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St. Pete Opera Company ready for new digs

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Published:   |   Updated: April 16, 2013 at 07:50 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Producing an opera with scenery, props, a 40-piece orchestra and about 50 singers who all need costumes would tax anyone's organizational skills.

Now, imagine doing that with no permanent rehearsal or storage space.

That challenge is all too familiar for St. Petersburg Opera Company Artistic Director Mark Sforzini, whose home has sometimes doubled as storage for flamboyant costumes, fake trees from a production of “La Boheme” and other pieces of scenery.

Since it was founded in 2007, the opera company has borrowed and rented rehearsal space and sometimes scoured thrift stores for costumes.

That's about to change. The company is set to move into a 10,000-square-foot rehearsal space and headquarters at 2145 First Ave. S., a few blocks from Tropicana Field.

In four months, donors and fundraisers brought in a little more than half of the $1 million needed to refurbish the 1951 building, which previously housed a music publishing house and commercial laundry, said Nancy Preis, the company's chief financial officer. Organizers hope to raise the remainder in time to move in this fall.

When complete, the opera company's new headquarters will include offices, costume and scenery workshops, a box office and a 3,700-square-foot rehearsal room. The building also has a space set aside for an art gallery.

“This means we're here to stay,” said Sforzini. “We are making a permanent presence.”

The biggest rehearsal room is roughly the same width as the Palladium Theater stage, meaning there is enough room to fully rehearse big productions. Space for storage will allow the company to build up a sizable stock of costumes, scenery, props and a music library, Sforzini said.

The company is still small compared to Opera Tampa, which is housed in the Straz Center, or Sarasota Opera, now in its 54th season.

In just six years, though, the St. Petersburg Opera Company has grown in size and ambition. It now holds about 50 performances per year, including three major opera productions performed at the 880-seat Palladium in downtown St. Petersburg.

Sforzini said he does not expect the company will match the grandness of more established, bigger opera companies; but he said it is carving out a niche with smaller, more intimate performances.

“You hear the singers really clearly; you see their expressions really easily,” he said. “You don't need opera glasses.”

It also works to bring opera to a wider audience with small informal performances at St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market, the Largo Cultural Center and the St. Petersburg Main Library.

Ticket sales, donations and fundraisers bring in about $600,000 per year. Most of that budget goes toward major productions, which cost as much as $150,000 to stage.

That includes sending a small team to New York to audition for singers.

“If you have New York auditions, it adds prestige to your company,” said Preis.

Despite its growth, the company still has a family feel.

Preis, who owns three companies that produce electrical components, is one of about 20 volunteers who keep the company operating.

Large productions are scheduled so they do not coincide with performances of the Florida Orchestra, whose musicians the opera company sometimes hires.

Singers from New York stay in the homes of volunteers rather than in a hotel.

“You follow their career,” said Preis. “It's like you have a personal investment in your guest.”

Lack of resources sometimes also means smaller stage sets, a limitation that often leads to innovative solutions, Sforzini said.

“That creativity is our brand of opera,” Sforzini said.


codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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