Natalia Nicol calls herself a Sarasota Orchestra super fan.
She can’t easily discern Vivaldi from Mendelssohn or Schubert from Strauss, but she can lay claim to attending every one of the orchestra’s performances last year.
She went to Masterworks concerts, chamber soirees and Pops performances. She even attended Youth Orchestra recitals.
Hired last year as Sarasota Orchestra’s patron services manager, the 32-year-old Boca Raton native oversees the organization’s front-of-house operations during performances. Her objective is not to become a connoisseur of classical music, though she’s well on her way, it’s to ensure that each attendee has a positive concert experience at all three orchestra venues: Holley Hall, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Neel Performing Arts Center at State College of Florida.
Nicol manages the organization’s volunteer usher staff. At the Van Wezel, which has its own front-of-house staff, she serves as a liaison between Van Wezel employees and orchestra patrons, maintaining consistent hospitality standards across all venues.
Prior to her arrival, the orchestra only employed a part-time house manager to oversee guest relations at Holley Hall. As programming expanded, so did the need for greater patron TLC.
“You lose a lot of your evenings and weekends,” she says. “But it’s an expectation and part of the job.”
Nicol is no stranger to working on weekends. A longtime singer, she studied music at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., then moved in 2004 to Tampa to perform in “KaTonga,” the longest-running main stage show at Busch Gardens. Strapped into a flying harness and dressed in an ornate African costume inspired by Broadway’s “Lion King,” Nicol would fly over audiences four times a day. She loved the production and loved performing, but eventually the repetition wore on her. Eight months into the gig, she left to perform in English education shows in South Korea — a job she describes as a quintessential, early-20s-leap-of-faith adventure.
She returned to Florida a year later and picked up part-time work at Busch Gardens and Disney World, where she played Pocahontas in a show with live animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
“There were these tiny little reserved benches at the Pocahontas show,” Nicol says. “Little kids would sit front and center to see me. You could tell they really thought I was Pocahontas. It was great.”
The workload and commutes were taxing. To swing both theme parks, Nicol moved to Lakeland, halfway between Tampa and Orlando. Further complicating her schedule, she joined a popular Top 40s cover band that performed at events and private parties across the state and country.
A high-paying three-month stint on a Princess Cruise ship gave her the means to move to New York City, where she says she lived “the artist’s dream,” performing under the Actor’s Equity Association in Off-Broadway productions and commercials, while moonlighting as a makeup artist.
“After four years the New York lifestyle started to get old,” Nicol says. “I knew I wanted to be in a place that was artistic, but I didn’t want to go back to gigging.”
She got lucky in Sarasota.
In 2013, just as her husband, Nate, was hired as the head sound engineer at the Sarasota Opera, the Sarasota Orchestra hired Nicol to do something she’s always had a knack for — keeping audiences happy.
Her favorite perk is the music, of course. She loves to sit still and let the rich orchestral sounds wash over her, especially at Masterworks concerts. She loves to read the program notes and watch Music Director Anu Tali take command.
Like a true entertainer, she loves winning over audiences. However, for the first time in her career, she’s charming people off stage, not on.
“I love being able to influence the entire patron experience,” Nicol says. “From the moment they get out of their cars and walk through our doors to the second they leave the hall, my job is to make sure they had the best time they could possibly have. That’s my favorite aspect of the job.”
PATRON FAUX PAS
Some of Natalia Nicol’s favorite funny patron moments revolve around refreshments. People love to sneak food and drinks into Holley Hall. After noshing on complimentary hors d’oeuvres before a chamber soiree, one woman who was told she couldn’t bring cheesecake into the hall simply stuffed the treat into her pocket to eat later.
At another concert, an usher busted an elderly woman sneaking four glasses of wine into Holley Hall. What was her method of concealing the drinks? She stashed them in a compartment on her walker.
“When she got caught she offered the usher a drink,” Nicol says. “She was like, ‘C’mon it’s fine. I won’t tell anyone.’”