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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Sep. 9, 2009 8 years ago

Opera House reopens aisles, loses 48 seats

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

Not everyone loves a makeover.

After just one season in the newly renovated Sarasota Opera House, patrons have asked the theater to reinstate its side aisles.

The opera underwent a $20 million renovation in 2007, which increased the theater’s seating capacity from 1,033 to 1,192. The new seats were padded and modeled after the building’s original 1926 vaudeville seats. In an effort to increase ticket sales, 48 new seats were added to the ends of the aisles.

“We couldn’t put enough opera out there,” says Susan Danis, the opera’s executive director. “We had to turn people away from performances. When we started the renovation, we were more worried about big, major challenges — whether or not the building was going to fall down in the middle of the project or if we’d get the orchestra pit done in time. The seats were like a drop of water in a gallon bucket.”

Marshall and Mary Ziring disagree. Longtime patrons of the opera, the Zirings, Country Club of Sarasota residents, think the old seating configuration worked just fine.

Prior to the renovation, two convenience aisles ran down the sides of the theater. Patrons used the aisles to stretch their legs during intermission or to exit the theater after a performance. When they discovered that the space had been filled in with additional seating, complaints began to trickle in.

“We had only one way to get out,” Mary Ziring says. “It was really very crowded. Everything was filtering down one aisle in the middle. It was just hard to get everybody out.”

The seats were the last phase of the project, which included upgrading backstage equipment, excavating the orchestra pit, removing trusses, installing a skylight in the three-story atrium and expanding the Opera Club and lounges on the second and third floors.

“Consider the fact that we were trying very hard to get a massive renovation done in 11 months,” Danis says. “All we had to look at were these models.”

The opera approached Willis A. Smith Construction, the company responsible for the building’s overhaul, and asked contractors to remove enough seats to free up the aisles. The modifications took about three weeks last month and resulted in the loss of 48 seats.

The opera staff understands that with change can come protest.

“We didn’t realize how beloved this space was,” says Patricia Horwell, the opera’s communications manager. “We want people to come here and be happy and go out with a smile on their face. Enough people said they missed those side aisles to make us stop and think, maybe we need to talk to the architect.”

The Zirings, opera patrons for 14 years, are looking forward to seeing their old aisles again. They’ll return to the opera house this fall to see Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the only tickets they purchased this season due to a rise in the cost of prime seating.

“We love the opera and we’re so proud of it,” Mary Ziring says. “We’re glad they made improvements to the theater, but we’re happy they put the aisles back where they belonged.”

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