As Florida Grand Opera opens season, new director charts an ambitious and adventurous course
The day after Susan Danis moved to Miami to take up the position of general director of Florida Grand Opera, she leaned forward at lunch and said, “I have to tell you that first financial meeting was the scariest one I’ve ever had in my life.”
FGO will open its 72nd season Saturday night at the Arsht Center with Puccini’s beloved La bohème starring Ailyn Pérez and Arturo Chacón-Cruz. Yet some of the most intriguing local opera news these days is going on behind the scenes with Danis already shaking up a company that has long been desperately in need of some fresh administrative blood.
The challenges facing FGO’s new leader are considerable to be sure. But after more than a decade of unstable finances and artistic stagnation under the 28-year reign of her predecessor Robert Heuer, Danis seems the ideal person to take FGO out of its extended slump, restore some artistic integrity and get the struggling Miami company back on a secure financial footing.
Danis comes to Miami after 15 years as executive director of Sarasota Opera. During her tenure the company earned a national reputation that made it a destination for opera aficionados beyond the local, well-heeled retirement community. Sarasota Opera has won international acclaim for its ongoing complete Verdi cycle under the fiery direction of artistic director Victor DeRenzi. The company has commissioned new works for its Sarasota Youth Opera performances, and last year launched a new American Classics Series. The project presents an American opera every season, and Sarasota has already mounted productions of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa and Robert Ward’s The Crucible, with Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men to be presented in March.
“Just about everything I know about being an arts administrator, I learned from Susan Danis,” said Richard Russell, her successor as executive director at Sarasota Opera who worked under Danis as the company’s marketing director for five years. “She is an extraordinarily capable administrator and the hardest worker of anyone I’ve worked with, with a fierce determination to succeed.”
“Susan has a tremendous love and infectious enthusiasm for opera, as well as a tireless devotion to promoting it as a community service,” says FGO’s incoming board chairman William Hill. “She is a proven leader with decades of success in opera management. And she shares the board of directors’ vision of excellence in opera and professionalism in the company.
“Thus far, Susan’s tenure has been very successful,” he adds. “Operations are more efficient, fundraising is off to a great start, and she has a plan for a tremendously inventive and exciting season for 2013-14. We at the board could not be happier with her start, and are looking forward to great things from her.”
Danis has clearly hit the ground running, already making ambitious artistic plans while trying to stabilize FGO’s financial situation.
Coming to terms with FGO’s singular accounting methods proved to be a quick crash course. “Just getting a handle on the way things are budgeted, the budget process, how the cash flows is challenging,” she said. “Walking into an organization as your first show is going up and just really getting your arms around it and making sure you have it all under control is definitely a little daunting.”
FGO is currently running a $7 million deficit, a significant shortfall in an organization with an annual budget of just $10.5 million a year.
Still, the company is moving ahead to aright the fiscal ship. Danis said FGO is accelerating the sale of its property across the street from the Arsht Center, which she says will eliminate the current deficit with some money to spare. “We’ll have a couple shekels left over.”
The FGO board has also been restructured with some of the inactive dead wood removed. “I think people are more keenly aware now that if you’re going to be on the board we need your support,” she said. “It’s great to have your name in the program but we hope that if you’re on the board that you will actually come to the opera and support it.”
She said one of her biggest challenges has been finding a better, more cost-effective balance between the product and administration. “The corporate culture here functions a little bit differently than what I’ve been used to,” she said. “It’s a little looser.”
Her immediate goal is to get expenses under control without sacrificing quality on stage. “I like to ask people, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and if they say, ‘Well, we’ve always done it that way,’ then I know that’s something that can be reevaluated.”
“The art comes first. I mean we have to have great art to excite people to want to support us. But there also has to be a system in place.”
Many opera fans in Miami have complained about this year’s über-conservative FGO lineup. But for a company looking to straighten out its finances, the populist programming seems to be paying off with single-ticket sales running $74,000 ahead of last year. Danis is looking to quickly fill the dormant position of director of development to start finding new patrons and donors, both private and corporate. She also wants to start building up a significant reserve fund to avoid the kind of emergency financial crisis that nearly cut short the company’s season last spring.
Crucial as the financials are, it is her rejuvenation of the artistic side that should soon prove the most heartening to Miami opera audiences. In her second meeting on the job, Danis met with FGO music director Ramon Tebar to plan the 2013-14 season and to discuss what the vision of the company should be. “We want to establish a brand and figure out what we want to look like as a company moving forward.”
Clearly Danis takes the words of architect Daniel Burnham—“Make no little plans”—to heart. She is firmly committed to expanding FGO’s season and ultimately presenting six operas a year, which hasn’t been seen at FGO since the opening season at the Arsht Center in 2006.
Her formula for future seasons is to stage more 20th- and 21st-century works; engage some big-name singers every season; present more German repertory; and deliver an eye-popping production every year that will get people talking.
“We are really going to make a commitment to newer works,” said Danis. “We’re hoping that each year there will be something 20th- or 21st-century. Long term, we would like to jump on the boat with companies such as Santa Fe that are already commissioning new works.
“We’ve also had a lot of people saying that they wish we would explore more of the Germanic repertoire. And so, we’re going to try to do that with some Strauss and Wagner and a little heavier rep than we’ve done in the past.”
One of the main criticisms leveled at FGO in the past decade has been the reliance on young and often tyro singers and the lack of big names. That is another area that Danis hopes to remedy. “We want to have some really well-known artists during every season. It will be tough to do next year because our casting is so short out and great people are obviously already taken.”
Finally, Danis expects to present one visually stunning staging every season. “We want to have one production every year that is either technologically or from the scenic perspective kind of mind-blowing.”
That’s not to say that more populist operas will be forgotten, she adds. “There will always be a warhorse in every season. It’s the way in to opera for a lot of people and we want to make sure we keep that.”
“Not bad for four weeks, right?”
Danis is also looking at FGO presenting performances at the Broward Center’s more intimate Amaturo Theater. “We all love the small hall at Broward,” she said. “As we regrow the product, I think we’ll be looking at doing some more non-traditional programming in smaller spaces as we try to get back to six [productions]. You’ll definitely see new and different types of programs.”
Towards that end, with the aid of a Knight grant, FGO will be presenting a double bill of Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires and Robert Rodriguez’s Tango in Miami’s Design District in March. “They’re both great pieces and I’m excited that we’ll be doing more different things like that.”
She is also exploring the potential for collaboration and “creative partnership” with Palm Beach Opera down the road. “We’re not going to combine into one big company,” she stressed. “But it might be that we might wind up sharing a production.”
On the personal side, with just a couple months on the job, Danis said she feels like she is settling in to life in her new city. “I’m very much enjoying life in Miami even though I spend most of it in my office. I’m starting to learn shortcuts to the office so I don’t have to drive the same way all the time. And it’s been gorgeous. When you wake up and it’s 64 degrees you can’t believe you’re in Miami.”
And what has she been doing for diversion in her spare time out of the office since taking the top job at Florida Grand Opera. “That’s hard. Sleep?
“When we have $50 million in the bank and we’re back to producing six operas a year then I’ll breathe a little easier.”
Florida Grand Opera opens its season with Puccini’s La bohème 7 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center starring Ailyn Pérez and Arturo Chacón-Cruz. fgo.org; 800-741-1010.