By Sebastian Spreng, Visual Artist and Classical Music Writer
A refreshing breeze is blowing through the Florida Grand Opera, and it has a name. It comes from the west, not exactly the “far west” but the west coast of Florida. Her name is Susan Danis, she comes from a successful tenure at the Sarasota Opera and she is the new General Director and CEO of Florida Grand Opera. Feet firmly on the ground and keenly aware of the challenges ahead of her, she combines the force of a hurricane with the elegance of Mozart’s Soave sia il vento, this interviewer quickly discovered.
Sebastian Spreng: Your appointment inevitably links your name to those of such trailblazers as Ardis Krainik, Beverly Sills and, today, Francesca Zambello in Washington and Deborah Sandler in Kansas.
Susan Danis: It’s curious that you first mentioned Ardis Krainik, because she’s one of the reasons I do what I do. I met her when I attended my first Opera America conference as part of my work for the Lake George Opera. She chaired it, and as soon as I heard her, I took her as a model. She had a tremendous impact on our profession. She was a pioneer and a great inspiration.
SS: Another American pioneer, Sarah Caldwell, used to say, “If you can sell green toothpaste in this country, you can sell opera.” Is opera for everyone?
SD: Absolutely. And one reason is that, overrun as it is with information and multimedia, the world has shrunk. Especially for young people, who access music through new media. It’s a continuous bombardment, and I don’t think there’s an art form that suits it better. I’m a believer in “the five-opera rule”: never reject it if you don’t like the first one you see; give it four more chances. You have to give yourself time and keep at it. At some point, the power of music and voice produces magic. If not, it’s the orchestra, the sets, the costumes, the plot. In opera, there’s always something for everybody. We all have our “opera moment,” when everything clicks, and after that there’s no going back.
SS: When did that happen to Susan Danis?
SD: When I attended my first opera, Carmen, with my school, I was fascinated. In fifth grade, I played the mellophone and later the horn, though I preferred theater. In New York, I did drama therapy with disabled children and that way theater and music started coming together. Little by little opera gained ground. I was fortunate to have friends who had a box at the Met, and because they seldom went, I would take their place. I saw the very best and my standards went way up.
SS: How do you win over a new audience?
SD: Education is the only answer. In Sarasota I designed an educational program based on American classics made into operas, such as The Crucible, a play by Arthur Miller that we all know. Before staging Ward’s opera by the same name, we prepared the students. They not only read it; they saw the movie. We mixed theatre audiences with opera audiences and even nonagenarian Robert Ward was on a panel. It was delightful to hear him speak of his work with Arthur Miller. That’s what draws and hooks audiences, creating connections and relationships. Neophyte audiences are primarily interested in the war-horses, the younger they start, the better, and they discover how cool opera is. And if they’re so fortunate as to have someone introduce and guide them through the process, even better.
SS: How are you going to approach Miami’s diverse and stratified audience?
SD: This season is one of transition, and the public should keep that in mind. I’m not ready to announce what will make up my first season (2013-2014), but I can assure you people will be surprised. I am happy with the ideas and the meetings I had with our musical director, maestro Ramon Tebar. We want seasons that mix the traditional and the new and also create connections with other companies. There will be new names and great operas that have never played in Miami but for which the time has come because now we have a state of the art theatre.
SS: Next year marks both Verdi and Wagner’s bicentennial and Britten’s centennial.
SD: Make a wish and perhaps it will come true. I can’t say more than that. We are looking at very attractive choices. I favor a new approach that sparkes interest and encompasses all areas, from new technologies and if possible, great opear stars. We’re trying to please everyone, drafting a plan for four or five seasons. Thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, we’ll soon stage María de Buenos Aires, Astor Piazzolla’s “little opera,” in alternative spaces. It’s a great opportunity, and I hope it’s the start of a string of great, creative, unconventional events.
SS: How will you pick the operas that you want to stage right away?
SD: I like too many operas – how can you not love La Boheme and La Traviata? – but achieving consensus forces you to pick other titles. I love Richard Strauss and I hope to be able to do Der Rosenkavalier.
SS: Given Miami’s sucess as an arts and sports magnet (Art Basel, the Sony Ericsson Open), is it possible we’ll see an opera festival like the one you organized in Sarasota?
SD: It was a tightly packed season that added operas up until the last week, in which you could see a different opera every night. It worked in Sarasota, and perhaps Miami could offer something similar…
SS: Are there enough new titles to keep the genre alive?
SD: Yes, there are, though they entail the risk of high production costs and debt. That’s the case with Heggie’s Moby Dick, jointly produced by San Francisco and Dallas. It goes back to the literature-film-opera relationship. For example, Jake Heggie’ previous opera, Dead Man Walking, even more gripping in the opera hall than in the movie theater. The condemned man is right in front of us; the tension and intensity are almost unbearable. It was a poweful experience, just unforgettable.
SS: How do you wrap up an opera evening?
SD: Sharing the singers’ energy and happiness after having done their job, having sung for hours. It’s always a magical event, and I want to get the most out of it. Artists take us to a higher dimension. Talking to them, seeing how they have the energy to interact with the public, makes me even more aware of their generosity. It’s understandable how some literally inspire ladoration.
SS: What’s your message for the South Florida audience?
SD: Watch out, here we come!