Three Sarasota arts organizations celebrate milestone anniversaries by looking backwards and forwards.
It has been said time and time again, but it’s true — Sarasota is an arts town. In a single day you could experience everything from a touring Broadway production to the 88-year-old art collection of a circus tycoon; a famous ballet that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years to rare Paul Gauguin prints displayed amidst a botanical garden … you get the point.
This once-sleepy beach town has become a cultural hub along an ever-growing Gulf Coast, and this year marks significant anniversaries for three of its most influential arts organizations: Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota Orchestra and Sarasota Opera. Learn how these groups helped grow the arts scene — and how they plan to continue those legacies.
The World is a Stage
The story of Sarasota’s rich performing arts history begins with the story of a jewel box theater. A theater disassembled in Asolo, Italy, before traveling more than 5,000 miles to Sarasota.
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art’s first director, A. Everett ‘Chick’ Austin Jr., oversaw the purchase of all the decorative elements of said Italian theater — first located in the castle of Queen Caterina Cornaro — in 1950.
A separate building for the theater was completed in 1957, becoming the cultural epicenter of Sarasota. It mainly hosted films and lectures, however, until a couple new groups formed.
One of those groups (which now performs in the FSU Center for Performing Arts) is Asolo Repertory Theatre, currently celebrating its 60th anniversary season.
Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards (whose contract was renewed in April 2018) is now on his 13th season with Asolo Rep, and he’s seen big changes with the company.
The first development he mentioned was the budget, which has grown to almost three times what it was when he started. He largely credits an incredibly active group of theatergoers for the support, and says the extra funds have allowed the company to develop artistically — particularly by expanding its repertoire.
“Sarasota is probably one of the smallest cities in America with this scale of theater — this really belongs in Miami or Tampa, but we’re here because we have the support of the community here and the passion for what we do is here,” Edwards says.
By collaborating with larger theaters outside Sarasota for co-productions, Edwards says many of the American musicals that have become part of Asolo Rep’s brand have helped link the company to the national theater scene. One example is its 2008 updated production of “Working,” made possible through a partnership with original playwright Stephen Schwartz, featuring new songs by Tony Award-winning composer Lin-Manuel Miranda.
That same year, Asolo Rep co-produced “Barnum” with Maltz Jupiter Theatre, which won multiple Carbonell Awards (an award for theater and arts excellence in South Florida).
But it’s not just the musicals that have garnered attention well outside Sarasota. In 2009, the company furthered its national reach when the play “The Life of Galileo” received a raving review by the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout — the first of several the critic would give Asolo Rep.
Edwards says the company is also committed to producing new works, one of which being the upcoming world premiere of “Knoxville” in spring 2020. The coming-of-age story will feature lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty and direction by Frank Galati, thus reuniting the Tony Award-winning trio behind Broadway’s “Ragtime.”
The institution’s physical infrastructure is another big development since Edwards began with Asolo Rep. In October 2017, the company announced a five-year strategic plan, Stages of the Future, which includes construction of the Robert and Beverly Koski Production Center Campus. This project requires the acquisition of new properties next to its existing production center at 1009 Tallevast Road that will be used for additional rehearsal rooms, sound production, physical therapy and more.
All of these expanded facilities are going to enable Asolo Rep to work at the highest possible level, Edwards says.
He says the future of Asolo Rep is tied to the future of Sarasota, and all signs point to growth.
“There are a lot of people moving here and they’ve moved for the arts — we’re part of that magnetic attraction,” he says. “It’s part of what makes people excited about living here, what ... makes them feel young and alive.”
He says the company will continue to push audiences out of their comfort zones while also offering traditional classics.
“We want to do cutting-edge work that is connected to the most urgent issues ... but at the same time great classic work that reminds you why our art form is worth fighting for,” he says. “There’s nothing else quite like being in a room with 500 people watching a story where you’re asked to put yourself in the shoes of someone you would never meet.”
Growth of the Scene
There’s another group that shared the Historic Asolo Theater stage in its early days.
Sarasota Opera, also celebrating its 60th anniversary season this year, grew out of the Turnau Opera. Sarasota Opera Executive Director Richard Russell says the Woodstock, N.Y.-based company was somewhat of an outgrowth of the opera workshop at The Juilliard School, and in 1960 it made the Historic Asolo Theater its winter home.
The touring group staged chamber-sized works in the 320-seat theater for more than a decade, and all the rehearsals were done in New York leading up to the winter residency. Several Sarasota residents performed in the chorus and in small roles.
The opera became a pillar of the cultural community, so when Turnau folded in 1974, the natural progression was for the next iteration of the group to remain in Sarasota. Thus the Asolo Opera Company began and performed in the same space until 1983.
In 1984, the company moved to the former A.B. Edwards Theater, a converted movie house, in downtown Sarasota, changing the name to the Sarasota Opera House and changing the company name to Sarasota Opera.
Russell, who’s been with the opera for 30 years, started as an apprentice artist in 1989. At that time, he recalls there was no balcony, the lobby was not fully opened and the courtyard was not yet finished. The neighbors were also quite different.
“There was a tire store where the library is now and a small strip mall … it’s dramatically changed.”
