South Florida Classical Review » » As a new season opens, Susan Danis marks a decade with Florida Grand Opera
When the curtain rises on the Florida Grand Opera’s production of André Previn’s operatic staging of Tennessee Williams’ iconic play A tram called Désir Saturday night at Miami’s Arsht Center, the occasion will mark both the opening of the 80and anniversary season. This will also mark Susan Danis’ tenth season as CEO and Executive Director of FGO.
Danis believes that the greatest achievement of his decade at the helm of the organization is that the company “is still alive, producing operas and moving forward”. While that may sound trite, it crystallizes the challenges she faced when she took the job in 2012, leaving the highly regarded Sarasota Opera, where she led the company for twelve years.
Righting the financial ship
Under former director Robert Heuer, the opera ran up $19.4 million in debt between 2006 and 2011.
Speaking from the headquarters of the Doral Opera House, Danis said she was aware when she came to Miami that the financial situation was not quite rosy, but she was not prepared for the “seven-figure surprises” that awaited him.
Danis responded to the deficit by selling assets (including Leiser Center rehearsal space in Fort Lauderdale and a parking lot near the Arsht Center opera house in downtown Miami) and looting his 5.9 endowment millions of dollars. The season was reduced to four productions (out of a total of six in 2006-2007, the first year at the Arsht Center), and the elimination of performances at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale was even briefly considered.
An anonymous donor bought the opera house’s 35,000-square-foot Doral offices for $6.8 million, then returned the building (which includes rehearsal rooms, a costume shop and warehouse as well as offices) to the company as a gift. Through continued aggressive fundraising, the debt had been reduced to around 3.5 million by 2018.
Ironically, Danis says the pandemic actually managed to bring the deficit down to near zero. The workforce was cut in half and the remaining employees took a 30% pay cut. As a result, according to Danis, a $100,000 loan from the Small Business Administration is the only remaining debt on the opera’s books.
A high batting average for the standard rep
Under Heuer, FGO’s repertoire had been limited, almost entirely confined to the operas most often produced in the canon (a rare exception was Ede Donath’s unremarkable Hungarian operetta). Szulamit, in 2004, which turned out to be the company’s lowest artistic level.) Musical and production standards had become mediocre or less.
From the first full season that she herself planned (2013-2014), Danis raised the artistic level of singing, directing and musical direction from the pit. She produced a much wider menu of opera scores, ranging from the classical era to works from the 20and and 21st centuries.
The cast has generally been strong, and Danis has managed to recruit conductors who combine theatrical experience with musical excellence. Although Anthony Barrese, Christopher Allen, Alexander Polianichko, Andrew Bisantz and Joseph Mechevich may not be household names, their presence on the podium produced exceptional musical creation after years of lethargic performances for most of the second half of Heuer’s 27-year reign.
The world-class singing of Tamara Wilson, Rafael Davila, Todd Thomas and Dana Beth Miller characterized a Verdi crossing A Ballo in Maschera it would have been welcome in grand operas. Skillfully staged and well-sung covers of Bellini norma, by Verdi Nabuco and Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin presented these musically and theatrically complex scores at their best.
Danis is an enthusiastic Francophile and Massenet’s FGO productions Thais and Wether (with the formidable duo Daniela Mack and Dimitri Pittas in the main roles) were remarkable. She snared star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo for a rare montage of Gluck’s in South Florida Orpheus and Eurydice.
His Mozart productions were less successful. Cosi fan tutte was a poorly managed production hampered by poor singing in crucial roles and Ramon Tebar’s sluggish direction. While the Marriage of Figaro was a little better musically, the production lacked the humor and brilliance of farce. Very uneven cast hampered Don Giovanni, the singers never forming a coherent whole.
Bringing a more adventurous repertoire
Expanding the repertoire menu, Danis is particularly proud of her “Made for Miami” series of contemporary operas. She considers these presentations to be some of her “most productive” work.
Starting with the drama Mourning becomes Electra by the late Fort Lauderdale-based composer Marvin David Levy, productions spanned cross-cultural horizons. The classic by Gian Carlo Menotti The consul was a story of political oppression (with a standout performance by soprano Kara Shay Thomson as the tragic heroine Magda Sorel) while Jorge Martín Before nightfall was based on the memoirs of Cuban gay poet and dissident Reinaldo Arenas. by Mieczslaw Weinberg The passenger describes the Holocaust through the recollections of a former SS officer at Auschwitz with powerful effect. by Daniel Catan Florencia in the Amazonas combines rich melodic lyricism with the “magical realism” of Latin American literature. All these works were admirably produced, the musical and dramatic values remarkable.
