In The City — 06 April 2013
Susan Danis: rewriting libretto on S. Fl opera

By Greg Carannante

The word is the granddaddy of Florida arts has gotten a new lady, and she’s about to rock his world. In fact, it’s already rocked.

It took Susan Danis just a few weeks as general director of Florida Grand Opera to help set a new course for the state’s oldest performing arts organization. Her daring debut season will kick off at the Broward Center this fall with the Southeast premiere of the challenging Mourning Becomes Electra, regarded as one of American opera’s finest and composed by Fort Lauderdale resident Marvin David Levy, 80.

Danis, 52, crossed the state from the Sarasota Opera last fall with an impressive résumé: In 14 years as executive director she more than doubled its operating budget and individual giving, and helped save its historic opera house. Artistically, her innovative approach fostered American repertoire and educational programs.

Her plans to reprise that approach here is among the gleanings from our recent conversation, which – as the lights dim on the current season and a new era waits in the wings – we share here:

How significant was your success in Sarasota to your being selected here?

I think it was hugely important. I have not a bone of conceit, but I am held in high regard – it’s just factual – in the opera industry, so my reputation, so to speak – thank goodness it’s good – precedes me. And I was very familiar with FGO. I’ve had staff members that have gone from Sarasota to here and vice versa, so I wasn’t an unknown commodity. A couple of the senior staff when they were even just starting the search actually threw my name out as a potential candidate, and all that, obviously, was because of being in a place where people know me and my business and thankfully I’m recognized for good work. So I do think that had a lot to do with it as well.

Beyond Sarasota, what were the other reasons why you believe you were chosen?

Oh, that was the only reason. No, I’m kidding. Your credentials on paper are one thing, but I really do think that in this kind of a search, it really comes down to chemistry, to the relationship that in a short period of time develops between the candidates and the committee. Then I think it becomes the right fit from the personality standpoint. As you can tell I’m very shy and bashful – quite the opposite – so one of the people on the committee said to me she was just mesmerized by how quickly I could capture the attention of a room of people that I didn’t even know. There was the right chemistry. I very quickly saw a group of individuals that I knew I really wanted to work with and I think they felt the same way.

Why did you feel FGO was ready to take on the new direction in programming? 

Many opera companies now have really started to feed their audience what I would call a safe serving of opera, operas that everybody’s going to love. In many cases companies have envisioned them differently. But what happens is the people who really love the art form tend to go away because they’ve seen La Traviata a million times, and I started hearing that even before I got here. And I think that if you’re going to start some place new you have to do something new or why did they bother to bring me here?

As I started to get to know people here, I found – and this is always the nightmare for regional companies – that if someone really loves opera, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll just get on the plane and go to New York to the Met or go back home and go to the Chicago Lyric.’ I started to hear a lot of that and realized that who and what would be on our stage had to be something that made opera lovers want to stay home and go to their own opera company, and that would be provocative and different enough that it would have new ways of reaching out into audiences that might not normally think that they even wanted to try opera.

Yes, you can take your audience on a journey. We will have a lot of educational programs. We’ll really explore the works in terms of how they connect with Miami as a community or talk about some of the tough issues the operas were presenting, and engage the community that way before they even get in the opera house. We’re gonna call them community conversations, where we actually go into the community and we have very thematic elements for every single one of the operas. Like, Mourning Becomes Electra, lots of people haven’t read the Eugene O’Neill play and it’s not a light play and in some ways [the opera] plays more on the Greek mythology than it does on that. Well, that’s a lot for people to learn. And so with each of the four operas next season, we have an education program that will be in really non-traditional places – in libraries, in small performing spaces, in art galleries, places where people just are – and just trying to make them more comfortable and make the connection to their life, not just: This is what the opera is about.

Lots of times people will try something once and it’s like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t work.’ Well that’s because you just tried it once. Sometimes you have to take a little more time and look at where things are and see what’s gonna happen. That’s gonna be my approach to things.

