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As a new season opens, Susan Danis marks a decade leading Florida Grand Opera

January 19, 2022
By Lawrence Budmen
Susan Danis will leave FGO to become CEO of the La Jolla Music Society in October.
Susan Danis became CEO and executive director of Florida Grand Opera in 2012.

When the curtain rises on Florida Grand Opera’s production of Andre Previn’s operatic setting of Tennessee Williams’ iconic play A Streetcar Named Desire Saturday night at Miami’s Arsht Center, the occasion will mark both the opening of the company’s 80th anniversary season. It will also mark Susan Danis’ tenth season as FGO’s CEO and executive director. 

Danis feels that the greatest accomplishment of her decade at the organization’s helm is that the company “is still alive, producing opera and moving forward.” While that may sound mundane, it crystalizes the challenges she faced when she took the position in 2012, moving from the well-regarded Sarasota Opera, where she headed the company for twelve years.

Arighting the Financial Ship 

 Under former director Robert Heuer, the opera accumulated debt of 19.4 million dollars between 2006 and 2011. 

Speaking from the opera’s Doral headquarters, Danis said she was aware when she came to Miami that the financial picture was not entirely rosy but she was not prepared for the “seven figure surprises” that awaited her. 

Danis responded to the deficit by selling off assets (including the Leiser Center rehearsal space in Fort Lauderdale and a parking lot near the Arsht Center’s opera house in downtown Miami) and raiding its $5.9 million endowment. The season was scaled back to four productions (from a total of six in  2006-2007, the first year in the Arsht Center), and eliminating performances at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center was even briefly considered.

 An anonymous donor purchased the opera’s 35,000-square-foot Doral offices for 6.8 million dollars and then returned the building (which includes rehearsal halls, a costume shop and warehouse as well as offices) to the company as a gift. With continued aggressive fund-raising, the debt had been reduced to around 3.5 million by 2018. 

Ironically, Danis says the pandemic actually worked to bring down the deficit to nearly zero. Staffing was cut by half and the remaining employees took a 30% pay cut. As a result, according to Danis, a $100,000 Small Business Administration loan is the only remaining debt on the opera’s books.

A High Batting Average for Standard Rep

Under Heuer, FGO’s repertoire had been hidebound, almost entirely limited to the most often-produced operas in the canon (One rare exception was Ede Donath’s trite Hungarian operetta Szulamit, in 2004, which proved to be the company’s all-time artistic low.) Musical and production standards had diminished to mediocre or less. 

From the first full season that she planned herself (2013-2014), Danis has raised the artistic level of singing, staging and musical direction from the pit. She has produced a much broader menu of operatic scores, spanning from the classical era to works from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Casting has generally been strong and Danis has managed to recruit conductors who combine theatrical experience and musical excellence. While Anthony Barrese, Christopher Allen, Alexander Polianichko, Andrew Bisantz and Joseph Mechevich may not be household names, their presence on the podium produced outstanding music-making after years of lethargic performances during most of the latter half of Heuer’s 27-year reign.

World class singing by Tamara Wilson, Rafael Davila, Todd Thomas and Dana Beth Miller characterized a traversal of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera that would have been welcome at major opera houses. Adroitly staged and well-sung revivals of Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Nabucco and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin presented those musically and theatrically complex scores in their best light. 

Danis is an enthusiastic Francophile and the FGO productions of Massenet’s Thais and Werther (with the terrific duo of Daniela Mack and Dimitri Pittas in leading roles) were outstanding. She snared star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo for a rare South Florida mounting of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice

Her Mozart productions have proven less successful. Così fan tutte was a mismanaged production hampered by poor singing in crucial roles and Ramon Tebar’s sluggish conducting. While the Marriage of Figaro was somewhat better musically, the production lacked the humor and sparkle of farce. Highly uneven casting hampered Don Giovanni, with the singers never forming a coherent ensemble.

Lauren Flanigan as Christine Mannon in Marvin David Levy's "Mourning Becomes Electra," which opened Florida Grand Opera's season Thursday night at the Broward Center.
Lauren Flanigan starred as Christine Mannon in Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra, which Danis presented at FGO in 2013. Photo: Lorne Grandison

Bringing More Adventurous Repertory

Expanding the repertoire menu, Danis takes particular pride in her “Made for Miami” series of contemporary operas. She regards these presentations as some of her “most productive” work. 

