As an opera evangelist, Susan Danis is accustomed to meeting people who are intimidated by the notoriously unapproachable art form.
“I’ll say to people, ‘It’s really not that bad,’ and they just look at me,” she said. “It’s like sushi: you’re not going to know if you like it unless you taste it.”
Danis will bring that enthusiasm and irreverence to Miami in October, when she starts her new job as general director and CEO of the Florida Grand Opera. She has been executive director of Sarasota Opera since 1999.
Board members announced the selection Wednesday, describing their hire as a proven fundraiser whose business savvy and management skills should be the tools needed to lead the Miami-based opera company into a new financially and artistically robust era.
Danis replaces CEO Robert Heuer, who retired in May after 27 years in the position.
Her years in Sarasota were marked by budget growth, capital campaigns and a building renovation — as well as innovative programming, efforts to reach young professionals and a dedication to getting people “into the opera house.”
“It was actually Susan who got me to go,” said Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County. “And Susan who got me to admit that I really, really enjoyed it.” Danis is wrapping up her term as chair of the tourism organization’s board of directors in a couple weeks.
During a sidewalk chalk festival last year, Haley said, an artist drew a chalk stage to showcase performances from Sarasota Opera’s production of La bohème — an example of the company’s community engagement efforts.
Danis is passionate about exposing the masses to opera in part because of her own history.
She saw her first opera as a third-grader in a Connecticut public school arts education program that brought students to performance venues. The show was Carmen, and Danis was already a fan.
“I knew the music, I had danced to it,” she said. She grew up listening to songs from Broadway musicals at home and played the French horn.
After college at Indiana University, where she trained as a drama therapist, Danis worked for the Young Adult Institute in New York City and thought about joining the corporate world. Mixing that goal with a desire to bum around Paris, she earned an MBA at the University of Hartford’s Paris program.
She ended up in San Francisco after graduate school and helped nonprofit groups on the business side, then relocated to upstate New York, where she worked temporary gigs before taking over at the Lake George Opera Festival.
“They were beyond broke,” she said of the company, now known as Opera Saratoga.
The group’s first opera after Danis arrived: Carmen.
When she left after eight years, the company had a $3 million endowment.
“I’ve gotten pegged as kind of a turnaround specialist,” she said.
That’s what Florida Grand Opera, a company with a 72-year history, was looking for.
“The companies she’s been involved with have grown under her tenure and have been fiscally strong, which is very important because the opera world has been going through a tough time and the Florida Grand Opera is not immune,” said Victor Mendelson, president of the company’s board of directors.
In the past five years, several opera companies have gone out of business: 2009 alone saw the closing of groups including Orlando Opera, Baltimore Opera Company and Connecticut Opera. This year, financial troubles of Seattle Opera and New York City Opera have made news.
Across the nation, box office revenues have not been able to keep pace with costs, said Marc Scorca, president and CEO of the industry association OPERA America. And companies have been reluctant to alienate audiences with ticket hikes.
“More and more of an opera budget has to be covered by donations,” he said.
Scorca, who has known Danis for about 20 years, met with FGO’s board in January to compare revenues and expenses to similar-sized companies, and the analysis showed that the opera isn’t meeting its fundraising potential.
The company’s budget for the current fiscal year is about $10.1 million, with nearly $6 million from contributions. In 2009, Heuer announced that the company would perform four operas a season instead of the typical five to cut costs.
Mendelson said the company is interested in establishing a larger endowment. Plans to build a facility on theland the company owns near the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami are on the back burner; in fact, he said, that property as well as the opera’s Doral offices are for sale.
Fundraising in Florida — and Miami specifically — presents a unique challenge, Scorca said, in part because so many potential patrons have roots elsewhere. He said Danis’ experience in another Florida community, even one as demographically different as Sarasota, makes her a good choice for the Miami company.
William Hill, vice president of FGO’s board and the head of the search committee, said he believes Miami and Sarasota audiences have plenty in common.
“I think there’s more commonality among arts and particularly opera patrons than there are differences of people, even of apparently disparate backgrounds,” he said. “It’s very much a universal art form. I think her successes there will translate very well into success here.”
Lawrence A. Johnson, a former Miami Herald music critic and editor of South Florida Classical Review and associated websites, has watched performances of Sarasota Opera every year for the last 12 years. He agrees with Hill, pointing to Danis’ approachable nature, financial background and creative artistic vision.
“I think Susan is just a terrific appointment,” he said. “She’s very down to earth and she’s a straight shooter and she’ll do what needs to get done.”
Besides, said Danis, who will move with her boyfriend Tom Patane, an independent financial advisor, and cat Squeaker, she’s “really a big-city girl at heart.”
A good fit
Danis said some of the methods she used in Sarasota, including a 5-for-$100 package aimed at twentysomething professionals, could be a good fit in South Florida. Preliminary talks about programming for the upcoming year have already started, and Danis is looking forward to hiring more people for understaffed departments.
Despite opera’s reputation as an old-fashioned art form, Danis believes the industry has evolved enough to offer performances for a variety of tastes, from traditional to modern. And she said popular musicals and movies such as Rent, which is based on La bohème, and the operatic Moulin Rouge can serve as gateways to opera.
Opera companies elsewhere have found success with performances in nontraditional venues, Scorca said — and Danis, who served on the board of trustees for OPERA America, is excited about such ideas.
“I don’t believe in sensation for the sake of sensation,” she said. “After all, the opera, it’s about the music, it’s about the beauty of the human voice, about the time when the soprano sings and the hair on the back of your neck stands up.”