In a crucial season, Florida Grand Opera hopes to get its finances back on track

By David Fleshler

Florida Grand Opera opened the Arsht Center (then Carnival) in Miami with high hopes and a new production of Verdi's "Aida" in 2006. Photo: Deborah Gray Mitchell

Florida Grand Opera opened the Arsht (then Carnival) Performing Arts Center with high hopes and a new production of Verdi’s “Aida” in 2006. Photo: Deborah Gray Mitchell

In 2006 Florida Grand Opera moved from the drab, mildewed Miami-Dade County Auditorium to downtown’s new, darkly lustrous, gold-domed performing arts center.

The company’s expanded, six-opera season, inaugurating their home with a production of Verdi’s Aida, was intended to mark a new beginning for FGO, designed to move the regional company into the second tier just below the top opera companies of New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

But the anticipated surge in donations and financial support never materialized. The 2008 recession struck, the housing crash hit South Florida harder than almost anywhere else, and the company began selling off real estate to pay its bills.

Today, the budget stands at $9.7 million, a fraction of its 2006 peak of $22.2 million. The number of operas produced per season has fallen to four, and there’s just one piece of property remaining to be sold—FGO’s cavernous rehearsal space in Doral.

As the company prepares to open its season Saturday night with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, it is fighting not only to survive but to reinvent itself. A newly launched campaign to raise $17.5 million called “Say Yes! to Opera South Florida!”, is intended to not just save FGO but to transform it into an institution with broader public support and closer connections to the community.

“Since 2006, FGO has sustained only one break-even year,” states a letter to supporters from the company’s CEO Susan Danis, who took over two years ago. “On average the company has not met its income projections annually, which has resulted in significant deficits. Our sole method for survival to date has been the sale of our assets. After the sale of our administrative offices in Doral is finalized, there will be nothing left to sell.”

Danis, who started with the company two years ago, said in an interview that she knew coming in that FGO faced challenges but didn’t know how dire the situation was until she took over.

“When I walked in, I walked into an insane amount of debt,” she said. “The company between 2006 and last year had incurred $19.4 million worth of debt. The company’s business model has basically been to sell off your assets instead of regrouping.”

FGO is not alone. New York City Opera, one of the nation’s leading companies, folded last year. The San Diego Opera announced plans to shut down but was rescued. Other companies that have closed in recent years include the Baltimore Opera, Opera Pacific and Connecticut Opera.

Even so, some of FGO’s wounds were self-inflicted. Although there has been considerable improvement in the past few seasons, many productions of the past decade and a half  had been distinguished by weak singing, lifeless conducting, a barely competent orchestra and inept stage direction. Fortunately the orchestra was revamped a few years ago, and with the hiring of Ramón Tebar as music director, the orchestral playing has becoming the most dependable element of FGO productions. The quality of singing increased as well. But too many people retain memories of spending $200 or more for seats to what would turn out to be a mediocre performance.

“The previous management was very proud that they sold every seat for the opening night of Aida, but they didn’t have a singer who could sing “Celeste Aida,” said Jack Firestone, an FGO donor and opera lover. “I don’t need famous singers. Just give me a singer who has the correct voice for the role for which they have been hired and can sing it credibly and a conductor in the pit who has a facility with the score and can make music. And for many years we just didn’t have that.”

Firestone credits Danis with revamping the company artistically, calling last season’s production of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra “extraordinary, a production that could have gone on any stage in the world.” And he said she is taking the right strategy in being open about the company’s problems and trying to solve them, rather than just trying to muddle through another year.

Firestone blames FGO’s previous leaders for the problem, saying their financial mismanagement and artistic complacency led to red ink and empty seats.

“In my opinion, the previous administration and board committed managerial malpractice,” he said. “They spent money they didn’t have, they weren’t upfront with the public about how bad things were. I don’t know where the money went. I never saw it on stage.”

But FGO board chairman William Hill, a shareholder in the Miami office of the Gunster law firm, said there was no mismanagement, just bad timing, bad luck and a failure of fundraising to keep up with the company’s ambitions.

