Expect New Paths on Long Journeys

Opera is going through a difficult transition in the US, and like many other companies, Florida Grand Opera is trying to reinvent itself in order to survive in the 21st century. As usual, funding is the name of that game.

In a recent email sent out to patrons, General Director Susan Danis (since 2012) pointed out that though the company is managing to close out the current season financially intact, there is a pressing need for increased donorship if they are to survive.

The situation brings to mind other opera companies’ crises of late. New York City Opera folded. San Diego Opera’s well-known difficulties last spring became a virtual cause célèbre, capturing headlines and the attention of opera followers worldwide. Thanks to its many passionate supporters, its devoted staff, and the willingness to dramatically cut back on expenses, SDO was able to retool itself and recreate its current season.

Photo by Nick Garcia
General Director Susan Danis Photo by Nick Garcia

FGO has come a long way and gone through numerous changes since its founding in 1941 as Greater Miami Opera, one of South Florida’s oldest arts institutions. It recently merged with Fort Lauderdale’s Opera Guild strengthening it’s foundation. Some of opera’s brightest stars have performed at FGO including Beverly Sills, Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, who actually made his US debut there.

However, the new millennium’s recession struck FGO with much force and, like other arts groups, has been striving to recreate itself ever since.

The company’s financial issues partially originated in its 2006 move to the new, higher-cost Arsht Performing Arts Center. Anticipating a boost in both attendance and donations from an enhanced season, FGO added to the number of their productions.

Unfortunately, the gamble proved unsuccessful. Between donors pulling away because of the recession and the increase in production costs, FGO sustained multi-million dollar losses.

According to Danis, FGO has had only one break-even year since 2006, and its inability to meet its projected income has caused major deficits. In order to address this lack, the company has been selling off its assets. Once the administrative offices in Doral have been sold, no further assets will remain.

“Clearly the current business plan is not working,” said Danis in her patron message. “The time is now to make a change for the future.”

Photograph by Brittany Mazzurco
No Exit – Dress Rehearsal Photograph by Brittany Mazzurco

Those changes and a new direction, outlined in a joint future plan created with the Board, include combining much-loved repertoire with rarely performed and forward-looking works; expanding the Education and Outreach programs to create new audiences; and connecting to the diverse communities in FGO’s geographical area. For instance, the “Unexpected Opera in Unexpected Places” program has presented performances in such unusual venues as a Design District club and South Beach’s Nowhere Lounge. A partnership with the City of Hialeah includes free performances, workshops in schools and libraries, and “Random Acts of Opera”: brief, surprise performances in places such as Hialeah Racetrack and a local mall.

Meanwhile, the company has reduced their full-time staff by more than half and cut this season’s production budget by $2 million, leaving only $8.6 million to produce four operas, a task they are trying to accomplish without compromising quality. Programming creatively to widen audience appeal, they are planning on balancing beloved classics like Aida and Un Ballo in Maschera with innovative works such as Before Night Falls by Jorge Martin, based on the memoir by Cuban dissident and poet Reinaldo Arenas.

In order to generate funds for the new plan, the company has developed their $17.5 million goal, “SAY YES!! to Opera South Florida” campaign. Danis has scheduled several Town Hall meetings to discuss the company’s future, raise awareness and engage the community in their efforts. Social media also takes a major role in the campaign, which is off to a promising start: recently, FGO announced on their Facebook page, nearly $10,000 in donations were raised via their Twitter hashtag #GiveMiamiDay.

CFO Mark Rosenblum has every confidence in Danis’s strategy. “Susan is about building back to a sustainable level systematically and carefully,” he says.

“As with all things in opera today, I consider this a renewal point and an opportunity, for FGO and opera issues in general, to remake things and rethink how things are done,” says opera scholar and Miami resident Robert Carreras. “There are untapped resources that abound in Miami…(such as) Central and South American peoples with a rich heritage of opera as part of their cultures. I believe there are quite a few that would welcome the chance to be a part of what FGO can do.”

Predictably, naysayers abound; but many arts supporters in the area who feel that FGO represents a key part of Miami culture have tried to counter skepticism about the company’s future with a fervent affirmation of FGO’s importance to the city’s cultural life. “Opera is thrilling,” said one operagoer who moved to Miami because of its cosmopolitan nature. She feels the company must continue, and its loss would be a defeat for the cause of fine arts in the city.

What remains to be seen is whether arts organizations can fill all the new venues that Miami’s philanthropists and civic leaders have built in recent years. In that regard, the Arsht Center has extended the deadlines for the opera’s payments. “It’s our role now to assure that Miami supports programmatically what happens inside our walls,” said the Center’s president John Richard.

Danis’s plan is ambitious, but she remains hopeful that the South Florida community will respond with enthusiasm. Thus far, other opera industry compatriots have agreed to create partnerships to help support FGO. In addition, says Danis, “The administrative staff and members of the production teams have come together and contributed to the cause to ensure the vitality of the company over the next three years.”

Danis hopes to draw from the collective creative energy shown by some of the other companies who have faced these crises. Like the multitudes of opera aficionados across the country, she passionately believes in the power of a form that enfolds all of art’s most exquisite attributes.

“Opera is the ultimate art form,” she says. “You’ve got this incredible orchestra. The most amazing things happen onstage. You’ve got the power of the human voice which will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck like nothing else.”

Hopefully her passion, and that of the area’s culture mavens, will translate into a formula for FGO’s survival and, ultimately, success.

2 thoughts on “Expect New Paths on Long Journeys

  1. Thank you for covering the events surrounding our organization! We appreciate you helping spread the word and voicing your support to keep opera in South Florida! Have a fantastic New Year – it is shaping up to be an exciting one already 🙂

  2. Over and over, I read every opera company’s palaver about “re-inventing” itself.

    Yet no opera company has yet announced the ONE (relatively inexpensive) thing that they MUST do if opera is to continue as a living art form: EDUCATE today’s young composers by having them STUDY traditional scores by composers of the past whose works have been “canonized”.

    ALL the great opera composers—-Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini—- were BORN INTO A LIVING TRADITION which they osmosed in childhood before later essaying their own operatic efforts. (Even a Mozart did not write an operatic masterpiece, “Idomeneo”, till he was 25, and he had been systematically trained since age 2). NONE of these composers re-invented the wheel. They BUILT on existing traditions, innovating and perfecting. Even the rebels (Gluck, Wagner, Mussorgsky) first KNEW the tradition before seeking to overturn it. Wagner’s first three operas (“Die Feen”, “Das Liebesverbot”, and “Rienzi”) were all exercises in received traditions.

    Today’s young composers (including Conservatory graduates in Composition and Orchestration) mostly grew up on rock & roll, which may be fun, but musically is drivel. So no matter how well-trained technically, how can they simply decide one day, “Well, now I think I’d like to write an opera”?

    First they MUST HAVE a Young Composers Program at opera companies (paralleling the Young Singers Programs) to TRAIN them in analyzing the scores of Verdi , Mozart, Bizet, Berlioz, Wagner, etc. Then the young composers will actually KNOW something when they sit down to write an opera.

    World War One, the Great Depression and World War Two destroyed the centuries-old pattern of passing on the opera tradition from one generation of composers to the next. Is it any wonder that today’s young composers who actually get new operas produced see those operas quickly sink into the mud after their over-hyped premieres? If these operas do have any afterlife, it is media-driven.

    The only way to reinvigorate the opera world is through something mundane, unglamorous, and not susceptible of media frenzy: STUDY, so young composers will KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING when composing an opera.

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