How were you able to pull off this kind of programming so quickly?

It’s called, take from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. We’re definitely doing things that are going to be more challenging for us in other ways – financially, how we do things and so forth – but I’m coming in with a totally fresh perspective. I say to people here very regularly, if you do the same you get the same. So, if we keep doing the same – whether it’s our productions, or it’s how we approach marketing or how we approach our care and feeding of our donors – we’re gonna get the same and so that means the company’s gonna just stay flat-line and that’s not certainly my intention. So that’s the backbone behind that.

Maestro Ramon Tebar and I had together worked on what the repertoire would be next year and probably within the first two weeks we had it nailed down. And that would be something that would usually be much further out, so we’re kind of backing into it this and we’ll do it a little differently next year, but the board was very anxious for us to decide what we were going to do. They’ll always be an opera that people know. We’re going to focus on more American works, which are generally based on themes and literature people know. For example, we’re not doing it this year, but there’s an opera based on the book Dead Man Walking, which many people saw the movie, so there’s a lot of familiarity that you can grab people with. And then just presenting some really great operas that people haven’t seen in a while, and they all just have to be realized in ways that are really exciting and will make people want to come back.

Why did you choose Electra as the opener? Was it key that the composer is a resident?  

Absolutely. It’s an amazing piece of work. Anybody who you would ask who has seen it, I have not met a person that will not tell you that it was one of the most exciting nights they have ever spent in the theater. I’ve always been fascinated by the piece. I think it’s one of those great American pieces that hasn’t been done enough. And this year for the first time we’re actually opening in Broward County. Although Mr. Levy is a native New Jersey man, he’s called Fort Lauderdale his home for many, many years, so the thought that anytime one gets to work with a living, breathing composer, it really just brings a new dimension to the work.

It’s been such fun to work with him. It’s his piece, so he has great ownership. We’re working together on casting choices, what the productions going to look like. I do tons of Verdi and Puccini and Mozart – I could talk to them, but they might put me away for it. But I can pick the phone up and talk to Marvin. He’s so thrilled that it’s being done in his community. In the opera world, they’ll say, ‘Are you going to do the New York version or the Chicago version?’ – because New York was three acts and then he rewrote it, like any good composer, into a tighter to two-act version, and I tell everyone we’re going to do the Fort Lauderdale version, and they look at me like I’m crazy. And when I told Marvin, he laughed, because, he says, ‘You’re right’ – because like any good composer, every day he changes something. So we are indeed are doing the premiere of the Fort Lauderdale version of Mourning Becomes Electra. It’s going to be great. And there’s nothing like a composer at the end of the opening night performance coming out for a bow. Especially Marvin – obviously, he’s had a long life, and to see somebody be able in their own community to get that, I have chills just thinking about it, having had that experience before. It’s a real gift to our area that he’s here and it’s a gift to him that we’re going to be able to realize his opera.

What kind of response are you getting so far to your new season, your first season?

I would say a phenomenal response. I have kept track of people that have hunted me down because they’re so excited about what I’m doing. And I’ve gotten – between voice mails, emails or hand-written notes, those rare things these days – 106 people that have contacted me and said, I haven’t subscribed for years and I’m coming back. There’s great buzz in the opera world. I’m so pleased to be somewhere where the board basically said to me, we don’t want you to do the same old season, so to be empowered by a board to do that, that’s a luxury that most opera company general directors don’t get. They really pushed me to go outside the box, and it’s really not that outside of the box, but considering what FGO and most opera companies have been doing, it is. But I think that the real important part is gonna be that community integration. I always tell people you can’t say you don’t like it if you don’t try it. If you don’t like it afterwards, it’s fine, but when you’re only doing four operas, people are all going to come away happy no matter what you do, but with the level of singers we’re gonna get, the really creative productions that are going to be coming, I’m really quite sure that people will be quite pleased with it. Everybody might not like everything, but that’s the way everything is in life.

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