With a new CEO and some fresh ideas for South Florida audiences, Florida Grand Opera is singing a happy tune.
When the curtain fell on the finale of Florida Grand Opera’s Nabucco, there were resounding cheers of Bravo and Brava (opera etiquette when showing favor to the female star) from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, where the company performs in two venues — the Adrienne Arsht Center and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco is a seldom performed opera, but the venerable opera company is mixing it up a bit these days with a new CEO at its helm. Nabucco hasn’t been done at FGO for thirty years,” says Susan Danis, who took over the reins, “but most operagoers are familiar with the name Verdi.”
In March, FGO rolls out a bigger-than-life production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which consistently ranks as one of the most performed operas throughout the world.
Mostly everyone involved with the FGO production of Tosca has a story about the opera, in one way or another, that’s close to their hearts. For José Maria Condemi, the stage director, the subject matter of Tosca: abuse of power reminds him of his days growing up as a child in Argentina during the last years of the military regime. “My family was lucky enough never to experience the type of violence that Scarpia exerts on Tosca and Cavaradossi. But I’m drawn to the story of the opera and its themes of devotion to love and art, corruption of power, political bigotry, and fervent religiosity.”
For music director Ramón Tebar, it’s the passion that Puccini has written into the music that stirs his soul. “I find myself totally immersed when I am conducting Puccini. In his operas, the voices are heavier, more lyrical; in the music, there are huge orchestrations. My conducting is so much more physical for Puccini.”
When soprano Kara Shay Thomson makes her FGO debut as the seductive diva, Tosca, she’ll sing the role for the 80th time of her career. “Yes, it’s a milestone,” she says by phone from her home in Cincinatti. She has sung the role with the Atlanta Opera, Portland Opera, Opera New Jersey, Santa Fe Opera, Pensacola Opera, Sarasota Opera, and Kentucky Opera, just to name a few. When asked why she’s become a go-to for Tosca, the answer is fairly simple: “She is the perfect fit for me, and she’s always been a part of who I am.” By singing the role in so many diverse productions, Thomson says she’s performed it on big stages and small stages. “I hit the mark,” she says.
But no matter how many times she sings the demanding role, there’s always something thrilling. “I know where to give more and where I really have to pay attention — when I have to look at the conductor, for instance. It’s live theater, after all. This show has fire, live flames, knives; it’s really quite a circus.” Singing the role is an opera diva’s dream — renowned soprano Maria Callas became famous for her recordings of Tosca in the 1950s and ’60s; her interpretation was known as passionate and committed, yet refined. For FGO, Thompson shares the role with Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste who performs Tosca in three performances on March 30, April 2, and April 5.
As the villain you love to hate, baritone Todd Thomas plays the notorious Scarpia. While he’s sung the role in “eight or nine productions,” there’s something more personal this time. “It’s a dream for me to perform with FGO. I have sung with a lot of different companies in Florida. I’ve known Susan Danis since she was at Lake George. I’m thrilled to be with this company.”
For Danis, who joined Florida Grand Opera in October 2012, Tosca fits perfectly in her season because of its dramatic flair and because it is opera for all. “Tosca is just a great piece of work that everyone wants to see.”
The new general director and CEO of the Florida Grand Opera came to Miami as only the company’s fourth in 72 years. She was executive director of the Sarasota Opera since 1999, and said it was just a “hop, skip and a jump” to get here. She fit the bill of what FGO’s search committee was looking for. “We set out on a lengthy search to find the ideal candidate — someone who has both passion for opera and established business success in arts management. We also sought a reliable leader and ambassador for the company with a true sense of community. Susan meets and exceeds all these requirements,” said William Hill, vice president of FGO and head of the CEO search committee.
“There are very few women who run opera companies at my level. There are really only two of us that run major opera companies, half a dozen run sizeable companies, and the rest run small start-up companies,” she says.
With an MBA — her concentration was in International Marketing, and she received her degree from the University of Hartford’s Paris Program — Danis mixes her love of opera with her business background, which she feels is necessary in today’s arts environment. Fresh from getting her MBA, she arrived at the Lake George Opera Festival, where she spent eight years as managing director. “I thought I was just going to be the marketing director,” she says.
