Myakka City entertainer presents his love affair with horses at Big Cat Habitat.
Multi-colored spotlights bounced off the ensemble worn by Myakka City's Olissio Zoppe less than a half hour after his Cirque Ma'Ceo had finished its Sarasota debut at the Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary.
Zoppe could have been in the ring to take a final bow, but the tent was empty, the crowd having delivered a standing ovation before scurrying away.
Even so, Zoppe wouldn't have been blamed for basking in the aftermath of a personal triumph. Now 40, Zoppe remains one of the world's top bareback riders, a man who started performance riding when he was 3 and who has been featured in some of the world's top circuses, such as Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey.
But since he started his own show in 2004, traveling all over the U.S. and Canada, he had not performed in front of his hometown Sarasota crowd.
Until Jan. 4.
"For any artist, performing here is a big deal," Zoppe said. "For me, I am performing in front of people who have known me my whole life. And Sarasota is one of the hardest place in the world for a show. It is a hot spot for (circus) shows and people. I wanted to be better than most, so I wanted to perfect my show before I came here."
Zoppe's return to the ring after the show was for practical purposes rather than a chance to release his emotions. He was checking equipment and making sure the ring was intact for his next show.
"I am the tent boss," said Zoppe, whose circus lineage can be traced back to 1842 in Hungary when Napoline and Ermenegilda Zoppe began an act that has survived the ages.
That survival takes a lot of work.
"I book the shows, hire the artists, do virtually all of the training," Zoppe said.
His younger brothers, Gino Zoppe and Ermes Zamperla, also live in Myakka City and perform the bareback acrobatics with him during the show, which is billed as a theatrical European-style, equestrian-themed cirque event. Olissio Zoppe's wife, Alexa, performs as well but currently is scheduled to give birth to their first child this week.
Besides the equestrian feats, artists twirl fire, do acrobatics on a ribbon high above the crowd, entertain with live music and draw laughter with clownish behavior.
"There is so much tradition in what he does," said Clayton Mowrey, the vice president for Big Cat Habitat, which receives proceeds from each of the Cirque Ma'Ceo performances. "For a city like this, to have someone continuing that tradition is special. We are lucky to have so much wonderful entertainment (in Sarasota) and his show will add to that ... it's culture with class."
Like Zoppe, Mowrey was a circus performer, one of three artists in the world who would put their head into the mouth of a lion. The two of them became good friends when they traveled with different circuses as kids.
"This is about animals and entertainers helping other animals," Mowrey said. "We would like to build a clinic here, a senior center for our older animals. We have lions and tigers here who are 20 years old and older and they have arthritis and other problems that come with age. We would like to build a zero entry pool and have custom heated benches for the animals."
The proceeds from Cirque Ma'Ceo will kick start that effort.
"Olissio is giving back to what he has originated from," Mowrey said. "And the people will love it because it is a whole, new experience. His horses are stunning, breathtaking."
The horses not only are the focus of his show, they are the focus of Zoppe's life.
"The horses are such individuals," said Zoppe, who said, on average, they must be trained about three years before performing. "Each animal's personality depicts the direction they go. Some tell us that show business is not for them.
"And did you know that horses really were the birth of the circus?"
He has 18 horses on his ranch in Myakka City and he uses 12, representing 10 different breeds, in each show. He concentrates on using breeds that have been in decline since tractors made their existence obsolete.
As an example, he uses a Boulonnais draft horse in his act which almost became extinct after World War II but rebounded in the 1970 because people in France found out they could be eaten.
He said the star of his show is a Friesian, a breed used as a war horses during the Middle Ages, named Veleno.
"We're animal people," Zoppe said. "We think animals are so important, and we know animals make better humans."
"This show is about the bond between man and horse," he said. "This is the blood that flows through my veins. I love everything about it, the beauty and the intelligence of the animals. Maceo (he added the apostrophe to help his fans say the word correctly) is a Latin word that translates to 'gift of God.' I feel that way about horses. I get emotional when I think about the impact they have had on my life."
His parents, Mafalda Zamperla and James Zoppe, had him first perform at the circus at the age of 3.
"My first memories as a child were on the backs of horses," he said. "As a 3-year-old, I would come running from the side of the ring and my mom would catch me and put me on the back of a horse. I learned about timing."
Over the years, he has been bucked off and fallen off horses, but never has broken a bone. And that's both during performances and in training.
"The show is a tiny speck of the grand scheme of the operation," he said. "Every part of what we do is dangerous."
It's an operation that now has come to Sarasota.
"The stars have aligned," Zoppe said.
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