ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—Mark Sforzini’s unfinished opera is about a complicated relationship.
Daisy Buchanan—you’ve heard of her—is an irrepressible teen. She is drawn to Jay Gatsby—you’ve heard of him—an enigmatic, though problematic, wealthy older man.
Sforzini labored over “Daisy,” his operatic prequel to “The Great Gatsby,” for more than a year. It was commissioned by a man he trusted. Then, one day, the checks stopped coming. The opera stopped cold.
Thousands of opera fans are attending the St. Petersburg Opera for performances this weekend. They are watching Sforzini conduct Mozart, unaware of this albatross in mothballs, tucked into files on an old laptop.
It has a song about the sweetness of love and life in it.
“There is this aria of regret . . .” Sforzini said. “We find that there’s this catharsis. She married the wealthy man. . . . It’s kind of like, ‘Don’t make the same mistake.’ “
This is the story.
Opera fans know Mark Sforzini.
At 46, he is a highly visible figure in the Tampa Bay area music scene. He is a co-founder of the St. Petersburg Opera Company, now in its 10th season, and conductor of the Tampa Bay Symphony.
Sforzini carries an air of the carefree. He is a natural ham who enjoys open rehearsals and lectures, who has worn Bedazzled shirts on stage.
The son of an aerospace engineer who taught at Auburn University, Sforzini grew up in Auburn, Ala. He played the piano, then the bassoon.
Performance, especially at the highest level, was his life. At 10, he became a World Hula Hoop champion, besting 16-year-olds. Sforzini was also a state diving champion. For two years in a row, he won gold and silver medals in separate events, yet was disappointed.
He wanted two golds in the same year.
He joined the Florida Orchestra in 1992. He was the orchestra’s principal bassoonist for 15 years. He composed music and served as the conductor of the Crested Butte Mountain Theater in Colorado.
Then he met Doyle McClendon.
Doyle McClendon was one of the Tampa Bay area’s largest arts donors. His contributions helped fund the Sarasota Opera and the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, among others.
The former Air Force captain had owned a successful software company in Washington, D.C. McClendon portrayed himself as a Renaissance man, and implied he had been in the CIA. No one knows for sure.
McClendon could be assertive, confident, caustic and blunt. Employees respected and feared him, said Mary Alice McClendon, his ex-wife.
In 2007, he sold the McClendon Corp., which offered top-secret technical assistance to clients like the CIA and National Security Agency, for $66 million.
That same year, McClendon and Mary Alice underwrote the Sarasota Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly and brought the Cleveland Orchestra to the Mahaffey Theater. Most of the time, they gave anonymously.
Then he met Mark Sforzini.
The fascination with Gatsby, the character, was all McClendon. He left it up to Sforzini to work out the plot, relishing a behind-the-scenes role.
He sensed in Sforzini a restless talent that still needed room to grow. And Sforzini wanted the challenge.
“I had a desire to be involved in the musical creation process beyond rendering one part in the score,” Sforzini said. “He came along at a time and probably sensed that boredom.”
It seemed like a dream arrangement. McClendon would bankroll a new opera company in St. Petersburg to the tune of $250,000. Sforzini, as artistic director, would be free to conduct and create.
Sforzini left the orchestra after 15 years in 2007 to start the St. Petersburg Opera Company and work on Daisy with McClendon.
“We were happy to help him, to guide him if needed,” Mary Alice said.
When it came to the daily operations of the opera, however, McClendon did more than watch from a balcony. He dictated which operas would be performed, and insisted on being the company’s only donor to keep full control, said Nancy Preis, the opera’s chief financial officer.
The company practiced scenes from Daisy in semi-public performances at The Studio@620. An aura of excitement swept through the budding company as Daisy took shape.
At the same time, the relationship that had made it all possible was showing signs of stress. Originally swept away by McClendon’s generosity, Sforzini had to face a more complicated relationship with his benefactor.
“He could be a jerk,” Sforzini said. “I’ll say that, too.”
Once, Sforzini said, McClendon spoke up during a workshop.
“He just interrupted in a loud voice at one point,” Sforzini said, “and said that he had heard enough and he wanted to hear some Don Giovanni.”
McClendon also began to cool on the Gatsby opera. When Sforzini played a piece he called Daisy’s Waltz, according to Preis, McClendon said, “That’s not exactly the Blue Danube.”
Word also spread that Mary Alice was not eager to see Sforzini’s opera performed publicly, that they preferred to give anonymously.
“That is correct,” she said.
But why did they finance something they didn’t want performed? That’s less clear. In principle, McClendon’s ex-wife said, she would not have minded the opera being performed “in some small way.”