While at Sarasota Opera, she was credited with growing that opera company’s budget from $3 million to $8 million, spearheaded a $20 million renovation of the company’s 1926 opera house, and adopted an unusual repertoire that sparked considerable interest at home and abroad. Among the Sarasota Opera’s many achievements were its famous Verdi Cycle, a staging of all of the composer’s operas, and its American Classics Series.
“I certainly know what I want to do in South Florida. I have to be responsible to the community; we have to keep performing. That’s why it’s called performing arts — we don’t exist if we aren’t performing for an audience.”
This season is Danis’s first that she programmed entirely. (In her first season, she continued what Robert Heuer had already established. Heuer, whom she replaced, was the head of FGO for more than a quarter century.)
“In simple terms, I basically tried to lay out something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue — test the waters and introduce the audience to something different.” She opened the season with Mourning Becomes Electra, Marvin David Levy’s contemporary opera, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill and an FGO company debut. The season closes with Jules Massenet’s Thaïs, which is performed in French with English supertitles. FGO last performed the 19th century opera almost 40 years ago.
Danis is also embracing developing new audience members by introducing “tweet seats.” “Research says that social media builds awareness with a certain demographic. A select group is allowed to use Twitter and tweet about the performance during the show.”
In addition, she’s trying to make opera relevant to the public by presenting an Opera Lab, where FGO artisans go out to schools — “the costume and make-up departments work with students in the schools to let them know what kind of career opportunities exist and to give them a better understanding. When kids can touch and feel and dig a little bit deeper, it gets them interested.”
Also, she believes in taking the “product to the people.” In a program supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of its Knight Arts Challenge, FGO is bringing lesser-known operas to unique venues throughout South Florida. No Exit, a contemporary and edgy one-act opera by Andy Vores, is the second installment in FGO’s Unexpected Operas in Unexpected Places, an adaptation of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s celebrated play of the same name. The opera, about three damned souls who are condemned to spend all of eternity together in a room with no exits, which they eventually discover is hell, will be performed at the aptly named NoWhere Lounge on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach.
“It will be very exciting to bring this opera to a lounge setting on Miami Beach,” says Danis.
FGO is also participating in the Knight Foundation’s Random Acts of Culture. “It’s a way to bring classical artists out of concert halls and into daily life.” In 2010, FGO surprised shoppers at the Macy’s shoe department in Miami with six performances of “Toreador” from Carmen.
“To me, these things are as important as what we put on our mainstage,” says Danis.
Dressing the Players
The listing of names in the FGO’s program for costume department and wigs and make up takes up a fair amount of space: designers, dressers, costume crafts, cutters, stitchers, make-up artists, and wig experts.
Of course, opera isn’t opera without lots of color, costumes, and big hair.
Behind the scenes at Tosca, there will be 12 people helping with speedy-quick costume changes. Before the production even arrives on the stage, six sewers will have taken care of alterations. Camilla Haith, costume director, will have made her trip to Toronto to Malabar Limited, a theatrical costumer who has a specific opera department from where the Tosca costumes will arrive. But this isn’t off the rack dressing — costuming a large-scale production like Tosca has its challenges.
“I have to pull costumes specifically for our cast, and I like to see several versions of what works. Some colors work on some people; some don’t. So there’s a lot of selection based on who’s singing. But then, when we have a double cast like Tosca, I need to select a presentation that will be similar, no matter which cast is singing — so everything is cohesive at all times,” says Haith.
Haith loves the challenge of a show like Tosca and a large cast production like Nabucco. “I have to admit, I am a sucker for the big spectacle.”
She did, however, enjoy costuming Mourning Becomes Electra. “The most difficult part of that show was trying to find Civil War uniforms. I had a moment of blind panic. But I researched and found out that the theater that I thought had them had sold them to someone else. As an opera, it hasn’t been performed that many times,” she says.
FGO rented some of the Mourning costumes, but also had to build some. “Color was very important in telling that story,” she says. “We used every technique in the book for that opera. Sometimes you do something and you know it’s special right from the beginning. That was one of those times.”