The MUSE Awards: Mark Sforzini and the art of conductivity

The founder and music director of St. Pete Opera doesn't know the meaning of "down time."

St. Petersburg Arts Alliance Muse Awards Benefit Fundraiser

At 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9

St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE

Tickets here


click to enlarge SEEING DOUBLE: Mark Sforzini isn't a fan of down time and seems to be in several places at once. - Bill DeYoung
Bill DeYoung
SEEING DOUBLE: Mark Sforzini isn't a fan of down time and seems to be in several places at once.

Part five of five.

It was early in Mark Sforzini’s study of the bassoon that his instructors advised him to consider opera singers. The instrument — a member of the wind family — utilizes vibrato and phrasing not unlike those of a vocalist.

“The idea,” says Sforzini, “is that you’re supposed to sing through your instrument. Much like a singer just sings.”

During the 15 years he spent as principal bassoon with the Florida Orchestra, Sforzini’s study of and appreciation for opera grew exponentially. He began to conduct opera in the Tampa Bay area in 2005, and within two years had founded St. Petersburg Opera Company, which has since become a cornerstone of our cultural community.

“I think it really was destined to become,” he theorizes. “Because things started to fall in place, and take on momentum like a snowball gathering speed down a hill. When I first started conducting the operas, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about starting an opera company.”

Nevertheless, he and his audience found each other like needles in a haystack.

“People who love St. Petersburg like the idea that a city that is having a cultural renaissance would have a professional opera company,” Sforzini believes. “And a quality professional opera company!”

With Sforzini as musical director, conductor and chief bottle-washer, St. Pete Opera — granted nonprofit status in 2009 — operates on grant money, donor contributions and ticket sales. Nearly all of the company’s shows are sellouts.

He’s not nuts about pushing paper as an administrator, but Sforzini knows how to get the job done.

“When I got started, there was only me,” he says. “And I did everything, or I had to outsource to an independent contractor to do whatever.

“Now, we have seven people on staff, counting myself. So we’re growing, and as we continue to grow I will probably segment off more of the non-artistic things I do to other people. But it takes time to build that.”

The company opens Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Palladium Theatre on Feb. 2, a week before Sforzini’s honored with the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance’s 2018 MUSE Award in Performance Arts.

Each season, St. Pete Opera produces three fully staged operas with three performances each, one Broadway or light opera show with three to six performances, and a holiday program with two performances. 

The orchestra is made up of local professionals. The singers come from everywhere.

“We’re attracting such wonderful talent,” Sforzini says. “I’m so thankful for that. Knock on wood, we seem to have a tremendous reputation in the opera world, and people want to audition for us. We had over 700 applications for the last auditions cycle. I heard 350 of those singers — four days in New York City, four days here in St. Pete.”

He is a “people person,” and thinks of himself as easy to work for.

“I believe the primary job of a music director should be to inspire the artist to want to do their best, for the music and for the score,” he explains. “And so I try to do that. It’s not just ‘my way.’ They’re chosen because they have unique gifts. And so it’s encouraging them to bring those gifts to the forefront. I don’t believe in leading by intimidation.”

Sometimes, though, he has to be the boss.

“Those decisions are made on 27 years of professional musical experience. Like I decided we’re going to sing The Magic Flute in German, and we’re going to do the dialogue in English. That was not a democratic process.

“I believe that Mozart would want, in a primarily English-speaking country, the people to be able to easily understand the dialogue scenes.”

The Magic Flute, he explains, is a singspiel, a form of light opera which is half sung and half spoken.

“In a way,” Sforzini continues, “these were the first musical theater pieces. Mozart and his librettist wanted The Magic Flute to appeal to everybody, not just the aristocracy. And it had special effects and 13 scene changes — the things we think of with Broadway musicals.

“There’s a lot of similarities. And I like to do a musical each year, because of that close connection between what opera is and music theater. I think a lot of people will come see West Side Story or South Pacific, and then come back thinking ‘Let’s try Tosca’ or ‘Let’s try La Traviata.’”

Mark Sforzini, it seems, is not a fan of “down time.” He was principal conductor of both the Pinellas Youth Symphony (three years) and FloriMezzo (six years). His compositions have been performed by the Florida Orchestra, Omaha Symphony, Sarasota Orchestra, Naples Philharmonic, Alabama Symphony, Brevard Symphony — and the Tampa Bay Symphony, which appointed him Music Director in 2012.

Under Sforzini’s baton, the Tampa Bay Symphony has established a Call for Scores competition to promote 21st-century works by composers from around the world (exposing people to living composers is yet another of his passions).

The Tampa Bay Symphony, which includes retired professional musicians and music educators, will premiere Sforzini’s Premium Blend Double Concerto for Bassoon and Clarinet Feb. 20. Sforzini will play bassoon, alongside Brian Moorehead, longtime principal clarinetist of the Florida Orchestra.

In a bittersweet way, it reminds him why he left his steady bassooning gig in the first place.

“When you compose, you’re envisioning all the parts in an orchestra,” Sforzini says. “When you’re play, you’re rendering one part. And that’s a great art, that’s a great craft — I have tremendous respect for the people who render these parts so beautifully. And for many people, that’s enough. That’s what they want to do.

“But I wanted more than that. I wanted to play a role in the entire production.” 

click to enlarge Amazing But True: Mark Sforzini was a precocious 10-year-old kid from Alabama when he won the title of World Hula Hoop Champion on Dinah Shore's TV show, in 1979. “Nine regional winners competed at Six Flags Over Georgia,” he beams, still proud of the accomplishment. “They took the top two winners, myself and a girl named Shari Lee from Hawaii, and put us in a showdown for the world title on the Dinah Shore show." That's young master Sforzini in front, and Dinah's co-host Bill Cosby (!) in back. The young lady at far left was a judge for the competition, which was sponsored by Wham-O, makers of hula hoops, Super Balls, the Slip 'N Slide and other super-cool stuff. - Courtesy of Mark Sforzini
Courtesy of Mark Sforzini
Amazing But True: Mark Sforzini was a precocious 10-year-old kid from Alabama when he won the title of World Hula Hoop Champion on Dinah Shore's TV show, in 1979. “Nine regional winners competed at Six Flags Over Georgia,” he beams, still proud of the accomplishment. “They took the top two winners, myself and a girl named Shari Lee from Hawaii, and put us in a showdown for the world title on the Dinah Shore show." That's young master Sforzini in front, and Dinah's co-host Bill Cosby (!) in back. The young lady at far left was a judge for the competition, which was sponsored by Wham-O, makers of hula hoops, Super Balls, the Slip 'N Slide and other super-cool stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 


About The Author

Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung was born in St. Pete and spent the first 22 years of his life here. After a long time as an arts and entertainment journalist at newspapers around Florida (plus one in Savannah, Ga.) he returned to his hometown in 2014.You’ll find his liner notes in more than 100 CDs by a wide range of artists including...
Scroll to read more Local Arts articles

Newsletters

Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.