St. Pete Opera Reaches Younger Crowd With Operazzi

St. Petersburg’s Hollander Hotel is funky and eclectic, with beautiful terrazzo floors, a tiled fireplace and retro furniture from the ‘50s. There’s an enormous deer head with antlers above the bar in the Tap Room.

It’s definitely not the kind of swanky place one might think to go for cocktails after an evening at the opera.

But on Friday nights, the Hollander is filled with locals and tourists, as well as members of the Operazzi, a new social networking group for the St. Petersburg Opera Company.  

The Operazzi, which is anything but stuffy, likes to hang out there.  In June, after the opera company’s opening night performance of West Side Story, the cast members were there too, mingling with the crowd. Opera stars were jumping in to sing a few tunes, accompanied by a pianist at the baby grand piano.

The Hollander has been so supportive of us. We just kind of take over for a big party after opening night and they’ve been great,” says Susie Hellman, the arts and development associate for the St. Petersburg Opera Company, and a singer herself -- she is an operatic soprano who has sung locally and around the state. 

The party at the Hollander is just one of several new initiatives the St. Petersburg Opera Company has undertaken in the past year to reach out to the community and draw in a more diverse, younger audience.  

Matt Chambers, 39, is the first VP and portfolio manager at UBS Financial Service. Until six years ago, he had never attended an opera. Now he’s the chairperson of Operazzi.

“I was never exposed to opera as a kid, but I travel to New York a lot and got hooked on Broadway shows and live musicals. That was my segue into opera,” says Chambers.   

Locally, he had tickets to the Florida Orchestra and loved the music but missed the theatrical part of the performance, he says.

When a client got involved with the St. Petersburg Opera Company, which was new at the time, Chambers ran an ad in the program and then attended his first show.  

He was impressed with the quality of the performance and the capability of Mark Sforzini, the opera company’s executive director and artistic director.  

Chambers bought season tickets and then three years later, was asked to join the organization’s board of directors.  

As one of the youngest board members, one of his priorities was to figure out how to diversify the audience and engage a younger crowd.  

“That doesn’t mean we were only targeting young professionals,” says Chambers.  “Traditionally, opera fans tend to be in their 70s.  We just wanted to reach out to the next generation and build solid support so the opera company would continue to be appreciated 20 years or more from now.”  

With Chambers in the lead, a small committee of opera fans began brainstorming ways to make that happen.  For one of their first projects, they invited the public to a rehearsal at Opera Central.

Sharing The Love

Opera Center is the opera company’s new headquarters not far from the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District.  It’s where administrative offices, storage facilities for costumes and sets, and a small stage are located.  

St. Petersburg’s Palladium Theater, is the location of actual performances by the opera company, whose season extends nearly year-round.

“For that first event, we were able to get the wine and hors d'oeuvres donated to create a happy hour type party,” says Chambers.  “There was no charge, just a donation bucket.  The idea was to just bring people in to introduce them to the art form without having to attend an actual main event.”

The next step was to use social media to help create a group of “like-minded” people interested in developing an appreciation for the operatic art form.  

After a contest to come up with a name, the group was christened “Operazzi.”  Some 230 people are now listed as part of the group on its Facebook page.

Chambers also approached the Hollander about serving as a setting for an Operazzi happy hour/party after each show’s opening night performance.  

The Hollander, which does some innovative marketing of its own, such as hosting a popular weekly Trivia night, not only agreed to the idea, but offered an incentive -- bring your ticket stub from a performance and get one free drink.  

“The Hollander event is great marketing for us because even if you didn’t attend a performance at the opera, If you happen to be there when we’re there, you’ll get to hear some of our opera stars sing,” says Chambers.

A Place For Friends

Nelson Varajao, a St. Petersburg attorney with his own practice, serves on the Operazzi steering committee with Chambers. Now 29, he’s been a fan of the opera since he was in his teens.

For opening night in June – a performance of the popular musical, West Side Story, he invited 11 friends. Their reaction? “They loved the show and really enjoyed mingling with the cast at the Hollander,” says Varajao. “It was a very well attended mixer.”

Just learning that St. Petersburg had a dedicated opera company was a big surprise, he says.

Varajao had been attending the opera regularly in Sarasota and Tampa (both cities have well-known opera companies). But not until he and a client met with Tash Elwyn of Raymond James Financial did he hear about St. Petersburg’s company. Elwyn just happens to be a St. Petersburg Opera board member.

“When Tash mentioned the opera company here, I was really surprised,” says Varajao. “I had no idea. Tash put me in touch with Susie Hellman and Tom McCandless, the board president, and then I attended my first committee meeting with Matt.”

Opera combines theater, dance and music for a fantastic experience, says Varajao.

“I’m not musically inclined, but I was an athlete so I understand the rigorous training that is required to become good,’’ Varajao says. “There is intense preparation for what we see on stage during an opera. The emotion, passion and sound that comes forth during a performance is amazing.”

While many arts organizations and other nonprofits have affiliated groups that are primarily concerned with fundraising, Operazzi is primarily about “friend-raising,” says Hellman. “A lot of people are afraid of the opera and we’re hoping to change that with education and opportunities that are fun and inexpensive.”

Operazzi creates an opportunity to attend the opera with a group of like-minded people, not always an easy task, says Varajao. “We’re very interested in finding people who either know they’re interested in opera, or don’t know it yet.”

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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