Performing Arts

Florida Grand Opera hopes its own drama will have a happy ending

Caitlin McKechney, left, and Kelly Kaduce rehearse for Madama Butterfly at the Florida Grand Opera in Doral on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014.
Caitlin McKechney, left, and Kelly Kaduce rehearse for Madama Butterfly at the Florida Grand Opera in Doral on Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Founded in 1941, the FGO is South Florida’s (and Florida’s) oldest arts institution. Since its debut performance at Miami Senior High School (with founder Dr. Arturo Di Filippi in the title role of Pagliacci), it has welcomed musical stars — including Placido Domingo, Beverly Sills, and Luciano Pavarotti in his American debut. The group’s longevity speaks to its ability to appeal to generations of audiences through a multitude of cultural shifts.

But the past eight years have seen the opera on a steep financial slide that has brought its survival and artistic relevance into question. As the FGO prepares to launch its 74th season next week, with a production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, it has stripped its budget and staff to the bone. Now the troupe’s leaders say they must reverse the decline to ensure the company’s future.

This week the opera launched a $17.5 million fund-raising campaign with an unprecedented series of town hall meetings, in a community public relations blitz to explain its troubles and make a case for the opera’s importance to South Florida — and its plans for the future. The effort is meant to reach beyond traditional big donors to the city as a whole, for financial and moral support that the FGO’s leaders say are crucial for its survival.

“The whole community has to be behind it for this to move forward,” says Susan Danis, the FGO’s general director. “In some ways this is a referendum.”

At the first meeting, held Thursday afternoon at the FIU Miami Beach-Urban Studios on Lincoln Road, Danis pitched the FGO’s plans to about 40 attendees. “We’re going to demonstrate our capacity to enliven a 21st century, multinational city,” she said.

Clotilde Luce, an opera goer for over a decade, said she thought the FGO was an important part of Miami culture. “Opera is thrilling,” Luce said. “I moved here because Miami is a cosmopolitan city.” Losing the FGO “would be a recognition that just mass entertainment matters here — it would be a defeat.”

Opera companies around the country are facing similar woes, as they struggle to lure a new generation of audiences accustomed to more populist entertainment and maintain support for a costly traditional art form with an often elitist reputation.

The FGO’s current troubles stem largely from when it moved its Miami performances from Dade County Auditorium into the city’s then-new performing arts center in 2006. The troupe boosted the number of operas from five to six, hoping that a bigger, more high profile season in the lavish new Ziff Ballet Opera House would lift attendance and donations.

Coupled with higher costs at the Adrienne Arsht Center, the effort sent its budget soaring from $13.9 to $22 million. But the response was far below what leaders hoped, and the company lost $5.1 million that season. Even as the Opera slashed costs to $11 million for a four-production line-up in the 2009-2010 season, it continued to lose money.

Its problems were compounded by the financial downturn, when FGO — like other arts groups — took a hit as donors pulled back. Since 2006, the company has spent $19.4 million more than it has brought in.

“We’re in the same boat as everyone else,” said board chairman William Hill. “Production costs continue to go up, opera gets more expensive, and getting audiences in the door is more difficult.”

The FGO has survived largely by borrowing against and then selling off its assets. Four years ago, the company sold the Leisner Center, a building next to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts that was the base for its operations there, for $1 million. Last year, it sold a parking lot next to the Arsht Center — originally a site for a high-profile office and rehearsal center — for $9.4 million. (Minus debt and expenditures on plans and architecture fees, the company netted just $5 million.) Another $6 million designated for the center and endowment went instead to cover operating expenses.

A contract to sell its current building and base of operations in Doral fell through this summer. Opera management says it is confident the building, which is listed at $5.5 million, will eventually sell — which would leave it with $2 million in profit, enabling the group to pay off current debts of $850,000 and leave money in reserve.

But opera leaders say they can’t go on cannibalizing their own operation. Full-time administrative staff is down from 40 people to 18. This season’s budget is just $8.6 million. To get through the season at that level, FGO has resorted to cost-saving strategies such as borrowing set and costumes for Butterfly from the Sarasota Opera, where Danis used to be director.

“You can’t accumulate that much debt over the years, use up your assets and continue to go forward,” says Danis.

Mark Rosenblum, the troupe’s chief financial officer, says they’re determined not to proceed in the same way.

“Susan is about building back to a sustainable level systematically and carefully,” he says.

The FGO is not alone in its troubles. New York City Opera, the beloved 70-year-old “people’s opera company” went bankrupt in 2013, and last spring the San Diego Opera, one of the country’s most celebrated regional troupes in a well-to-do, culture-proud city, nearly shut down as well. Opera companies have seen attendance shrink by an average of one-quarter over the past decade, says Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, a national non-profit group representing 145 U.S. troupes. A report by the group showed that in 2012, FGO and 10 other opera companies of similar size and budget averaged losses of over $2 million a year.