“We attempted to step forward and become a bigger, more expansive opera, essentially to fit into our bigger, beautiful new performing arts center,” Hill said. “And our appetite for performing grand opera was bigger than our audiences’ appetite for funding it. We wanted to put on more, bigger, better operas. We thought the fundraising would follow. But the fundraising has lagged. We lost major donors through deaths or moves away from Florida.”

An opera lover who went to Metropolitan Opera performances while at Yale Law School, Hill has been attending FGO performances since the late 1980s. Having served on the board for six years, he led the search committee that hired Danis from Sarasota Opera.

While he’s aware of the view that the company had been living beyond its means, he said slashing the budget too dramatically would have hurt FGO even more. He likes to quote the American poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy’s claim that “the only thing more expensive than opera is war.”

“The problem with cutting back is there comes to be a point of diminishing or even negative returns,” he said. “We have cut back. We’re back to four operas in the Arsht Center, we’ve reduced the number of performances. The concern is always if reduce much more, we’ll lose our audience and our donors.

“We don’t want to be in the position that we’re in, but our choice at various times was to either stop producing opera or continue and try to catch up on the fundraising. We had assets, we borrowed against them and now we’re at the point where we have to stop. But the choice was stop producing opera or go into the well, and we chose to go into the well.”

Former FGO general director Robert Heuer agrees with Hill’s assessment.

“While we did build a world-class opera house, we were wrong about the community’s commitment or ability to support a bigger more expensive opera company,” said Heuer.

“The cost of producing opera in the Ziff Ballet Opera House escalated far beyond what any of us imagined. It was not just that it cost more in rental, but the audiences expected bigger and more elaborate productions, which in turn cost more to build and more stagehands to operate.

“Clearly, the board and I underestimated what it would cost in the new opera house and the deficits grew in the following years and then the economic recession hit everyone hard, including many opera companies around the country.”

Heuer said he believes Danis and her team are working very hard and doing everything possible to continue FGO’s 74-year legacy. “I truly hope that the community will step up to the challenge and FGO will be successful,” he adds.

Susan T. Danis came aboard as FGO's CEO and general director in October of 2012.

Susan T. Danis came aboard as FGO’s CEO and general director in October of 2012.

Sold recently for $1 million was the Leiser Center, the rehearsal space near the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, and for $9.4 million the company unloaded the parking lot near the Arsht Center that had been intended to be the site of its new offices. Meanwhile, the company used up its $5.9 million endowment, cut its administrative staff from 40 to 18 and cut the total number of performances nearly in half. FGO’s Doral rehearsal space is on the market for $5.5 million.

“The sale of it will definitely, in conjunction with the campaign, clear out the debt, and if it sells at the price that we’re asking, leave us a good chunk of money that will help us in moving forward,” Danis said.

Former Florida senator and governor Bob Graham once identified what he called the “Cincinnati Factor” in the state’s identity – the tendency of arrivals from the north to never fully make the state their home. They cheer for the Bengals not the Dolphins, send their children to Ohio State not FSU, and contribute to the arts organizations and charitable groups “back home.”

Today the Cincinnati Factor has been joined by what may be called the “São Paulo Factor”—as a flood of money from Brazil and other South American countries contributes to a boom in condo construction but fails to yield much financial support for local arts organizations.

“We certainly have folks that winter in our area but their primary residence and giving is still in the northeast or the Midwest or whatever,” Danis said. “It helps fill your seats, but it might not fill your coffers. And in Miami there are lots of folks who enjoy our product and this may be one of their homes, but their primary residence is somewhere in Central or South America. The transitory nature of the community definitely affects a lot of things in Miami.”

The new fundraising campaign started at home. The company’s administrative staff has pledged a total of 4 percent of their salaries, Danis said, for a three-year total of nearly $200,000. If FGO reaches its fundraising goal, $15 million will pay for operating costs to implement the new plan, $1.5 million will go toward rebuilding the endowment and another $1 million will serve as a cash reserve.

