The life of a Sarasota Opera guests artist allows for learning on and off the stage — in a refuge of sunshine.
Your mid-20s are a weird time in your life. They’re confusing and terrifying and exciting all in this beautiful, anything-is-possible sort of way.
Elissa Pfaender, 25, and Annie Chester, 26, are navigating this period as opera singers with careers constantly in flux. Currently, they’re both guest artists with the Sarasota Opera living in the company’s Steinwachs Artist Residences for about three months before they go back to their lives in the Northeast.
CHASING A DREAM
In September, Pfaender went to Shetler Studios, a performing arts theater and studio in New York City that was full of emerging vocal talent that day, to vie for a position with Sarasota Opera.
The Wisconsin native-turned New Jersey resident got a callback with Sarasota Opera, but never heard anything after. She figured she didn’t get the gig, and she went back to her life teaching at an elite performing arts school, Performers Theatre Workshop, in Maplewood, N.J.
While she was driving home from work Jan. 3, her phone rang.
“It was the phone call you always hear about but never happens to you,” Pfaender says, beaming.
It was Director of Artistic Administration Greg Trupiano, telling her a spot had just opened up in the company’s apprentice program. It wasn’t confirmed that she was next in line, but he wanted to gauge her interest. Ironically she had just asked her boss at the school for a raise that day, but it turned out she wouldn’t need it.
Pfaender, of course, said she would be thrilled with the opportunity. Trupiano went over the details and gave her a formal offer later that night.
Within 24 hours, the young soprano had to tell her roommates, friends, family and boyfriend she was moving, quit her job and pack her bags. The opera found her a flight and by Jan. 5, she was in Sarasota — a city she’d never stepped foot in prior.
She never thought twice about the snap decision. Pfaender had worked with Stephanie Sundine, director of several Sarasota Opera productions and wife of Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi, two summers prior, so she knew the high level of professionalism she was about to be held to.
It’s exactly what she wanted.
Pfaender, who holds a master’s in vocal performance and pedagogy from Westminster Choir College at Princeton and a bachelor’s in vocal performance from Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, had never performed in a professional opera program.
“I think I stayed up until 3 a.m. calling people, telling them this was happening,” she says of that fateful night of the call. “Everyone was elated.”
The Sarasota Opera Apprentice Artists Program awards aspiring young opera students intensive training, extensive performance opportunities and contact with seasoned performers for inspiration and guidance.
Apprentices work with opera staff and directors through one-on-one coaching and with local volunteers who are native-born speakers of the languages in which each opera is sung. They also take master classes with resident staff, guest conductors and guest directors.
In addition to her apprentice duty of performing in the chorus of every Sarasota Opera main stage production during the Winter Opera Festival season and at numerous outreach events in Bradenton and Sarasota, Pfaender is also covering (the opera term for understudying) the role of Erste Dame in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”
BACK FOR MORE
Chester, a native of Cleveland, grew up coming to Sarasota on family vacations. She spent several Thanksgivings and summer breaks splashing around the Gulf of Mexico off Siesta Key and strolling around St. Armands with her family.
Now, on her third winter season with the opera, Sarasota has taken on a new meaning for the rising mezzo-soprano.
“It’s no longer just where Aunt Carol lives,” she says. “It’s a great city that’s full of art … it’s not a sleepy beach town like it was to me when I was little, and I love it.”
Chester, who holds both a master’s and bachelor’s in vocal performance from Indiana University, first came to Sarasota to work for the opera in winter 2017 as an apprentice artist. She returned as an apprentice for the fall 2017 and winter 2018 seasons. This season, she’s back as a studio artist.
The Studio Artist Program is for emerging artists looking to take the next step in their professional opera career. They cover (understudy) principal roles and play supporting roles in all of the main stage productions in addition to acting as ambassadors for Sarasota Opera, performing for outreach initiatives held in schools, retirement homes, community centers and at guild meetings.
This season, Chester is playing the role of the Third Lady in “The Magic Flute” and is covering the role of Fenena in “Nabucco.”
Thinking back on how she felt when she first got on a red eye plane to move to Sarasota for three months, she says she didn’t know what to expect. It was her first post-graduation job in the field of opera, so everything was new and exciting.
Downtown Sarasota itself was equally as unfamiliar and thrilling to explore, because growing up her family mostly stuck to the beaches, St. Armands and her great-aunt’s house in The Landings. She had no idea there was a whole area of theaters, galleries and restaurants along — and near — Main Street to enjoy.
“I used to wake up, go to the beach, go to my Aunt Carol’s house, have an early dinner at Gecko’s, etc.,” she says. “It was exciting finding new favorite spots that weren’t my parents favorite spots.”
Chester’s parents plan to retire in the Sarasota area next year, so she looks forward to returning for many years to come.
“It’s kind of like coming home in a way,” she says.
The Steinwachs Artist Residences opened in March 2017 in the Rosemary District’s Rosemary Square development to house opera artists and staff.
It’s since become a vibrant community for the company’s singers, pianists and other creatives, most of them in their mid-20s to mid-30s, to connect (and encourage each other to cook dinner rather than spend money at any of the several nearby restaurants, Chester says).
Pfaender has only been in Sarasota for about a month, but she’s slowly getting to know the city. She says living in the residences helped her jump right into the company culture.
“Although I was a last addition I’ve been so embraced,” she says. “They want me to feel part of the group.”
Although it would be easy to assume the halls of Steinwachs are filled with echoes of arias, Pfaender says she confines most of her singing to the shower in the morning while she’s getting ready. She adds that her neighbors all respect the strict quiet hours rule: Monday-Saturday no noise from 9 p.m. to 10 a.m. and Sunday until noon.
Pfaender and Chester agree that one of the biggest perks of artist residence living is the quick 10-minute walk to the opera house. Chester likes to use that time to call her parents, who appreciate hearing from their daughter three time zones away in California at least once a day.
In many ways, the artists become stand-in family members for each other during their stay, so much so that Chester and principal artist Anna Medina are going to be bridesmaids in studio artist Caitlin Crabill's wedding this September.
“Being around really like-minded younger people in a place that’s refreshing for all of us is really conducive to nice friendships,” Chester says.
Both artists are based near Manhattan to have more audition opportunities, so coming to Sarasota during the winter months is a definite perk.
“The strong artistic vision that the opera has — being fully submerged in that and the sunshine for three months makes for a happy singer,” Chester says.
Both Pfaender and Chester say the high expectations Sarasota Opera has for its artists has made them better singers, singers who are prepared for “audition season” in New York City.
Every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, professional opera companies from around the country descend upon the Opera America building at 330 Seventh Ave. Opera singers from around the country and world audition all day long, vying for positions with said companies.
It was through this process that Chester got her next professional opera gig she's headed for after the Sarasota Opera season, the role of Mother in "Hänsel und Gretel" with Opera Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Sarasota Opera prepares young artists for more than just professional gigs, however.
Pfaender has learned she’s up for any challenge — even being added to a program more than two months after the rest of the participants.
“I knew I had it in me,” she says. “I know I should be here.”
Correction: The Feb. 14 issue's print version of this story stated the incorrect spelling of studio artist Caitlin Crabill's name and the incorrect opera job Annie Chester acquired from interviews at the Opera America building in New York City.