In 1989 26-year-old Richard Russell came to the Sarasota Opera as an apprentice artist. His first performance with the company was in the chorus of “Rigoletto.”
The same production debuted the newly renovated Sarasota Opera House in 2008 after Russell, then working as the marketing director, had spent countless hours overseeing the marketing strategy to fund the $20 million facelift.
Fittingly, “Rigoletto” will be the production that welcomes Russell back to the Sarasota Opera in his new role — as executive director.
Russell has spent the past three seasons as general director of opera at Opera New Jersey.
“I’m very excited,” Russell says from his New Jersey office. He has missed the beach, espresso from Café Americano and pizza from Epicure.
The Sarasota Opera Board of Trustees approached Russell shortly after former Executive Director Susan T. Danis resigned earlier this month to take a position as the general director and CEO of the Florida Grand Opera, in Miami.
Russell’s good-standing relationship with the Sarasota Opera and its patrons was among the reasons he was sought for the position.
“I developed a lot of relationships in Sarasota (as the marketing director); a lot of friends among the donors and the board,” Russell says.
In 2010, after five years in Sarasota, he left the Sarasota Opera to take on a leadership position with a smaller opera company.
“When we left, we really felt like we were leaving a place that felt like home to us,” Russell says.
Russell began performing with the Sarasota Opera fresh out of Indiana University after earning a degree in voice performance and choral conducting. But he embraced a complete career change from 1993 to 2005 to work for Citigroup, in Manhattan, N.Y. Although banking was interesting, it wasn’t music.
Russell and his wife, Cynthia, continued to visit Sarasota each year. Their visits always centered around the Sarasota Opera season.
“(The quality is) the highest level, and it’s why people come back far and wide, year after year,” he says of the Sarasota Opera.
In 2005, he was ready for a transition.
Russell’s friends encouraged him to try out the administrative side of performing arts, and that led him back to Sarasota Opera as the director of marketing.
“One of the things that attracted me to the job (in 2005) was the fact that I knew the company was about to begin that campaign (for renovation),” he says.
“I remember the opera house in 1989,” he says. This was before the balcony was open and before the lobby was renovated. It was exciting for Russell to see the space completely gutted for the renovation; the flooring and seats taken away; and for them to dig the orchestra pit.
“There was a lake in the middle of the orchestra pit for a while,” he laughs.
But the renovation is only one of many of Russell’s Sarasota Opera memories.
One of his favorites was during Sarasota Opera’s Polish production of “Halka.” Russell had collaborated with the Polish embassy to put on a mini Polish festival. When there was a mix up with a Polish couple’s tickets and they were left without seats, Russell sat them in the balcony.
“I watched tears roll down their faces during the performance,” he says. “That, to me, is the great experience of working in opera — to see people react like that.”
Russell doesn’t want to change the fundamentals of the Sarasota Opera but would like to make a few changes: The pavilion building needs attention, and he is talking about expanding endowments to ensure the opera house as a mainstay for another 50 years. But Russell’s greatest desire is for more people to experience opera.
“The kind of company we foster is one that is welcoming and open to everybody,” he says. To Russell, there’s nothing more exciting than the sound of the human voice in a live setting.
It was during his teenage years that Russell developed his passion for opera. The well-behaved, shy boy became an extrovert on stage.
“I became quite outgoing and quite fearless on stage,” he says. “It sends a spark through me.”
Russell feels that same spark when he speaks to the public.
“I’ve learned a lot from this job, and I plan to bring that to Sarasota Opera,” he says of his experience at the helm of Opera New Jersey.
Favorite opera: Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello”
Favorite composers: Beethoven, Verdi or Puccini
Favorite role ever played: Hoffmann in “The Tales of Hoffmann”
Best opera ever seen: 1) “Der Rosenkavalier” at The Met with Carlos Kleiber conducting 2) “Otello” at the Sarasota Opera in 2011
First opera experience: “Carmen” by New York City Opera; Russell was 13 years old
If you could play any role in any opera: Otello in “Otello”
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