The Florida Grand Opera searched around the world for a new general director and CEO, the company’s fourth in 72 years.
She turned up just across the state.
Wednesday afternoon, the organization’s board of directors approved the selection of Susan T. Danis, a self-described “opera geek” who has been executive director of the Sarasota Opera since 1999.
William Hill, vice president of FGO’s board of directors and head of the search committee, said more than 50 applications came in from all over the United States, Latin America and Europe, and the selection of a Florida candidate “was more happenstance than design.”
“Susan knows opera and opera management as well as anyone I have ever spoken to,” he said. “She exudes enthusiasm for opera, she has a contagious love of the arts and she knows the management side so well and speaks so eloquently about the issues that face operatic organizations that she just gives one the sense of confidence that a board like ours wants to have in a candidate for the general director position.”
Danis, 52, starts her new job Oct. 9, replacing long-time CEO Robert Heuer, who retired at the end of May.
“I think the company really has unlimited potential,” she said. “Just to have the opportunity to be a part of the next chapter of the company is very, very exciting to me.”
She takes the helm at an opera company that has struggled to raise money during the past several years of economic weakness, cut performances to keep expenses down and sought creative ways to reach new audiences. FGO’s budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year is about $10.1 million, with nearly $6 million from contributions.
After Heuer announced last year that he would retire, board members decided the company’s new leader needed to be well-versed in opera but also should be a successful fundraiser and business manager.
“We have a very strong base, a strong core of supporters, but opera is very expensive to put on and the audience demographics are changing,” said Victor Mendelson, president of the opera’s board of directors. “So this transition here is key. I think it will determine whether opera flourishes in South Florida.”
During her tenure in Sarasota, Danis oversaw a capital campaign that raised more than $47 million, including $20 million for the renovation of the opera house — a project with which she was deeply involved and which stands as her proudest accomplishment in Sarasota.
“If I die tomorrow, I kind of feel like at least I had something to do with saving this gorgeous 1926 old Vaudeville house that we’ve turned into an opera house and that it’ll be around for many generations to come of Sarasotans,” she said.
Since she started in Sarasota, the company’s budget grew from $3.2 million to more than $8 million, and individual giving leapt more than 200 percent over a seven-year stretch, according to a statement announcing her hiring.
She also focused on community engagement, starting an American Classics Series rich with educational components and keeping the Sarasota Youth Opera Program an important part of the organization’s work.
Danis said she and FGO staff will work together on programming ideas for the 2013-14 season. Branding will be key for the opera in the future, she said.
“Not only does it make it a landmark thing for the city of Miami, but it then makes it a destination opera company and can attract people from around the world,” she said.
Mendelson said the board is eager to make the company exciting to audiences — something he believes Danis can do.
“It does all start with money,” he said. “To be able to do that, we have to fund it. And in order to fund it, we have to show the audience and donor community that we’re doing something new, exciting and probably different from what’s happening elsewhere.”