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St. Petersburg Opera gives public peek at new home

Company members serenade Nancy J. Preis during the grand opening of Opera Central in St. Petersburg on Friday.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Company members serenade Nancy J. Preis during the grand opening of Opera Central in St. Petersburg on Friday.

As the smallest of three opera companies in a 40-mile radius, St. Petersburg Opera has worked hard to grow and survive.

On Friday, it was time to show off its success.

The 8-year-old company unveiled its first-ever permanent home, Opera Central, in a packed open house Friday. The 10,000 square-foot building in the heart of the Grand Central and Warehouse Arts districts at 2145 First Ave. S will serve as a rehearsal hall, office space, costume shop and home base.

"I think it's remarkable," Mayor Bill Foster said of the opera's new digs. "I first heard them perform in Straub Park years ago. I had no idea we had such stellar local talent."

The company's ability to thrive with both the Sarasota Opera Company and Opera Tampa nearby is no surprise to its financial or artistic directors, who followed a carefully thought-out strategy.

For instance, St. Pete Opera schedules performances when Tampa and Sarasota do not. "We stay out of their space. We are providing opera when they're not," said Nancy Preis, the company's CFO.

The opera wanted its orchestra mainstays — those musicians who are hired for an entire season — to be mostly from the Florida Orchestra, so they worked around the orchestra's schedule to avoid conflicts.

Even rehabbing and furnishing its new space was well planned. The the vacant warehouse the company finally settled on was almost perfect.

"We only had to move one wall," Preis said, "two feet."

A large room across the back is the main hall for rehearsals, small productions and even an occasional catered affair for those wishing to rent the space. It has two other large rooms that are being used as costume and set-building shops.

In August last year, it paid $425,000 for the building, which needed about $600,000 in renovations.

The company set out to raise $1 million in a capital campaign in February, including naming rights to rooms in the new building — and the building itself, on which a donor can put his or her name for $500,000. The campaign reached only 63 percent of its goal, and the opera borrowed money to finish some work.

Then Preis, artistic director Mark Sforzini and his partner, artistic administrator Michael Roberts, collaborated to choose colors, tile, flooring, bathroom fixtures and even the center hall chandelier.

"We have very different ideas but we made a lot of wise choices," she said.

Perhaps the acquisition of which Preis is most proud is a conveyor that hangs from the ceiling in the costume shop and maximizes space. Originally in an Orlando dry cleaner, Preis found it on eBay.

With the opening hoopla behind them, Preis said they can now look forward to next year's major performances, which include Susannah (Jan. 31-Feb. 4), Norma (June 6-10) and West Side Story (June 27-July 6).

While Sarasota Opera and Opera Tampa perform in much larger venues with orchestra pits, Preis said there's a lot to be said for the intimacy of a production in which the musicians and the singers share the same space.

"When there's an orchestra pit, there's immediately 25 feet between the singers and the audience," she said. At the Palladium Theater where they perform, the orchestra is behind the singers.

"You can practically feel the sweat. It's opera up close and personal," Preis said.

Patti Ewald can be reached at pewald@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8746.

St. Petersburg Opera gives public peek at new home 10/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 25, 2013 6:07pm]

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