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Staying in tune: Music and the pandemic

Bill DeYoung



The performing arts, which by definition require a crowd of people in a single space, took a major hit from the pandemic.

St. Petersburg’s two nonprofit musical entities, the Florida Orchestra and St. Petersburg Opera Company, were approaching the end of their respective 2019-2020 seasons when Covid sent audiences scurrying in mid-March. Every scheduled performance and/or event was canceled, including some major fundraisers, and although summertime more or less means “downtime” for these organizations, preparing any sort of fall season involved guesswork, bravery, wishful thinking and the ability to pivot on a dime because of the changing pandemic numbers.

Mark Cantrell, the CEO and executive director of the Florida Orchestra, and St. Pete Opera executive and artistic director Mark Sforzini were asked a few questions about coping … call this “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.”


Sum up the last six months for us?


Cantrell: Like pushing water up a hill. With your hands. We’re trying to do what we think is best, and we’re trying to build flexibility into what we’re doing – so if something goes sideways on us, we don’t have to just stop and say “We’ll see you in a year.” Orchestras, in general, are never really flexible. So this has been a learning exercise. Frankly, it’s a little scary, but I also find it to be incredibly invigorating and exciting. It’s been a really tough time for the arts community. I don’t think we’re ever going to get back to normal as it used to be. The new normal? I think we’re re-defining it as we go.


Sforzini: At first, just like everybody, nobody was going anywhere. It was like a big deal to go to the grocery store once a week. We were all thinking this was going to pass faster, we’ll get back to doing live things … and then there was the realization that this is going to go on a lot longer than we first thought. Then it’s “How are we going to adapt and do things differently?” Now, we’re living that adapted period where we can go out and do things, but we have to be smart and safe about it. We’re trying to be creative and inventive about how we can bring people music and opera, because we’re not going to just jump back into doing fully-staged productions any time soon.


How has it affected the business aspect of what you do? Were you ever in danger of crashing and burning?

Sforzini: Well, we really slashed expenses. We really cut back. And we worked hard on fundraising. We just managed to finish Season 14 in the black, by just a little bit, thanks to our supporters and our successful virtual gala. But really, all our success was donors being generous and wanting us to survive. We have such a loyal donor base. Our family of supporters has really been there for us.

Cantrell: With every single nonprofit and arts organization, that’s always in the back of our minds. The thought was “Hey, this could go south on us in a hurry – what do we have to do to make sure this doesn’t happen?” Was I concerned that this could be disastrous? You bet your million dollars. Am I stiill? Absolutely. But it’s being concerned about it, and not overwhelmed by that fear … coming up with ways of doing things is what makes it possible to go forward. And we have great supporters; we had $450,000 worth of ticket revenue that was converted into donations. That’s huge.


Are you anticipating that things will eventually get back to where they were, or are we looking at an entirely new model for the future?

Cantrell: This Covid thing has been a horrible, horrible thing. But to look for a silver lining, what this is going to do – for orchestras in particular – is we’ll be forced to look at things in a new light. This could have been the catalyst, or the kick in the pants, that says “Hey, we’ve got to find a new way of doing business. We need to make these changes permanent, and not go back to the way we did things.” Are we going to continue playing classical music? Yes. That’s what orchestras do. Are we going to continue to do things in the old manner? No. We’ve been forced to change, so now we need to take those changes and apply them to whatever our new normal’s going to be.

Sforzini: This is just today’s prediction, based on where we are at this moment, because things keep changing. But I’m thinking we might do some outdoor operas in March and April. And maybe we’ll be able to do our late May/June indoor opera, or an indoor concert opera? If the vaccine comes out, it’s going to be a while before everybody has access to it, so I don’t see things getting back to what we call normal until the 21/22 season. I think we’ll probably maintain some element of making our performances online, and streaming performances, too. We’re learned about technology, too. The vision for the new normal is going to be with all of the things we’ve learned during this period.




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