Sforzini said there may be another reason. The McClendon marriage was heading for divorce.
“My understanding is that the opera I was working on was a 50th wedding anniversary present,” Sforzini said. “It was supposed to be for her. A gift to her. I think that’s why she didn’t want me to finish it and produce it.”
McClendon’s funds started drying up that same year — not just to the company, but the other organizations he helped support. The Sarasota Opera had to shorten its season after McClendon failed to follow through on a multimillion dollar pledge.
He promised more help coming to the St. Petersburg Opera.
“But I kind of knew I didn’t believe it,” Sforzini said. “This was going into the third season now, and I saw where things were headed.”
He is not sure what happened to McClendon’s money. The housing market had crashed and McClendon’s marriage to Mary Alice ended. McClendon also seemed to be experiencing dementia, his ex-wife said. He withdrew his support altogether and resigned from the opera’s board.
The money was gone.
Opera leaders scrambled to make up for the loss. They increased the number of shows to sell more tickets. They worked the phones much harder to make back $25 to $5,000 at a time.
“It’s one thing when there’s one person writing the checks,” said Preis. “It’s quite another when 200 people are writing the checks.”
There was no time left to work on the Gatsby opera. It was hard for Sforzini and friends who had been cheering him to take the opera’s back-burner status in stride, Preis said.
“It takes the wind out of your sails,” she said.
Sforzini put the opera away, and hasn’t talked about it very much. How do you face a disappointment like that?
When asked, Sforzini paused for 10, maybe 20 seconds.
“Sometimes,” he finally said, “there is something you want to say, but you just can’t say it.”
People give money to have their names on buildings, sometimes when they are alive and sometimes as legacy gifts after death. It’s how Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center last year became David Geffen Hall.
Most corporations and nonprofits log pledges as an account receivable — that is, cash owed to the organization. On the balance sheet they are recorded as an asset, the same column that logs cash received.
But things happen. A business goes bankrupt. The economy goes into freefall. A family finds a way not to honor the donor’s bequest.
“The woods are full of broken promises and defrocked or de-recognized donors,” said Preis.
Depending on the agreement, the debt may or may not be legally enforceable. But even when it is, organizations are loath to play hardball and potentially scare off other potential donors.
“Maybe someone’s business has decreased, although the pressures stayed the same,” said Judy Lisi, the president and chief executive officer of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. In such cases, the Straz might extend the time over which the pledge can be paid off.
“That has happened,” Lisi said. “Had we insisted, ‘No you have to pay it now,’ how does that help anyone?”
Lisi, who has raised more than $300 million for the Straz Center, has never seen a major donation shut down completely.
When that happens, arts organizations are notoriously unprepared. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hurt the Metropolitan Opera, but so did an unfulfilled pledge from its largest donor.
More than a half dozen local performing arts organizations contacted for this story said they receive anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of their income from donations. But of those, only Ruth Eckerd Hall could volunteer an estimate for possible unpaid pledges (about 10 percent).
When it comes to large pledges, said Zev Buffman, Ruth Eckerd’s president and chief executive officer, “It’s unusual, but there’s no recourse if the money is no longer there because it’s squandered away, it’s gone.”
McClendon moved to Ocala in 2010. His health weakened. In July 2010, for reasons investigators could not determine, McClendon, 73, drove his motorized scooter into traffic on NW U.S. 27. He was struck and killed.
Despite everything, Sforzini said he has no regrets and that he is still “98 percent positive” on McClendon.
“I guess I ultimately have to thank him for the direction my life took,” Sforzini said.
He created a special category in the program for cumulative gifts over $250,000. There is only one name other than Preis: Doyle McClendon.
The St. Petersburg Opera is doing well. Sforzini lives with Michael Roberts, his partner of 21 years, and their 13-year-old Labrador retriever, Lucy.
He still creates. The Tampa Bay Symphony is performing two of his compositions this month. Meanwhile, the opera he left behind might not be over. Talking about it seemed to energize him, like one of those gold medals he just barely missed.
“My interest in it is sort of sparked,” he said. “I’m excited about it all again, and thinking about when I might actually get back to finishing this big project I started.”
At home in South Tampa, Sforzini agreed to demonstrate his childhood Hula Hoop technique in the yard. He removed the Hula Hoops from the back of his car, as if always ready for requests such as this.
In the front yard, he dropped one hoop around his knees and quickly got it going.
Then came a second hoop around his hips. His slim frame writhing like a blacksnake, Sforzini activated a third hoop and a fourth, each moving in a different direction, spinning, beating on.