The Sarasota Opera season was only a month long at the time, though the company still did four operas. The accompaniment was the Tampa-based Florida Orchestra, but by the next season there were too many scheduling conflicts, so the opera brought in its own orchestra.
As the community continued to grow, so did the opera. Russell says the balcony opened the next season and the four operas were stretched out, thus expanding the season in terms of length and number of people reached.
More people were reached after a New York Times critic reviewed its production of “La Wally,” a work few people were familiar with because it hadn’t been performed in the U.S. since 1909.
“I would be lying if I said our product now is the same as it was in ’89,” he says. “ … but as our experience grew, we were able to have stronger shows, and what we do now is world-class quality.”
Now, he says, Sarasota Opera can compete with any American opera company — including The Metropolitan Opera.
Another change is the opera’s audience. Russell says when he was a vocalist, those who attended were supportive art fans exploring opera. They weren’t nearly as knowledgeable as today’s crowd.
One of the biggest turning points he remembers was in 1990 during Verdi’s “Aroldo.” The audience, who was typically quite restrained, erupted into applause at the end of the second act, helping encourage the company, he believes, to go ahead with the Verdi cycle. That took the next 28 seasons to complete.
Although much has changed in the past 60 seasons, one aspect of the company has remained unwavering: its mission.
“It’s Victor’s (Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi’s) vision: doing opera as the composers intended,” Russell says.
Sound of Progress
Opera companies can’t survive without live orchestral accompaniment. Enter the Sarasota Orchestra, currently celebrating its 70th anniversary season. The organization also provides live music regularly to The Sarasota Ballet and occasionally other local arts groups such as Key Chorale, Sarasota Contemporary Dance and Choral Artists of Sarasota.
But the orchestra wasn’t always so well-integrated into the local musical ecosystem. It all started as the dream of local piano teacher Ruth Cotton Butler, who worked with local musicians in 1948 to organize a Sarasota-Manatee community orchestra.
In 1949, what was then dubbed the Florida West Coast Symphony performed its first public performance. A year later, the group was conducted by inaugural Music Director Dr. Lyman Wiltse in its first orchestral concert.
Today, the orchestra performs more than 125 classical, pops, chamber, education and community engagement concerts every season, and it’s the longest continuous performing orchestra in the state of Florida.
Current President and CEO Joe McKenna has been with the group since 2001, when it was still under its former name. He was first attracted to the orchestra’s strong educational history, which reaches as far back as 1957, when Lota Mundy founded the Symphony Women’s Association, to “foster, promote and increase the musical knowledge, education and artistic appreciation of the community.”
Throughout his 18 years with the orchestra, McKenna has seen several changes, but most strikingly he notes the difference between pre-9/11 and post-9/11 Sarasota and the U.S. in general.
“The one constant thing here has been change, some of it induced by our own growth, some by the 9/11 event,” he says. “As society has become more robust and chaotic in some respects, the need for arts organizations and orchestras like us is greater than it’s ever been. People (now) need a chance to slow down and reflect and listen to music.”
But the biggest turning point was a complete rebranding of the orchestra that started in 2006 and ran for the next several years, he says. At the start of the 2008-2009 season the name was changed to Sarasota Orchestra and the group began taking a good look at who was attending its concerts. The realization after conducting several local focus groups was that a large section of the population didn’t know about the symphony.
The Sarasota Orchestra was enjoying a dedicated local subscriber base, but wasn’t reaching the greater community, so it started several new programs to connect with the residents it wasn’t serving. The result was the Masterworks, Chamber and Pops series and a new outdoor community concert at Ed Smith Stadium.
Shorter concerts quickly opened the world of classical music to more Sarasotans — especially those who don’t have the time to spend several hours at a concert.
McKenna says the timing of this rebranding is important to note.
“We changed the name at the beginning of the greatest recession we’ve seen in a generation,” McKenna says. “Classical music is an art form that has a long and storied history, so to have changed the name at the 60th anniversary ... is quite a journey.”
Another large development, like it was for the opera and Asolo Rep, has been the orchestra’s budget. What was around a $4 million annual operating budget when he started has risen to $10 million.
The mission, however, has remained mostly intact since McKenna got on board: to “engage, educate and enrich the Sarasota community through high-quality, live musical experiences.”
One key player he identified in furthering that mission has been Music Director Anu Tali, who will conduct her last concert with the orchestra April 7.
“Anu has done a phenomenal job of developing the sound of the orchestra and elevating the level of performance,” he says. “She wanted to hand off a better orchestra than who she first started with, so the (director) search ahead will be successful in large part because of her work.”
The other most critical action for the future of the orchestra is the search for a permanent music facility. On Feb. 26, the organization announced that, after an exhaustive search for a site to construct a new music hall, it’s chosen Payne Park.
The proposal has been met with opposition, largely because it includes the relocation of the park’s tennis facility to the south of its current location. But McKenna said at a March 12 workshop at City Hall that the orchestra will use the input gathered to inform its decisions.
“Sarasota Orchestra is here for the whole community,” he says. “While social media has made communication impersonal, the relationship between performers and audiences remains a highly personal thing.”
*Correction: In the Thursday, March 21 print version of this story, the Sarasota Opera section stated the incorrect name of the first in-house orchestra at the opera.