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‘Catalyst Sessions’ recap: Mark Sforzini of St. Pete Opera

Bill DeYoung

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St. Petersburg Opera founder and artistic director Mark Sforzini will emcee Saturday's free livestream event. Photo by Jim Swallow

Wednesday evening’s edition of The Catalyst Sessions featured a live, streaming interview with Mark Sforzini, the founder, executive director and artistic director of St. Petersburg Opera Company. The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic came just before his organization was about to announce its 15th season, due to begin in October.

The last full opera production of Season 14, Donzinetti’s cinematic La fille du Regiment (Daughter of the Regiment), was on the books for late May.

“We had all the cast, the orchestra, the chorus, the designers, the directors,” Sforzini said. “We already have a set design. They were about to start cutting the wood on the set right before this whole thing happened.”

The good news? The show WILL go on, as the first production of the fall. “So we are ready to go with Daughter of the Regiment. I have been in touch with the cast members, and they’re all on board to do it in October.”

And this: “We are holding out hope that we’re going to go forward with our Pops Spectacular on July Fourth weekend. We have not cancelled that yet.”

It’s a big, celebratory program of Broadway favorites and American patriotic songs, with full orchestra, chorus and soloists. “It is my sincere hope that we are past this, and people are allowed to go out, and willing and excited to gather for something like that. So that could still happen.”

St. Pete Opera performances are fully staged and fully orchestrated, and feature many of the best young singers from around the country and beyond.

Sforzini agreed that the “stigma” around opera – that it’s stiff, archaic and difficult to understand – still exists, and it’s something he and his group are constantly trying to dispel.

“There’s an old style of opera – I call it park and bark – where somebody comes out and stands still for six minutes, and sings and never moves, and watches the orchestra conductor,” he said. “That might be appropriate for a small percentage of the songs. But so much of the action in opera really does require engagement and action and moving around.

“So it’s been a quality that I’ve tried to promote in St. Pete Opera from the very beginning, that we really have a lot of engaging, interesting stage movement and genuine interaction. And a high level of acting skills from our performers.”

Sforzini also talked about the financial strain on his nonprofit arts organization. “We are applying for every type of assistance that we’re eligible for,” he said, “through the Small Business Administration, the PPP and others. It’s a really tough time. And we need people’s support. But we are going to survive.”

The wide-ranging discussion concluded with a surprise virtual appearance, from Tampa, of tenor Sam Hall – a frequent performer with St. Petersburg Opera Company – and a chilling live performance of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.”

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