Beyond fundraising, the company has taken steps to better connect with the community, reaching out to potential audience members who might not have considered attending an opera. FGO has moved its performances beyond the expensive seats of performing arts centers, giving surprise performances at unexpected places like shopping malls and last season performing the opera No Exit at a South Beach club. This season, the company announced a partnership with the city of Hialeah to provide free Spanish-language concerts, performances in unusual locations called “Random Acts of Opera” and an opera program for the city’s schools.

Another important part of the new strategy is to revamp the company’s repertoire. Danis see future repertoire in three prongs: Big productions of classics by Verdi, Puccini and the rest; rarely performed operas; and a category she calls “Made for Miami,” which will focus on themes such as political oppression, Latin American life and the experience of exile that she believes will resonate with South Florida audiences.

About the classics, she said, “As one of our young artists who was born and raised here says, Miami likes its opera grand. Everybody here wants monster opera, so to the best of our ability, we want to be able to continue that tradition.” Tentative plans for future operas of this class include Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, Verdi’s Aida and Bellini’s Norma.

“The other prong is definitely to bring things to the stage that aren’t done that frequently, like doing Nabucco last year,” said Danis. In the next two seasons, this group could include another rarely heard opera by a famous composer, Don Quichotte by Massenet.

This year’s installment of a made-for-Miami opera is Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, the story of a woman desperate to leave a repressive country who struggles with its bureaucracy to obtain the right exit papers. “It might have been set in an unknown eastern European country, but there are many people in this community, whether they came from the Caribbean or came from South or Central America had dealt with that exact situation,” she said.

Among future operas that fit this category are The Passenger by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, an opera that takes place aboard an ocean liner bound for Brazil after World War II, in which a former female guard at Auschwitz think she recognizes a former inmate. “I can’t think of a more perfect opera for South Florida,” Danis said.

Another is Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls, a 2010 work that tells the true story of the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, an early supporter of Castro who later broke with the regime and ended up in prison.

FGO’s new approach to repertoire won’t be easy. It will mean attracting new audience members without alienating the company’s loyal core.

A look at attendance figures for the past two years shows the challenges the company might face. FGO’s superb production of Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra won national attention, acclaim from critics and plaudits from listeners. But it also generated the worst ticket sales of any FGO opera in the past two years, filling an average of 63 percent of the house, according to figures provided by the company. Filling the most seats was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with an average of 84 percent, followed by Verdi’s Rigoletto, with 82 percent.

“One of our consultants said opera audiences are bipolar: They either want all standard repertoire or they’re so sick of it they want the other things,” Danis said. “And the challenge for an opera company that only presents four is that it’s really tough to keep everybody happy.”

Florida Grand Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly opens 7 p.m. Saturday and runs through Nov. 22 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami; and Dec. 4 and 6 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale., 800-741-1010.

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7 Responses to “In a crucial season, Florida Grand Opera hopes to get its finances back on track”

  1. Posted Nov 12, 2014 at 3:19 pm by Dave Rosenbaum

    I love Bob Heuer’s comment about building a world-class opera house. Where is this world-class opera house? Arsht isn’t even as nice as the Broward Center and doesn’t compare to the buildings in Seattle, Houston and many major cities. I’d say that they built a second-class opera house befitting what has been, for a long time, a second-tier company. The previous management’s malpractice, as Jack so aptly put it, has been discussed many times, but for me, the most-telling moment was when when Heuer finally discovered Nadine Sierra a year after everyone else had, and she was in his own backyard. The previous management soured a lot of people on FGO, and I hope a recovery is possible.

    I agree with Jack: We don’t need world-class singers. But it would’ve been nice if, just once in a while, FGO found talented, young, up-and-coming singers, people to get excited about. There was a time when the phrase “FGO audience favorite” meant singers who were popular in South Florida but nowhere else…because they weren’t any good!

