An opera singer's career can take decades to flourish, and the Sarasota Opera has been providing apprentices with a springboard for 40 years.
Nobody becomes an opera singer on natural talent alone.
Perhaps more than any artistic endeavor, an opera career is one that takes decades to build, and it’s one that requires not only patience and diligence but a nudge in the right direction. Maestro Victor DeRenzi has been providing that push for aspiring opera singers for four decades, and the Sarasota Opera’s apprentice program has grown along with the company.
It started with only 10 people and a dream when DeRenzi arrived, but now it has developed into a robust program that ensures continuity both on the stage and in opera seasons to come.
“The city was not big enough in those days that we could have a local chorus,” DeRenzi says. “And often times cities have schools that support that kind of a group, but we didn’t have that. Unless we had our own chorus, we wouldn’t be able to do the kind of operas we needed to do. I was also very interested — and still am — in teaching and sharing information with people.”
DeRenzi's apprentice program is now in its 40th year, and he's seen hundreds of talented singers come through his doors.
DeRenzi became artistic director of the Sarasota Opera in 1982, and over the decades, his apprentice program has placed opera singers all over the world. The Sarasota Opera added a studio artists program in 1989, and that has provided another rung for the apprentices to climb. And why is that so important? Because there are very few outlets elsewhere that provide a similar service.
DeRenzi said that many opera singers are not only college educated but also receive a master's degree or a certificate, and still they’re basically infants in their profession.
“No one is naturally a great singer,” DeRenzi says. “Some people have better gifts than others, but no matter who you think of in any field who has achieved something, it’s not achieved through raw talent. It’s achieved through raw talent and years and years of work.”
And that’s where the apprenticeship comes in. DeRenzi’s young charges — many of whom are in their 20s — might be literally decades away from reaching their operatic peak. First, they have to learn the basics, and they have to strengthen their singing muscles over time.
Honestly, says DeRenzi, it’s hard for a young singer to display the depth of their talent in a 10-minute audition. And it’s hard for the company to envision the rest of that singer’s career. But over the course of the apprenticeship, they learn how hard that singer will work.
“It’s a long time of constant study,” DeRenzi says. “Even if you’re at the top of your career, you’re still working to keep your voice in shape. You’re constantly working to learn new music and make the roles you sing better. If you’re singing the role of "Tosca," even if you’ve done 50 performances of that opera, you go back and restudy it. We’re talking about things that are great works of art.
"Performers will never be as great as the music they sing. … If you’re a pop singer, you can be greater than the material. Judy Garland can be greater than 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' but you can’t be greater than a Mozart opera or a Verdi opera.”
For Tori Franklin, back for her second run as an apprentice with the Sarasota Opera, the program is literally a career-saver.
Franklin first joined the apprentice program in 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic put performing careers all over the world on hold. The Tennessee native returned last year as a resident artist, and now she’s taking on the entire 2022 season as an apprentice again. For Franklin, it could be a springboard to something big.
“It’s a ton of study. It’s a ton of practice,” she says. “It helps us take that next step from young artist to main stage to being completely professional. They provide us with those tools. They put us to work. It’s not only a training program, but you get that training aspect.”
Franklin said that the apprentice programs don’t just teach the young professionals how to sing; they learn how to prepare and how to master the material on their own. For two months, the apprentices practice on their own so that they have the material down when they arrive. And they don’t just have to know how to hit the high notes.
They have to translate the operas to demonstrate they understand the story, and they have to memorize their parts for early in the season. Once they arrive, says Franklin, they go right into the business of singing an opera.
“It’s right into rehearsals for the first couple weeks, and when we’re in staging, we’re ready and we’re putting it together,” she says. “It’s very busy. I love how fast-paced it is.”
Franklin graduated from Brevard College in North Carolina, and she later earned a master's degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. And even as the soprano progresses in her burgeoning career, she’s aware that she might not hit her best notes for decades.
“I’m 26,” Franklin says of her trajectory. “I have a larger instrument, and people in my corner have decided that my peak won’t come until my 30s. That’s when my voice will sort of be done maturing. There’s such a significant amount of training that goes into being a vocal athlete because it really is a like a decathlon in your throat when you’re singing roles like 'Tosca.'”
This year — when the Sarasota Opera performs "Tosca" — Franklin will have a role model. Stephen Gaertner, who will be playing the role of Scarpia, is coming back to the Sarasota Opera decades after he began his career here as a member of the apprentice program.
Gaertner said he was 27 when he began as an apprentice with the Sarasota Opera, and the program gave him the ability to keep his career alive long enough for his voice to flourish.
“It’s a bit of a homecoming,” Gaertner says of singing in "Tosca." “I think my situation was also quite unusual because most young artists in the Sarasota apprentice program that eventually sing principal roles with the company usually do so right away or after a few years of experience elsewhere. For me, I had grown into the repertoire, but the opportunity just didn’t find itself. In the meantime, I developed even further. In a way, for me, the time was right.”
Gaertner, decades removed from his time as an apprentice, has had a career that most aspiring opera singers could only dream of having. The baritone has performed with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and he’s also appeared on stages all across Europe.
But he can still recall when it seemed as if it would never happen. Gaertner studied at the Manhattan School of Music, and he noted that it seemed a bit like an opera factory to him at the time. He’s gone on to share the stage with legends like Placido Domingo, but before Gaertner arrived in Sarasota, he was just a young singer who felt behind in his learning curve.
“I was definitely a late bloomer,” he says. “But even within that, I just found more and more development. I feel like even now, I’m still very much in my prime. And that’s a good feeling.”
So how did Sarasota set the stage for him to make his own breaks? Gaertner says that DeRenzi was an exacting maestro with an encyclopedic knowledge of the material, and he said that he introduced things like table readings to make the singers more comfortable.
For the first time, Gaertner was asked to translate a libretto, and that allowed him to better understand the original intentions of the composer. Toward the end of his run as an apprentice, Gaertner says he had a moment he’ll never forget.
He was getting ready to sing in "Tosca" in Colorado, and DeRenzi was giving a lecture to the apprentices about what makes opera great. The maestro was telling them what to look out for and what not to lose sight of, and he showed them a video of a "Tosca" performance from 1965 starring Maria Callas.
Gaertner, on the edge of his seat, could hardly contain himself.
“I will never forget watching it in that very moment,” he says. “I knew I was about to do it in Colorado that very summer. I felt shivers. Especially in a moment where the music really builds in excitement. I got a shiver down my spine like I’ve never gotten before or since.
“I thought, 'My God, that is going to be me in a few months.'”
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