A Different Kind of Season

Guest Correspondence

“A different kind of season.”

That’s how Richard Russell, executive director of Sarasota Opera, has understatedly described his company’s artistic output right now. The Opera just kicked off its Winter Festival of “chamber operas” with Rossini’s The Happy Deception. Newly discovered and appreciated by Russell and Maestro Victor DeRenzi, these works allow for fewer performers, smaller sets, no intermission and well-spaced audiences. The Opera also livestreams the performances and records them for patrons to enjoy from home via online subscription.

Sarasota Opera was among the fastest and most forward-thinking of our region’s arts leaders in responding to COVID-19. It put artist and audience safety first, while still finding fresh ways to connect the two. Before the Sarasota Opera House could reopen safely, the company took its talent to the community. It staged outdoor performances at partner sites like Selby Gardens and Historic Spanish Point. It also assembled a first-of-its-kind “Opera Mobile,” a muscular red pickup that can haul a piano and a few performers behind it on a flat-bed trailer. Meanwhile, it optimized the AC system in the historic Opera House and added technology to eliminate airborne germs and viruses. Russell even took a course in contact tracing.

As I’ve talked to passionate people on both sides of the artistic relationship over the past year, I’ve seen just how big a void is left in our community when its stages must go dark. It’s a cultural, social and economic loss. Remember, the arts represent the second-biggest employer in our area, as Russell is quick to note. But it’s not only a paycheck that resident artists desperately miss. It’s also doing what they truly love—what they were born to do. Thank goodness, then, for the boundless imagination and talent of our community’s creatives.

Asolo Repertory Theatre constructed an entire new outdoor stage, complete with ingenious lighting design projected on its building’s facade. The Terrace Stage debuted for a much-needed holiday show, but it’s now being used for an outdoor season full of enchanting productions. I bet it continues to shine long after this pandemic is over.

The Venice Symphony programmed four 30-minute concerts for a fully virtual season sponsored by Gulf Coast Community Foundation that is free for anyone to watch online. (Click here for a rousing Saturday morning “fanfare” courtesy of conductor Troy Quinn and his brass and percussion ensembles.)

Embracing Our Differences’ annual diversity-themed outdoor art exhibit might seem made for these times. Visitors can view its 50 billboard-sized images while staying safely spaced throughout a sprawling and breezy bayfront setting. But EOD’s year-round impact is rooted in its educational outreach programs, which it nimbly adapted last year to virtual platforms.

Another of our region’s arts leaders that took the pandemic head on is The Sarasota Ballet. Director Iain Webb’s team has embraced technology, not only for presenting performances digitally but also for giving patrons unique access to the dancers and sneak peeks at rehearsals and new productions. Now in its Digital Winter-Spring Season, the Ballet is performing the likes of Ashton, Balanchine, Taylor and Tharp along with resident choreographer Ricardo Graziano. Tickets have been purchased from 20 different countries—something that wasn’t possible in the past. The Ballet also plans outdoor performances on the Asolo’s Terrace Stage. In a pearl anniversary year unlike anything it expected, The Sarasota Ballet has handled this crisis with the same aplomb and agility as principal dancer Kate Honea doing the Fanny Elssler Pas de Deux.

Last Saturday evening looked very different from a Saturday in “season” just a year ago. As the sun set, Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre staged an edgy outdoor play-reading on the sand beside The Hermitage Artist Retreat’s beachfront campus in Englewood. Around the same time, a Sarasota Orchestra ensemble tuned up to serenade a small audience in Holley Hall with its Valentine Pops concert—which remains available for streaming online through Tuesday. Orchestra president and CEO Joseph McKenna recently said, “This season has required an endless reservoir of resilience, a pioneering spirit of innovation, and the discipline and character to know that we will emerge stronger than ever.” Bravo!

Please continue to support our region’s arts and cultural organizations as they continue to cheer, uplift, and entertain us all.

Mark Pritchett is president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. 

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