Company will perform 'Suddenly Opera' pop-up mini concerts outdoors throughout the week
It was about 4 p.m. Saturday, the first Saturday after precautionary measures to stem the COVID-19 virus had shut down public events all over town. Main Street was entering typical late-afternoon transitional lull. The daytime shop, dine and stroll crowd was thinning out and the nightlife shift wouldn't arrive for a while. Still, you would never guess there was a national health emergency going on. It would take a discerning eye to say for sure if downtown was perhaps just slightly less congested than usual. There certainly weren’t tumbleweeds blowing down the street. Couples walked along past a fair number of tables for the time of day that were filled with restaurant customers catching a late lunch or early dinner al fresco, while the usual rolling cacophony of music, voices and clinking glass wafted from the wide-open bar fronts.
It looked and felt like a typical, pleasant mid-March weekend. Nothing unusual, and then, at the corner of Main Street and Pineapple Avenue, a voice hovered into the scene. It was a female voice, an operatic female voice, singing with power. The voice was clear, and clearly not a recording.
The voice was coming from the direction of the Sarasota Opera House, about 500 feet away. Makes sense, except the Sarasota Opera was one of the first performing arts organizations to announce it was cancelling shows as a precautionary step to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
On the sidewalk outside the opera house, a small crowd, many of whom had heard the siren song, was gathered in a semicircle around a young woman who was singing to the accompaniment of a piano.
The aria was "Der Hölle Rache,” sung by the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The singer was Abigail Raiford, an apprentice singer in the Sarasota Opera’s just-truncated Winter Festival.
There was heartfelt appreciation in the applause as Raiford made her way over to one side of the crowd, where several of her fellow singers were grouped together in a gently festive scene. No one looked more pleased than Sarasota Opera Artistic Director Victor DeRenzi, who explained the surprise street performance.
“Like many arts organizations we were forced to close for the season,” DeRenzi says, adding that it’s every bit as disappointing to the people involved in putting in the shows as it is to the audiences.
"Some companies across the country have decided to provide operas on video,” either live-streamed or recorded," DeRenzi says. As far as he's concerned, “that isn’t opera.”
“We feel opera is real, it’s about people,” he says. A screen might be sufficient for watching some performing arts, but opera can only be truly experienced live.
The season had been scheduled to run through March 22. So what can you do with a company of singers primed to perform who are in town for more than a week?
The answer, DeRenzi says, is a little something they are calling “Suddenly Opera,” pop-up mini-street concerts throughout the week.
There’s no formal schedule, DeRenzi says, “That’s what makes them ‘sudden.’” Throughout the week, people who happen to be downtown at the right time can catch a free mini-concert.
Along with providing an opportunity to let the singers sing, he explains, it’s a way of showing the public The Sarasota Opera has not gone away.
“Only the theater is closed,” DeRenzi says. “The music is always around.”