsessive fans waiting by the stage door, gossiping with the others, people of all ages and backgrounds, arguing, exchanging opinions, and in Victor's case, learning.

His own personal favorite opera star was Renata Tebaldi. He never missed one of her performances. To illustrate what made her so special, he plays a CD for the class. "All her objectives are so clear you understand them even if you don't understand the language," he explains. "And listen to how she enjoys hitting her high notes!" He also plays Caruso to illustrate how good a singer could be at age 24-their age. And he praises the artistry of the great sopranos of the past, such as Louisa Tettrazini, with her incredible trills. "She had the last great vocal technique," he tells them. "She was so good they named chicken after her."

But not everyone gets a good grade. The name of a popular newcomer is raised. She is apparently famous for being able to sing two performances a day. "Yeah," Victor says, "she can sing two performances a day 'cause she stinks."

Victor is quick to establish his authority over the room both by word and action. "I am responsible for everything," he tells them, and then a few minutes later, he reprimands a student for taking a swig of bottled water. "No water bottles," he barks, although he does allow them coffee. Are water bottles too modern, I wonder? "Big deal," I overhear one of the apprentices whisper to her friend. "We'll just put water in coffee cups."

One senses she may be among the first to go.

There is a short break, and Victor disappears for a moment. I do not follow him, but when he comes back it seems clear that he must have visited the coffee shop again, for when he picks up his thread he's in full performance mode. He strides along the front of the room, switching back and forth between college professor, drill sergeant and professional comedian. His body language becomes more pronounced and Italian, with hand gestures growing bigger and a certain bounce and lope entering his stride, until one is reminded of Tom Cruise on Oprah's famous couch.

He takes as his topic for this, the concluding part of his lecture, a compendium of warnings, advice and encouragement.

"I hate the expression 'young singer,'" he tells them. "It means 'cheap and unsuccessful.' Take a risk! ... You all sing the same music in the same generic way... You show too much personality off stage and not enough on... I hate pretty voices... I want to hear singers breathe!"

The young people listen, inspired and challenged, as he tells them what to expect at the Sarasota Opera.

"You will not be nurtured," he warns them. "The less you're a student the more you learn... You can't have allergies. You can't have nerves. Nerves have no place on an opera stage."

He tells the story of a performer who arrived for a performance exhausted. He had been playing tennis, because, after all, he "had to have a life."

"No, you don't have to have a life," Victor thunders. "This is your life! For the next three months opera will be your life! You will live on raw nerve endings!"

The applause is loud and strong.

Between his class and the first La bohème rehearsal, Victor retreats to his studio, a large, comfortable, windowless room with a grand piano and a pair of orange couches, and eats several slices of ham. Several years ago Victor lost 80 pounds. His diet was so successful that in retrospect he feels he lost a little too much weight. "People started asking me if I was sick." So he gained 10 pounds back and now feels more comfortable.

At 56, he has a sharp, handsome face and seems every inch the leader of an opera company. There is an aristocratic air to him, with his long musician's fingers, so one is surprised to learn that he is a self-described "poor boy from Staten Island" whose father was a dock worker.

Today he divides his time between a bayfront condo in downtown Sarasota and an apartment-still rent stabilized-on New York's Upper West Side, where he lives with his wife of 27 years, soprano Stephanie Sundine, who is stage director for this Bohème. Also working at the opera this year, as a stage manager, is Francesca DeRenzi, their 24-year-old daughter.

Thus the entire family is there, in one capacity or another, for the first sing-through, at 2 p.m. It's taking place in a large rehearsal room that fills quickly as the cast and chorus file in, along with accompanist Roger Bingaman, Maestro Spassov, and other members of the music and administrative staff. Many know each other from other engagements, and there is much greeting and hugging.

"It's like the first day of school," Victor observes.

The first thing he does is introduce the principals, who are sitting in the front row, behind music stands. They include Inna Dukach as Mimi, Spanish tenor Israel Lozano as Rodolfo, Mark Freiman as Benoit, Jonathan Carle as Marcello, Young-Bok Kim as Colline, Kristin Lewis as Musetta and Scott Guinn as Schaunard. (Guinn is one of the studio artists, and to win such a plum role is quite a coup.) They are each applauded in turn, and then the room settles down. Victor raises his baton, then pauses to look at the principals. "Personally, if I were singing these roles, I would stand, but..."

