Chris Van Alstyne fits in well at the Sarasota Opera House, so well, in fact, that he could almost pass for an opera singer.
At 6-foot-3, the 49-year-old is as strapping as any tenor, with a goatee and crop of wavy hair that make him look Figaro-esque, if such a word exists.
“I started out college as a singer,” says Van Alstyne, who joined the opera house staff this summer as director of production. “And then I learned I’m not disciplined enough to be one. When your body is your instrument, every choice you make affects it, from what you eat to how you sleep. It wasn’t for me.”
So Van Alstyne, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., studied technical theater at the State University of New York at Fredonia.
He worked for six years as a cabinetmaker at The Museum of Modern Art and then left to get his master’s degree in technical design and production from the Yale School of Drama, where he studied under Tony Award-winning set designer Ming Cho Lee.
“Whenever I’ve had to choose between comfort and challenge, I’ve chosen challenge,” Van Alstyne says. “It’s partly why I decided to come to Sarasota.”
A 25-year veteran in the performing-arts industry, Van Alstyne has seen his fair share of challenges.
He served as the production manger at the Boston Ballet, for which he staged the world’s largest performance of “The Nutcracker,” a behemoth production that rolled in on 17 tractor-trailers.
After that he spent two years on the road with Cirque du Soleil’s “Dralion Tour” — an even more massive production consisting of 45 tractor-trailers and 155 performers and crew members.
“We were a moving village,” Van Alstyne says.
The tour took him all over North America and Europe. It landed him in Baltimore, where he was hired as the production manager at the Baltimore Opera Company.
It was the first time he had worked for a major opera company. The experience was as rewarding as it was heartbreaking.
In 2009, after spending two-and-a-half years with the 58-year-old organization, the company folded due to dwindling ticket sales and a drop in donor support.
Van Alstyne was one of the last employees out the door.
“It was horrific,” he says of the company’s demise.
After the fallout, he stayed on as a technical consultant, working with the auction house tasked with liquidating the opera’s assets.
His job was to find new homes for the company’s elaborate sets.
Says Van Alstyne: “You spend all this time trying to save an organization and then when it’s over, you’re shipping pieces of it to other (opera) companies.”
Luckily, things are much more stable in Sarasota.
Van Alstyne has only been on the job two months, and yet he seems to have already established a rapport with his staff and even more so with Maestro Victor DeRenzi, a fellow Staten Islander who attended the same high school as Van Alstyne.
“We kind of talk the same language,” Van Alstyne says of DeRenzi. “Except he’s elegant and I’m much more of a jeans kind of guy.”
As he navigates the back of the opera house, bantering briefly in the corridor with DeRenzi, he answers questions from the crew about the “Madama Butterfly” set, which is in various stages of assembly.
“Doing ‘Butterfly’ right now is a luxury for me,” Van Alstyne says. “It gives me a chance to do one show before things really start to pick up.”
He walks into the scene shop, where again he’s confronted with more questions. Calmly, he addresses every one.
In addition to managing the company’s stage operations, scene construction, technical administration and wig and makeup departments, Van Alstyne oversees an annual operating budget of $4.1 million.
The responsibility would be enough to rattle most people but not Van Alstyne. After setting up and breaking down 380 Cirque du Soleil productions, he can handle anything.
“When I worked for Cirque, people would say, ‘My God. Don’t you get tired of seeing the same show?’” he says. “I’d tell them, ‘It’s exactly the opposite.’ There’s nothing more exciting than seeing a group of individuals all working toward a single goal on a single night. Being privy to that and then seeing it come together night after night is enough to bring you to tears.”
IF YOU GO
Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” opens. Oct. 28 and runs through Nov. 15, at the Sarasota Opera. For more information, visit sarasotaopera.org or call 366-8450.
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