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St. Pete Banker By Day Turns Opera Star By Night







In college, Rim Karnavicius dreamed of being a professional opera singer. It wasn't an idle dream -- he earned an undergraduate and master's degree in vocal performance from the University of Florida's College of Fine Arts.

But as he was about to graduate in 1981, he thought long and hard about his career choice.

"In my final year at college I had met with a lot of people that were actively performing nationwide," he recalls.  "They talked to him about their joy in performing but also shared stories of fighting for jobs, living out of a suitcase and worrying about the next payday.

"To be honest, it was a lifestyle I didn't want to lead. I wanted something a little more stable."

So he returned home to St. Petersburg, where he eventually became a mortgage banker and bank officer with Whitney National Bank.  Singing went on the shelf as he became active in Leadership St. Petersburg and other community organizations.

Rim (short for Rimas) and his brother, Al, who owns the printing company Bayprint, became familiar faces in St. Petersburg's business community. Rim became president of the Leadership St. Petersburg  Alumni Association and Al took an active role in the local Lithuanian community.

As for singing, "it was the dream that I had pretty much given up on when I left college," Rim says.

But then, love changed everything. In 1999 he met Michelle Rego (who  became his wife in 2006). She had also trained as a professional singer, and she encouraged him to awaken his long-silent baritone. Michelle introduced Rim to some vocal teachers and soon he found himself singing again.

He performed with the Herald Vocal Arts Ensemble and Florida Pro Musica. Then as St. Petersburg Opera took shape in 2002 and 2003, he and Michelle were offered the chance to sing in the chorus of the Johann Strauss opera Die Fledermaus.

"When this opportunity with St. Petersburg Opera Company came along, I jumped on it," he says.

Banking On the Baritone

Not counting his current role as a choral singer and understudy for one of the leads in the January 2011 production of Rigoletto, he has sung in nine productions with the St. Petersburg Opera Company, understudying roles in La Boheme, Elixir of Love, Don Giovanni and appeared as Pritschitsch in The Merry Widow, and the dual role of narrator/mysterious man in the production of Stephen Sondheim' s Into the Woods.

Mark Sforzini, executive and artistic director of St. Petersburg Opera, says Rim has been a very valuable member of the organization, both as a singer and more recently, as a board president.

"Rim has been with us since my third opera. He's done a whole bunch of different things. He's sung in the chorus, he's sung big roles, and he stepped up and helped with our board," Sforzini says.

His business background has been as much an asset for the company as his towering presence on stage and his big bass/baritone voice.

"I think the real eye-opener for me was just about the time I came on board to serve we were primarily funded by a single donor. That donor pulled up stakes a month before one of our productions. We had to immediately seek a broader base of support. Now the opera company, instead of depending on one single primary donor, has hundreds of donors," he says.

And the company consistently sells out its productions at St. Petersburg's Palladium Theater.

In Rigoletto, working as an understudy proved to be more than just another part to learn.  The lead fell ill in the week prior to the show and that left Rim to sing the part during dress rehearsal and to be on call through three shows.

Nurturing Local Talent

Rim's emergence in bigger roles is part of the plan at the St. Petersburg Opera. While the opera casts many roles from national auditions, Sforzini says local singers who prove themselves do move into bigger roles.

"I try to create opportunities for people who are living right here. And after they've done a period of work with the company in smaller capacities, they often get a shot at doing something bigger," Sforzini says.

Rim's friends and co-workers don't always understand his passion for opera, but he finds them very supportive.

"I think the truth of the matter is they are intrigued by it. People are very supportive, especially if you have a passion about something," he says.

But the double life can cut into your social and family time. His brother laughs when asked about Rim's business and artistic combination.

"Jeez, I never see the guy. He's just too busy," says Al Karnavicius. "But seriously, he's able to juggle it pretty well. I think he's pulling off a very nice balancing act that many of us wish we could do."

Rim says the cultural growth of St. Petersburg, from the resort and retirement town to the explosive growth of arts and cultural activities of today - has given him the chance to sing professionally without leaving his home or his job.

"I'm able to do both things -- make a living and stay involved in our community. But I'm also able to participate with a really high-quality opera company."

Paul Wilborn, a former newspaper reporter, is the executive director of the Palladium Theater at St. Petersburg College and an occasional contributor to 83 Degrees. Paul and his wife, Eugenie Bondurant, are restoring an historic home near downtown St. Petersburg. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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