The Social Detective

By staff May 1, 2008

What were Sarasota’s most glitterati elite doing all dressed up in the middle of Main Street at 3 p.m. on a Saturday last March? All right, I’ll admit I made something of a commotion going through the police blockade to cut into the valet parking line. But heck, there’s not much you can do in the way of civil disobedience in this town. And I still don’t have a press card.

I had to be there on time because it was the first viewing of the Opera House after an intense year-long renovation that had turned Maestro DeRenzi’s hair gray. (That’s an exaggeration—it was already gray.) In any case, it was thrilling waiting for the doors to open. Jeanne Auten, who was standing next to me, told me she put on a hard hat to see the construction halfway through, but her sister would not go in until now. “I know I’m going to cry when I see it. Everybody who’s been sick is coming, anyway,” she added. I did not need to hear that contagion warning.

As we waited, Tana and John Sandefur told me they’d been there 15 years ago for the last renovation. “This is a proud moment for Sarasota,” said John. That thought was echoed by a sudden fanfare up on the balcony. Eight pieces from the horn section of the orchestra were there. The drum roll and glorious trumpeting made us think we were part of an opera, too.

Then opera leaders like Betsy Bagby, Alisa and Ernest Kretzmer, Harry and Virginia Leopold, Virginia Toulmin, William and Casiana Schmidt, and Jack and Claudia McCorkle gathered to cut the ribbon with huge scissors. It was lovely. After that, we all stormed the building to see what had been done. Everybody who loves opera was there, and so were many of the people who had worked so hard to finish on time. Artistic director DeRenzi invited the architects, plumbers, painters, graphic designers, electricians and project managers on stage for a bow. They were a handsome army of artists in their own right, all in black tie and beaming like crazy. Some of them had never been to an opera before. But they sure knew how to bow. Mark Scorca of Opera America addressed the audience. “There is nothing as thrilling as the opening of an opera house. This is an historic moment for Sarasota and for opera in America,” he said. Everybody cheered.

Scott Meritt and Matthew Bower from National City Bank, sponsor of the evening, talked about how the community effort made the vision a reality. The project was financed by 1,300 individual donors who brought in $18.5 million for the Vision Campaign. Fifteen million was raised in legacy and endowment gifts as well, and the Kresge Foundation made a challenge grant: They would make an award of $500,000 if the opera raised $19.5 million. There’s only a million to go, so get out your checkbook. Executive director Susan Danis, who managed the whole thing, got a standing ovation and Sarasota Opera Superwoman of the Year award that night.

George Fox, who grew up here, reminisced about how the house used to be an old movie theater. Former house manager John Olenack had his 95th birthday there that night. The Camerons were there, Jennifer and Larry Goichman, the Mortons, and retired opera diva, RoseMarie, with her husband, Peter Molinari. Jean Weidner looked like royalty in a gown she found at the very last moment. I won’t tell you where. She was with ballet artistic director Iain Webb. Asolo artistic producing director Michael Edwards was there with one of the stars of Equus, taking a night off from rehearsal. The Rivoltas were there, and Annette Scherman was wearing a feathered hat.

Of course Verdi’s Rigoletto was great. Michael Edwards, who sat in front of me and once worked for the Metropolitan Opera, turned around and told me, “Verdi is the Shakespeare of music.” Did you know that? Patrick and Lydia McKenzie also sat in front of me. Lydia was wearing a beautiful gown and Very Big Hair. But the new seats were slanted in a brand-new way, so I could still see everything. The acoustics seemed better, too.

By the time poor Gilda was dead and Rigoletto remorseful for all his bad behavior at court, it was 7 p.m. and we were starving. After all the bravos were over, we followed the red carpet to the parking lot (at least I think that’s where it ended). An amazing white tent with gathered fabric and hidden poles created a spectacular setting. Brass chandeliers and glorious floral center pieces made possible by Betsy Bagby and Patricia Silver added to the glamour.

There were three of us from the magazine—me, executive editor Kay Kipling and Mr. Chatterbox. We had a great table. Opera artistic administrator Greg Tupiano, who lives in Brooklyn off season, told me how he manages all the divas. Director of marketing Richard Russell was there with his wife, Cynthia Bydlinksi. Try saying that after a glass of wine. We felt so privileged that Victor DeRenzi and his wife Stephanie Sundine sat with us. Victor apologized that he wouldn’t be with us much, though. He had to talk to everyone and speak at the podium. We were honored, anyway. Every time Victor left the table he told Mr. Chatterbox to behave himself, but that would be harder than stopping the war in the Middle East.

Gala co-chairs Ed and Jane Bavaria and Larry and Carol English did a truly splendid job. Phil Mancini gave us crab cakes and such huge racks of perfect lamb that we couldn’t eat it all. Kay Kipling and I wanted to take ours home for lunch the next day, but there were no doggie bags. The scalloped potatoes and Chocolate Surprise Rigoletto weren’t shabby, either. Phil was catering an equally fab dinner for the cast at another location.

I particularly enjoyed talking to Loydd and Cheryl Hayes. Loydd was the supervisor of the painting crew of the renovation, and this was their first opera. They loved the evil, love, lust and sacrifice the story told. “Nothing much has changed since this opera was written,” Cheryl commented

Joan Wood, chair of the opera, welcomed everyone; and David Sessions, president, and John LaCivita from Willis Smith Construction showed a video of the construction process. When they tore the floor out to the sand, they realized there wasn’t going to be room for the bigger orchestra pit that the Maestro wanted, John told us. Before, there hadn’t been enough room for the right number of instruments, and all the musicians were packed in like sardines.

No one wanted to compromise on the whole purpose of the renovation and somehow it all got worked out. Now the house has a bigger pit, along with more and better seats, beautiful decorations, a spacious lobby and room upstairs to party between acts. If you haven’t seen it, go soon.

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