After Labor Day, it gets to be season around here, and as if to clear the decks before everything gets hopping, the last week or so has some important leadership announcements.
Over at Florida Grand Opera, the successor to longtime general director Bob Heuer has been named. She is Susan Danis, for the past 10 years the executive director of the Sarasota Opera. Danis will take over for the retiring Heuer on Oct. 9, as the FGO season gets under way.
The Sarasota Opera is one of more interesting opera companies in the country, primarily for its special approach to programming. Artistic director Victor DeRenzi has been conducting a complete Verdi cycle of all the Italian composer’s operas for the past 23 years. Next year is the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth, but the cycle – which includes all the original and revised versions of the composer’s works – will continue until 2016.
This year’s opera is perhaps the most obscure of all, and the least highly regarded: Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), Verdi’s second opera, and a total failure at its premiere in 1840. It was a comedy, but Verdi had to write it after the deaths of his wife and both of his children, which no doubt affected his ability to concentrate on hijinks. The company also is doing a world premiere children’s opera, Daron Hagen’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, based on the Winsor McCay cartoon from 1905, and in its American Classics series, which has featured mountings of Barber’s Vanessa and Robert Ward’s The Crucible, the company will present Carlisle Floyd’s Steinbeck opera Of Mice and Men.
As executive director, Danis had a good deal to do with all this, and that says important things about what she might able to bring to FGO. Like most opera companies, FGO has had its share of financial setbacks. Not long ago, it was doing five regular productions a season, but now does just four. This season will include Puccini’s La Boheme, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Verdi’s La Traviata. Three of those four operas are among the 10 most popular operas in the world, year after year, and the Bellini opera is probably his most accessible.
Perhaps FGO also will institute some thematic rubrics for its programming. Doing so does have a way of adding a useful intellectual construct to the proceedings, and invites a kind of repertory exploration you might not get otherwise.
And just this morning, the Master Chorale of South Florida announced that its new director, Karen Kennedy, has decided to step down after just one season, citing the pressure of her job as director of choral studies at the University of Miami.
Kennedy is a delightful person and a fine musician, and I had a great conversation with her at her UM office not long after she was named. She is a person of considerable enthusiasm and energy as well, and my guess is that when you’re that engaged in what you’re doing, you’re not going to something if you can’t give it the attention it needs.
So the chorale is looking for a new music director and has launched a national search. Kennedy will direct the first concerts of the season in late November, when the chorale will do Carl Orff’s deathless cantata from 1937, Carmina Burana, which I like to think of as the first rock opera, even though it was composed two decades before Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley appeared on the scene. She’ll also be on the group’s 10th anniversary program in April, when she appears along with former directors Jo-Michael Scheibe (now at the University of Southern California) and Joshua Habermann, who leads the Dallas Symphony Chorus. The major work on that program is the contemporary British composer John Rutter’s Mass for the Children.
The chorale has an important season this year, appearing with the Cleveland Orchestra in the Third Symphony of Mahler in November and in the Beethoven Ninth Symphony in March. This singing ensemble was the Florida Philharmonic chorus in its original incarnation, and has survived for a decade without the orchestra.
The difficulty for them as I see it in concertizing is that it still does choral pieces that also are orchestral masterworks: Haydn’s Creation, Verdi’s Requiem, Mendelssohn’s Elijah. That’s fine, but even in the short time that Kennedy has been leading the chorale, it’s been nudged in a slightly more choral direction, with an evening of smaller pieces that stand alone.
I think that’s a good path for them to follow, though of course they need to do the big works as well since there aren’t many other groups to do them. It would be nice to see them do things like some of the Brahms orchestral songs (Nanie, Triumphlied, Gesang der Parzen), Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives, even Barber’s Prayers of Kierkegaard, just to pull random ideas off the top of my head. Then the group could do smaller individual works that just showcase the chorus. They did some of that this past season with a concert of music for and about royalty, but there are many smaller pieces that would benefit by their attentions.
Kennedy will no doubt make some further strong contributions to choral life here in South Florida, and I’m sure the chorale will be able to persuade her to do a guest appearance now and again. The chorale is hoping to have someone new on board by next June; interested persons can apply through the group’s website.