Victor DeRenzi has a postcard of Liberace hanging in his office window. It says, the “Maestro is in.”
Though DeRenzi couldn’t be further from Liberace in personality and style, his colleagues at Sarasota Opera have grown accustomed to seeing the famous singer’s mug in the maestro’s office.
DeRenzi actually makes a point of moving it to indicate his whereabouts: For three decades he has split his time between a home in New York City and a home in downtown Sarasota.
Cast aside the performance tuxedo, the dark arching eyebrows, the distinguished salt-and-pepper hair and the label one former studio artist gave him (“The Godfather”), and you’ve got a guy who grew up on Staten Island, N.Y., the son of a dockworker, who discovered opera one day by helping his seventh-grade teacher build sets for a small New York opera company.
Although the set was primitive, the stage was dinky and there was no orchestra or chorus, DeRenzi was hooked.
“I fell in love with opera,” he says. “And I’ve never looked back.”
Fast-forward to today: a Monday at the Sarasota Opera House, where DeRenzi is celebrating his 30th season as artistic director.
Making his way through the courtyard, he chats with passing staff and singers. Backstage, he engages with the stage hands — a boisterous group of men in scruffy jeans and T-shirts who seem unfazed by the maestro’s commanding presence.
DeRenzi is in a playful mood.
Maybe it’s because he’s gearing up to hit the road for the opening night of “Carmen” at the Naples Philharmonic, a touring production made possible thanks to a hefty grant from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice.
Maybe it’s because he wasn’t up late the night before drinking beer and watching the Super Bowl, an event that ranked so low on his radar that he had no idea his hometown team had won.
Or maybe DeRenzi is always this way: fun.
“Fun?” he asks. “We set too high a price on having fun. People are always asking me, ‘Are you having fun? You look like you’re having fun.’ I don’t know what that means. It’s not about having fun. It’s about serious work and having a responsibility to the composers. I’m not saying it’s like drudgery. It’s just more complicated than that.”
Over lunch at Café Americano, the maestro elaborated on those complications.
He is admittedly demanding and especially dogmatic when it comes to directing the resident company.
No, he doesn’t allow the singers to lug around water bottles.
“It’s a crutch,” he says. “And it’s the biggest hoax perpetuated by society. What did we do before bottled water?”
The same goes for cell phones and laptops. It’s not that he’s technology-phobic, he just refuses to waste his life sending text messages and surfing the Internet.
He only listens to classical music. Pop music, he says, is “sociological destructive.”
And he avoids the beach at all costs.
“Sand,” he says, “is a form of torture. I’m a city guy. I like asphalt and concrete.”
He’s also aware of the fact that his long tenure at Sarasota Opera is unusual. Most directors would have used the platform as a means to advance their careers.
“Many years ago, I was talking to the director of a similar-sized company and he said, ‘Don’t make the mistake of sacrificing your career for your company,’” DeRenzi says. “I thought, ‘Well, this is my career and my company, so what’s there to sacrifice?’”
At 62, he’s spent almost half of his life conducting the Sarasota Opera. His daughter, now 30, grew up backstage. His wife of 33 years sang in many of the company’s early productions.
In 1983, the same year he was hired by the organization, he founded the company’s Apprentice Artist Program, a season-long, intensive training residency that has helped prepare hundreds of the country’s opera singers for careers on the stage.
“I don’t want to conduct big companies all over the world,” DeRenzi says. “When I’m here, I get to make music the way I want to make music. I have a say in what happens on stage.”
He enjoys his influence and notoriety in Sarasota.
A creature of habit, he walks to Americano every day, greets the wait staff in fluent Italian, orders his favorite sandwich and makes small talk with the scores of opera buffs who recognize his face.
DeRenzi is what Executive Director Susan Danis calls “a person of the people.”
“He’s the only artistic director I know who walks up and down the aisles talking to patrons before a show,” says Danis. “He’s so accessible. And he’s funny. One of the best-kept secrets about Victor is that he has a wicked sense of humor. He’ll pull out a joke and say he heard it as a kid from his dad, but, really, it’s him. He’s just darn funny.”
DeRenzi says he feels like he leads a double life.
At the end of the season, when he returns home to Manhattan, he goes underground for the summer. He spends his days researching composers, studying music and poring over the historical context behind the company’s upcoming repertoire.
This year, he’ll conduct “Otello” — opera No. 28 in the exhaustive Verdi Cycle he launched 23 years ago.
The company will finish the series in four years, capping off one of DeRenzi’s greatest claims to fame: presenting all of Verdi’s work in a consistent and cohesive fashion.
Ending the cycle will be bittersweet for the maestro, who has never tired of presenting the composer’s work.
“How could I tire of great music?” he asks. “If I love the music, I can conduct it over and over. Judy Garland can be greater than ‘Ding, Ding Goes the Trolley,’ but no one will ever be greater than Mozart or Beethoven or Verdi.”
IF YOU GO
Sarasota Opera’s production of “Carmen” kicked off the company’s winter opera season. The production runs now through March 24. For tickets, call 366-8450 or visit sarasotaopera.org.
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