Unless I missed the coverage, the death of 94-year-old Alex Steinweiss in Sarasota a few months ago didn’t get much attention in the local press. While Steinweiss wasn’t a household name, he made a major impact on the lives of generations of music lovers.
In 1938, while working as an advertising artist for Columbia Records, Steinweiss created the first custom artwork for record album covers. Until then, all 78 rpm recordings came in plain brown box-like packages. It was Steinweiss’s idea to create packaging that would attract the customer’s attention. He conceived of the covers as miniature posters, with eye-catching graphics and vivid colors. His first cover, for a collection of Rodgers and Hart songs, showed a photo of a theater marquee with the title in lights. His idea was an instant success, with sales of some recordings increasing nearly tenfold with the new covers. A decade later, when Columbia introduced the new LP albums, Steinweiss came up with the design for the cardboard jacket that would become the industry standard.
Steinweiss left the music business when he was 55 to pursue his own artwork, including ceramic pottery and paintings. After he and his wife, Blanche, retired to Sarasota in 1974, he designed posters for a number of local arts
organizations, including the Sarasota Opera and the Jazz Club of Sarasota.
Steinweiss was a charming, gregarious man, whom I got to know well over the years. My last interview with him in 2002 coincided with a 2,400-piece exhibition of his work at a New York gallery and at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. “All this fuss at this stage of my life is truly amazing, and enormously satisfying,” he told me.
FST Expands Florida Studio Theatre doesn’t get the attention that larger organizations do. But is there a bigger cultural success story in town? FST performs to sold-out audiences in three theaters on Palm Avenue and First Street. With 11,000 subscribers, FST is running out of room to serve future audiences. That’s why artistic director Richard Hopkins has announced plans for a $5.8 million expansion.
The project will include the renovation of the Gompertz Theatre (which will get 70 more seats and a new sidewalk café) and the construction of an 18,000-square-foot new building. That will house a new 130-seat cabaret theater and a 100-seat laboratory theater for experimental productions. With the new spaces, FST estimates it could see its subscriber base grow to 20,000.
Amazingly in this economy, FST has already raised $4.4 million for the expansion, which will be completed in phases over the next four years.
DeRenzi Celebrates Opera Milestone Victor DeRenzi, who marks his 30th anniversary as Sarasota Opera’s artistic director this season, isn’t at all surprised he’s stayed in the same position for so long.
“I didn’t come here with plans to leave; I didn’t come with the thought of moving on,” DeRenzi told me over lunch at his favorite restaurant, Café Americano. “When I got here, the company was small, and without any real vision or mission, so I was able to create the company that I wanted, that reflected my artistic vision. It still does, so other job opportunities never interested me. I can’t imagine a more satisfying place to be.”
That artistic vision is reflected in productions that respect tradition rather than try to break new ground with high-concept interpretations. “We find the composer’s interpretation rather than impose one of our own,” DeRenzi says. “My primary goal is to tell a story, and to have as much respect for the text as for the music.”
Under DeRenzi, Sarasota Opera has attracted international attention for staging not only deeply loved works but obscure or rarely performed operas. He has also given the company a distinctive edge by committing to perform every work by his prodigious operatic idol, Giuseppe Verdi. This winter season, which begins Feb. 11 with Carmen, will include Verdi’s Otello. Also in the mix are Lucia de Lammermoor and Vanessa. A highlight of the season will be a March 25 gala concert celebrating DeRenzi’s tenure.
DeRenzi didn’t plan the season with his milestone in mind. Economics were more of a factor. “In the last few years, we were very much affected by the economy, and we did productions we already had the sets for,” he says. “But this year, we’re doing all new productions.”
Prodded to get reflective, DeRenzi says he’s proud not only of Sarasota Opera’s artistic growth, but of the impact the organization has had in the larger community. About the time DeRenzi arrived, the company purchased the former Edwards Theatre and subsequently transformed it into the Sarasota Opera House, thereby sparking a downtown renaissance. “And some people forget that the Sarasota Ballet began under the auspices of the opera,” DeRenzi notes.
Though DeRenzi says he’s “found a few” of the 80 pounds he lost a few years ago, the maestro still looks fit and exudes enthusiasm as he prepares for opening night. But DeRenzi will be 66 in 2016, when Sarasota Opera completes the Verdi Cycle. Might that be the perfect time to retire? He recoiled in mock horror at the thought.
“There are other things I’d like to do—I’d like to teach more, and I’ve been keeping notes for books I’d like to write,” he says. “But the performance aspect of opera is still what I care about most.”
Most Valuable Play-goer As the first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto is usually the one getting the applause. But on the opening night of the Asolo Rep’s glorious production of My Fair Lady, Votto joined the capacity audience in giving the performers a standing ovation.
Votto, who won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award in 2010, and who has a reputation as one of the sport’s nicest guys, was the guest of Asolo board member John Welch and his wife, Myrna. Votto discovered Sarasota when it was the Reds’ spring-training headquarters, and he continues to make his off-season home here. He and Welch met while playing basketball at the Sarasota YMCA.
I’m told that Votto, who occasionally catches a Broadway show when he’s playing in New York, enjoyed My Fair Lady so much that he’s going to try to attend a future Asolo production.