Starting with the dramatic Mourning Becomes Electra by the late Fort Lauderdale-based composr Marvin David Levy, the productions have spanned cross cultural horizons. Gian Carlo Menotti’s classic The Consul was a tale of political oppression (with a standout performance from soprano Kara Shay Thomson as the tragic heroine Magda Sorel) while Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls was based on the memoir of the gay Cuban poet and dissident Reinaldo Arenas. Mieczslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger pictured the Holocaust through the memories of a former SS officer at Auschwitz to powerful effect. Daniel Catán’s Florencía en el Amazonas combined rich melodic lyricism with the “magic realism” of Latin American literature. All of these works were admirably produced, the musical and dramatic values outstanding.

 While the “Made for Miami” formula was a fine way to introduce and publicize this repertoire, it has excluded many outstanding American scores that don’t check the local box. In that respect, the presentation of A Streetcar Named Desire, a work with little South Florida connection, is a step forward toward wider representation of contemporary repertoire. Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Menotti’s The Saint of Bleeker Street, William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge and Kurt Weil’s Street Scene are American classics that need to be heard in fully professional productions on South Florida stages. (There are other significant music theater works that deserve revival as well (including Lee Hoiby’s Summer and Smoke, Floyd’s Willie Stark, Bolcom’s McTeague, and Thomas Pasatieri’s Washington Square). Hopefully Danis will continue to explore this worthy American  literature.

Boldly Adapting to the Pandemic 

Perhaps most successfully. Danis managed to produce a scaled back but highly innovative season in 2020-2021 despite all the belt tightening and Covid shutdowns. After the pandemic necessitated the  cancellation of her scheduled Arsht productions, Danis and artistic administrator Mitch Roe boldly put together in less than two weeks a season of one-act American operas by Jake Heggie, Daron Hagen, Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Pasatieri. 

Produced at the intimate Miami Shores Theater Center (with the audience socially distanced), the operas utilized the singers in the company’s Studio Artists program with some guest artists. With dramatic and visceral staging by the University of Miami’s Jeffrey Buchman, the series was both stimulating and artistically rich. That entire season cost $260,000 as compared to the $5-7 million price tag of an ordinary FGO schedule, according to Danis. She hopes to return to the Miami Shores venue for more small-scale opera productions in future seasons.

While those productions during the pandemic were nothing short of a triumph under difficult conditions, recent seasons have seen a move toward staging more operas in smaller theaters than FGO’s grander main venues—Miami’s downtown Arsht Center and the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. (This season, only Streetcar and Verdi’s Rigoletto are being presented in those major houses.) 

Regarding the trend to utilize these less expensive theaters, Danis said that cost was not an issue in the planning relating to venues. “FGO is definitely not moving to Scottish Rite Temple,” she emphasized, indicating that the choice of performance sites was cautious because of uncertainty about attendance as pandemic conditions improve. She projects returning to the main stages in future seasons as Covid recedes. Danis does feel that the opera’s ancillary concerts are an important audience building effort and should be “accessible to the people.” She feels the pandemic could be “a stepping stone to decentralized art.”

Backstage Drama  

Despite her success in raising the company’s standards and artistic profile and improving its financial situation, Danis has faced major frustrations during her tenure. She feels that “dwindling audiences and people not appreciating the impact of live performances” have been a continual disappointment as were tepid audience responses to contemporary stagings of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Constantly navigating divergent priorities of the opera’s board and patrons also took a toll. In 2018, Danis announced that she was leaving FGO to become CEO and executive director of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society and the new Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in California. “It was an offer of potential opportunity, to go to the next step,” Danis said.

What followed that announcement was a melodrama of operatic proportions. Baritone Graham Fandrei, former director of FGO’s young artist program, sent a letter under a false name to the chairman of the board of the new center with defamatory claims about Danis. Eventually he retracted the letter, apparently admitted that his comments were not true and apologized to Danis, FGO and the La Jolla based organization. Still, Danis withdrew her acceptance of the position by mutual consent with the California group. In a final surprising turn, the FGO board voted unanimously to reinstate her as director, a remarkable vote of confidence. 

Looking Ahead

Danis is bullish about Florida Grand Opera’s future. She says her goal for future seasons entails “the best quality of voice, musicianship and stage direction.” Her dream season would consist of a major middle-period Verdi opera, Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, one of Donizetti’s Queen operas, Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick and a commissioned work. 

Danis’s first decade at FGO has raised operatic standards in Miami to new heights. One can only hope that she will be given the financial and institutional support to make some of those operatic dreams a reality.

Florida Grand Opera presents Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire 7 p.m. January 22 through January 25 at the Arsht Center in Miami and 7:30 p.m. February 3 and 5 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.  fgo.org  800-741-1010

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