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.