They all jump to their feet.

It quickly becomes clear that it is expected of opera singers to arrive at the first rehearsal knowing their parts cold, with a full emotional interpretation already worked out, and ready to go on, if need be, that very night. So to the uninitiated, listening to La bohème sung at full volume and full emotion is like listening to a concert version, and quite an impressive one. I'm sitting in front, in a corner, and the voices are so strong that the sound waves bounce from the walls right into my eardrums, which begin to quiver and hurt. I look around for a place to move but am soon overtaken by the intensity of the experience; the pain is replaced by pleasure. The voice of Lozano stands out as something exceptional, gifted with real emotion. His aria gets a well-deserved ovation from the other cast members.

An intermission is held after Act II. The buzz in the room is an excited one, as if the cast senses a hit. During the break Victor wanders around, catching his breath, talking to people, biting his nails. You can see the wheels turning in his head, thinking, judging, planning, making notes of things to change or correct.

One thing that needs improving, and immediately, is a section sung by the women's chorus. He has them try it again, still to unsatisfactory results. "Who's dying here," he moans, "me or every female in Paris?"

It is an axiom in the art world that every good arts organization is run by a dictator. You need someone at the head of it, driving it forward, keeping everyone from falling off. That person can articulate the organization's goals and vision better than anyone else, almost always because they are also his or her own goals and vision.

Luckily, Victor's dictatorship is a benevolent one, and the opera staff is anxious to please him, as if to please a father. The children from the Youth Opera in particular look up to him. He returns the loyalty with a certain gruff, curmudgeonly affection. Praise comes easily when deserved, and criticism is usually accompanied with specific suggestions about how to make it better. He is adept at making points through humor. When one principal arrives two minutes late to a rehearsal, Victor finds a way to make three getting-to-work-late jokes during the next hour.

Even the principals are there to learn. After the sing-through they learn the company's policy about practical matters from the company's artistic administrator, Greg Trupiano. They may not do interviews without approval of the PR guy; they may not leave town on a plane without permission, but they may drive to Orlando to "visit the mouse." Security issues are discussed ("Sarasota's not nice and safe like New York"), and they're warned about the sun and the dangers of going to the beach on their day off. Scent is not allowed in the Opera House. The opera's doctor is mentioned. A cold going through any organization is a problem; for an opera company it can be a disaster.

Victor runs up to his studio for another small meal-a can of tuna fish-and a chance to relax for 20 minutes or so. Then it's back downstairs, through the labyrinthine corridors lined with costumes to the day's final event, a read-through of the entire libretto.

"What I want each of you to do is translate your part," he tells the cast. "The text is going to help us find the music." He explains that what many people find a creaky and simplistic story of young Parisian artists back in 1830 is actually a rather sophisticated literary enterprise that took four different writers to get in its final shape. It contains contemporary political references, puns, spoonerisms, private jokes among the characters, references to the authors' lives. The more the cast appreciates these points, the richer their performances will be.

Every opera singer has a working knowledge of Italian, and while it's not necessary that they conduct a conversation in it, they must understand its grammar and pronunciation. The difference between the formal use of "lei" as opposed to the familiar "tu" is crucial in defining a relationship; certain expressions can have multiple meanings. "Taci," for instance, means "be quiet," but it can also mean "hush, everything will be all right."

The cast opens their librettos. Lozano and Kim, who are not all that proficient in English, are excused from the translation. Even Victor feels it's a little too much to expect someone to go from Italian to Spanish or Korean and then immediately to English. Their covers will do the translation.

There's a pause, then Victor begins. "Scene One. Paris, Christmas Eve, 1830. It is approximately 4:52 p.m."

The cast looks up in astonishment.

"Yes," explains Victor. "I tracked down when the sun set that day."

After the read-through, Victor goes back to his office to check his e-mail. Then he goes through the next day's schedule. It's getting chilly out when he finally leaves. A debate is going on in his mind, and, for a change, it has nothing to do with opera. Dinner downtown with Stephanie, or straight home to watch Law and Order?

Tonight Law and Order wins. It's the only TV show he professes to watch. An odd choice for the maestro, but then again maybe not-it's all about guiding principles, research and understanding human nature. Exactly what he's been doing all day.

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