While the “Made for Miami” formula was a great way to publicize and publicize this repertoire, it excluded many outstanding American scores that didn’t tick the local box. In this regard, the presentation of A Tram named Desire, a work with little connection to South Florida, is a step towards a broader representation of contemporary repertoire. by Douglas Moore The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Carlisle Floyd Susanna, by Menotti The Saint of Bleeker Street, by William Bolcom A view from the bridge and Kurt Weil street scene are American classics that must be heard in fully professional productions on South Florida stages. (There are other important works of musical theater that also deserve revival (including Lee Hoiby’s Summer and smoke, Floyd’s Willy Stark, Bolcom’s McTeague, and Thomas Pasatieri Washington Square). Hopefully Danis will continue to explore this worthy American literature.
Boldly adapting to the pandemic
Perhaps more successfully. Danis managed to produce a reduced but very innovative season in 2020-2021 despite all the belt-tightening and Covid stoppages. After the pandemic necessitated the cancellation of his planned Arsht productions, Danis and artistic administrator Mitch Roe boldly put together a season of one-act American operas by Jake Heggie, Daron Hagen, Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Pasatieri.
Produced in the intimate Miami Shores Theater Center (with a socially distanced audience), the operas used singers from the company’s Studio Artists program along with a few guest performers. With dramatic and visceral direction by Jeffrey Buchman of the University of Miami, the series was both thought-provoking and artistically rich. That entire season cost $260,000 compared to the $5-7 million price tag for a regular FGO program, according to Danis. She hopes to return to the Miami Shores venue for smaller-scale opera productions in future seasons.
While these productions during the pandemic were nothing short of a triumph in difficult conditions, recent seasons have seen a move towards more operas being staged in theaters smaller than the large main halls of FGO – Miami’s Downtown Arsht and Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center. (This season, only tram and that of Verdi Rigoletto are presented in these great houses.)
As for the trend to use these less expensive theaters, Danis said cost was not an issue in planning theaters. “FGO is definitely not moving to the Scottish Rite Temple,” she stressed, indicating that the choice of performance sites was cautious due to uncertainty over attendance as pandemic conditions improve. . She plans to revisit key milestones in future seasons as Covid recedes. Danis believes that the opera’s side concerts are an important audience building effort and should be “accessible to the public”. She thinks the pandemic could be “a springboard to decentralized art”.
Behind the scenes drama
Despite his success in raising the company’s standards and artistic profile and improving its financial situation, Danis faced great frustrations during his tenure. She feels that “diminishing audiences and people not appreciating the impact of live performances” has been a continued disappointment, as have lukewarm audience responses to Rossini’s contemporary stagings. The Barber of Seville and at Donizetti Don Pasquale. The constant navigating of the divergent priorities of the opera’s board and patrons also had an impact. 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 a potential opportunity offer, to take the next step,” Danis said.
What followed that announcement was a melodrama of operatic proportions. Baritone Graham Fandrei, former director of FGO’s young artists program, sent a letter under an assumed name to the chairman of the new center’s board with defamatory allegations about Danis. Eventually, he retracted the letter, apparently admitted his comments weren’t true, and apologized to Danis, FGO, and the La Jolla-based organization. Still, Danis withdrew his acceptance of the position by mutual consent with the California band. In a surprising final twist, FGO’s board voted unanimously to reinstate her as a director, a remarkable vote of confidence.
Danis is optimistic about the future of Florida Grand Opera. She says her goal for future seasons involves “the highest quality of voice, musicianship and direction”. His dream season would consist of a great intervening Verdi opera, that of Strauss The Rider of the Rose, one of Donizetti’s Queen operas, Jake Heggie Moby-Dick and a commissioned work.
Danis’ first decade at FGO raised the standards of opera in Miami to new heights. One can only hope that she will receive the financial and institutional support to make some of these operatic dreams a reality.
The Florida Grand Opera presents Andre Previn’s A tram called Désir 7 p.m. from January 22 to January 25 at the Arsht Center in Miami and 7:30 p.m. on February 3 and 5 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. fgo.org 800-741-1010
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