    Susan Danis seems to be on the right track, but it could be a hopeless situation. I mean, they’ve been reduced to using a Sarasota Opera production for their opening performances. I almost wish FGO would go the Chicago Opera Theater or St. Louis route rather than doing the same old Italian and Mozart operas over and over. Maybe that’s the direction they are heading in, and for that reason, I’ll continue to support them. I love Wagner and Strauss, but I don’t need to see Wagner and Strauss in South Florida; plenty of other companies are doing them very well. My guess is that FGO will only survive by being different, maybe different enough to draw an audience from out of town. I wonder if “Mourning” last season drew any out-of-towners.

    I remember sitting through the second-cast Tosca last season and thinking, “If this is the best FGO can do, I don’t care if they survive.” But this came months after I sat through two performances of Mourning Becomes Electra that did make me care whether FGO survives.

    I think an arts organization needs to be relevant. The New World Symphony is relevant (and they’ve proven that they can fill the house–although a much smaller one–for creative, challenging programming). There are many ways to become relevant–programming, singers, productions–and I hope FGO finds the magic formula.

  2. Posted Nov 13, 2014 at 4:04 pm by John H. Schulte

    The notion that our winter residents did not support the opera in Miami is in error. Over the last seventy years, the majority of the financial support of the Miami Opera had its genesis in the North. The art, the architecture, the music, the water, the climate and the people make Miami the city of tomorrow, today!

    Opera is part of the soul of Miami; to lose it will have disastrous civic and cultural consequences.

  3. Posted Nov 17, 2014 at 3:46 pm by Dan Lewis

    “” is available.

  4. Posted Nov 19, 2014 at 5:36 pm by Tom Quinn

    I just returned from Munich two days ago. While there, I attended a thrilling performance of Manon Lescaut with Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais under the baton of Alain Attinglou. Most importantly, the production by Hans Neuenfels stripped away the cobwebs and “monster” sets, allowing the relationship between Manon and Des Grieux to dominate the stage. All for a ticket price of Eur. 103 (less than $120). Dozens of people outside the entrance holding signs or iPads stating “suche Karte”…..

    How would such a performance fare in South Florida, where administrators bankrupt of any ability to nurture and develop an audience’s open-mindedness towards new ways to rediscovering the classic works? Not well, I would guess.

    One only needs to remember that this is the organization that in 2004 took a bribe from the composer’s family to cancel a legitimate opera to put on an unspeakably bad operetta?

    I live just a few blocks from the theater, but I vote with my feet and my wallet. Until FGO can get past the “lavish, monster” thing, their mailers go unopened into my paper shredder, and I tell my friends who ask me whether FGO is worth going to, to save their money for something more worthwhile.

  5. Posted Nov 21, 2014 at 1:58 pm by Amy

    Tom – if you haven’t been to the opera since Susan Danis took over, you’re missing out on quite a bit. As someone who’s seen opera in dozens of houses, the current administration has its focus on the heart of the art form – the singing and dramatic performances. If nothing else, you owe it to yourself to see the Unexpected Operas in Unexpected Places series. They’re not to be missed.

  6. Posted Nov 25, 2014 at 10:09 am by Dave Rosenbaum

    Tom Quinn: Seriously, you’re comparing an opera company in Europe that is heavily government funded to Florida Grand Opera, which relies almost entirely on private donations and ticket sales? That’s pretty unfair, not to mention a bit ignorant. I’m sure Susan Danis would love to present a season of lesser-known and regie productions without having to worry about attendance and private donations. You might be voting with your feet and your wallet, but you’re definitely not voting with an open mind.

    Also, FGO has changed since Ms. Danis took over. This reminds me of a restaurant that used to be good, then got bad, then got good again, but everybody stopped going when it got bad and doesn’t know that it got pretty good again…at least on most nights.

    Judging from the lack of response to this article, not a lot of people care.

  7. Posted Dec 14, 2014 at 9:17 am by wolfgang731

    Dave, I think you’re assumption in completely incorrect. Just because people are not commenting on the article doesn’t mean they don’t care. There are those that enjoy voicing opinions and others who do not; it’s as simple as that.

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Tue Nov 11, 2014
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