Rising production costs, shrinking attendance, the allure of proliferating online entertainment, and more competition for donations have all hit opera hard, says Scorca. “There’s diminished earned income and greater competition for philanthropy,” he says. Meanwhile, a production of Verdi’s La Traviata needs just as many singers and musicians.

The FGO’s problems also highlight a sometimes contradictory situation for culture in Miami. Even as the arts have boomed here in recent years, some major artistic groups have fallen by the wayside. They include the Florida Philharmonic, which closed in 2003, and the Coconut Grove Playhouse, shuttered since 2006. During this time, Miami’s philanthropic and civic leaders have focused on building new institutions: the Arsht Center, the New World Symphony’s New World Center, the Perez Art Museum Miami.

Now arts leaders say the opera’s situation is, in part, a test of the city’s ability to sustain the artistic offerings to fill those grand new buildings.

“It takes real commitment for museums, ballet companies, opera companies to continue to grow,” said Michael Spring, director of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council. “We don’t want to lose these things — they’re important institutions for a community to have.”

For its part, the Arsht Center has extended deadlines for the opera’s payments, normally due immediately before and after each production, when the company has been short on cash. Originally envisioned as home to five resident companies, the Arsht now has only two full-time resident troupes, FGO and Miami City Ballet. (Two closed; the other, the New World Symphony, now performs just two to three concerts there per year.)

“The opera was a big part of raising money for the ballet opera house, and the design was created so both the ballet and opera could feel at home here, to grow audiences and be creative,” says Arsht Center president John Richard. “It’s our role now to assure that Miami supports programmatically what happens inside our walls.”

Danis has tried to balance the desires of established audiences hungry for lavish, traditional presentations (particularly popular in South Florida) like Verdi’s Nabucco last season, with efforts to appeal to new audiences and be more community-friendly. They’ve included boosting the number of outreach programs — like public school “informances“ where singers perform and talk about their careers — from 40 to 140.

The group’s Unexpected Opera in Unexpected Places program has included presentations of Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires at a Design District club, and an operatic version of Sartre’s No Exit at South Beach’s Nowhere Lounge. Recently it announced a partnership with the City of Hialeah, with a program that will include free performances, workshops in schools and libraries, and “Random Acts of Opera” — short, surprise performances in places such as Hialeah Racetrack and Westland Mall.

Keeping longtime subscribers happy and luring those hungry for more eclectic fare has been a challenge. Last year’s production of 1967’s Mourning Becomes Electra received critical praise but mixed response from audiences. The FGO will end this season with another adventurous presentation, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Consul, about a woman trying to escape a totalitarian country, which they hope will appeal to South Florida’s immigrant communities.

At Thursday’s town hall meeting, Danis laid out plans to raise the troupe’s profile and appeal more directly to Miami audiences. They included productions of The Passenger, in which a former Nazi SS officer who worked at the Auschwitz concentration camp encounters a former prisoner; Before Night Falls, based on the memoir by Cuban dissident and poet Reinaldo Arenas; and grand classics such as Aida and Un Ballo in Maschera. Other plans include transmitting a performance to a giant screen in a major venue, possibly Marlins Park, a strategy used successfully in San Francisco and Houston; and staging a competition for U.S. and Latin American singers.

The new fund-raising campaign is aimed at raising $17.5 million over three years, with $5 million going toward operating costs each year, $1 million for a cash reserve, and $1.5 million to beef up the existing $1.2 million endowment. Danis and Rosenblum say they have verbal pledges for two significant donations, but nothing has been finalized.

The hope is to stabilize finances enough to plan ahead, without having to worry about annual deficits, and to create the programming and marketing that will broaden their audience and appeal.

“It’s much easier in business where the goal lines are very clear — we’re here to generate profit for shareholders,” said FGO board member and past president Victor Mendelson. “In the arts world, you measure success by artistic output, yet you survive by economic metrics, and sometimes they’re totally incompatible.”

Opera has often suffered from an old-fashioned image of beefy, posturing singers in stodgy productions that draw an elderly audience more interested in prestige than in art. But Opera America’s Scorca says he’s seeing a rapidly growing number of inventive new ensembles, use of new venues like parks and stadium, and commissions of new operas. “There is a creative energy that is greater than we have ever seen before,” he says.

Danis believes the FGO can tap into that creativity to keep appealing to South Florida. “Opera is the ultimate art form because it’s all the art forms wrapped together,” 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.”

Olga Melin, 80, who has been an FGO supporter since her parents took her to the group’s very first performance at age 12 (her parents threw the after-party for Pavarotti’s debut), agrees.

“It frightens me that so many people in Miami don’t know about opera,” she says. “It can’t fold.”

If you go

What: Florida Grand Opera town hall meetings

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Florida Grand Opera Doral Office, 8390 NW 25th Street, Miami

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Steinway & Sons Piano Gallery, 4104 Ponce De Leon Blvd., Coral Gables

When: 2:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Josephine S. Leiser Center, 221 SW 3rd Ave., Fort Lauderdale

Info: Space is limited and attendees must rsvp to to Scott Guinn at sguinn@fgo.org or 305-403-3309. Details at fgo.org.

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