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Be very afraid: Another US opera company says it is going bust

October 31, 2014 by norman lebrecht

28 comments.


The general director of Florida Grand Opera, Susan T. Danis, has written to patrons saying its business plan is not working, there is nothing left to sell and there is no money for new productions. Unless vast amounts are donated, Florida goes dark.

The critical paragraph in her letter is this:

Since 2006, FGO has sustained only one break-even year. 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. Clearly the current business plan is not working. Our immediate response has been to cut $2 million from our production budget for the current season. Unfortunately, these four productions may be the only combination of repertoire that we can produce for $8.6 million, which represents a $2 million budget reduction. This isn’t a sustainable model. 

Florida may be full of wealth retirees, but this reads more like another City Opera crash in the making than a San Diego phoenix rise.

Full letter below.

florida grand opera

Dear Mr. (redacted):

As the General Director of Florida Grand Opera, I wanted to speak directly to you, a member of our family, about your opera company. Since my arrival two years ago, I have been evaluating the organization and examining the fiscal history, relationship of the opera seasons (repertoire and artists) to sales and audience satisfaction, and FGO’s presence in the community.

Background

Across the country arts organizations are facing enormous fiscal challenges in the wake of the economic downturn. It is a bold, new world for the arts and for fundraising. Organizations that were in a solid financial position prior to the downturn are still facing challenging times. Struggling companies are facing an imperative to change and adapt immediately. Through my analysis of the organization I have discovered that FGO, your opera company, is one of these companies and the time is now to make a change for the future.

Since 2006, FGO has sustained only one break-even year. 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. Clearly the current business plan is not working. Our immediate response has been to cut $2 million from our production budget for the current season. Unfortunately, these four productions may be the only combination of repertoire that we can produce for $8.6 million, which represents a $2 million budget reduction. This isn’t a sustainable model.

We need to increase our focus on producing opera relevant to our community and strive to present the grand opera masterpieces that you enjoy so much. We have learned that there is a need to expand the awareness of FGO and increase our service to the broader community. Most importantly, past community support has not been at a level significant enough to sustain FGO. This has not been clearly communicated to all of you.

Plan for the Future

In partnership with the Board we have completed a strategic planning process and produced a plan for the future that I wish to share with you. The result is a Comprehensive Campaign which will empower Florida Grand Opera to embark on a new direction for opera in South Florida by maintaining our commitment to the classics that you love, rediscovering rarely performed, but fantastic gems of the repertoire that you haven’t seen at FGO, and scheduling works that look to the future of the art form and celebrate South Florida’s diverse community.

In addition to producing what you see on stage, we want to engage our community and invest in future audiences through expanded Education and Outreach initiatives that introduce children, families, and the younger generation of South Florida to the music and drama you and I both love. We are excited about the future and hope you are too.

Say Yes to Opera!

To fund this vision, we are asking our community (that means you) to SAY YES!! to Opera in South Florida by being a part of our three year $17.5 million campaign.

And we are already off to a fantastic start!  The administrative staff and members of the production teams have come together and contributed to the cause to ensure the vitality of the company over the next three years. Additionally, our colleagues in the opera industry have agreed to support FGO through mutually beneficial partnerships.

Through these efforts, there is enough funding to carry us through this season. But the future of our company rests with you. To sustain the company for the future, reaching this $17.5 million goal is imperative, and we can’t do it without you.

You are invited to share your opinions

I want to share the details of our plans with you. To do that, we are hosting several town-hall meetings to discuss the future of the company. The dates, times, and locations are listed below. We will also be reaching out to you individually to share our excitement about the future and to see how you can help.

I hope that all of you, when asked to Say YES!! will rise to the occasion of ensuring a successful future for opera in South Florida. We’re in this together, and I’m excited to embark upon this journey with you.

Many Thanks,

Susan's Signature

Susan T. Danis
General Director and CEO


Comments (28)

  1. Michael Volpe says:

    I find it curious that her plans include putting on undiscovered gems. Obviously, I would agree with that principle but one of the problems facing opera is the inherent conservatisom of the core (largest) part of the audience.

  2. sdReader says:

    If that is the situation and the trajectory, they should fold up, and this woman, judging from her letter, inspires no confidence at all.

    They have waited too long and are now going too public with their dirty laundry, meaning accumulated mismanagement. Who would help?

  3. CDH says:

    “Most importantly, past community support has not been at a level significant enough to sustain FGO. This has not been clearly communicated to all of you.

    What does this mean? That we — FGO — have not reached out to enough people? Or that you — our rich fan base – – are not stumping up enough? Talk about PR.

    So their proposal is to unearth unheard gems that have been atticked for a reason, fantastic gems — how about Lulu, bound to be a crowd pleaser — and newer works. This is South Florida, not exactly The Death of Klinghoffer country. I’m sure they would love the rest of Adams, or Glass. or someone younger and more experimental than these dinosaurs.

    Give it up. Carmen, La Boheme and Butterfly, La Traviata, maybe Don Giovanni. Barber of Seville. rotate those and you will stay afloat till attrition takes your audience.

    1. Rachel says:

      You could not be more wrong. Rotate the same shows over and over again? As much as I love Carmen and Traviata, they alone cannot sustain the opera world. We need innovation and progress as much as we do our solid foundation of the classics. I have personally experienced an opera company falling into decline because they were rotating the same shows too many times. For them to sell only half a house in a ~1,200 seat theater for Butterfly, Traviata, Faust, Flying Dutchman? Not a good sign. We don’t need nostalgia. We don’t need museum pieces. There’s no reason for opera to die; we just need to continue growing from our impressive roots. Become inspired through greatness, not discouraged through intimidation.

  4. Daniel D. Fernandez says:

    Wexford Festival of Opera Rara, in Ireland and the Festival dell Valle d’Istria in Martina Franca, in Italy are very healthy because they offer NEW and FORGOTTEN operas to their audiences How many times people would like to see Traviata, Boheme and Carmen? The survival of opera depends of renovation. People around the world go to those places looking for something more, not the same rut of Figaros and Manons. Many operas of Donizetti and many others are unjustly forgotten, while the audience has to see once and again mediocre productions of popular Verdii, Rossini and Puccini.

  5. The letter is poorly written, and in fact reveals nothing except that they’re in trouble and seem to have been trying to hide that fact. Now they think new and neglected works will save them? I’ve lived in South Florida and seen their audiences. I’m not convinced this new direction–not to mention communications like this–will do anything but frustrate the donor base they already have. Regardless, I hope some solution is found, because losing this opera company would be tragic.

  6. Armando Olmedo says:

    Florida Grand Opera is shifting the paradigm. It has started by expanding its presence among the numerous, diverse communities that comprise South Florida. While it already had a vast and encouraging community presence, under current leadership it has started promising alliances that more specifically cater to local communities (pockets, if you will). Case in point, it recently announced a partnership with the City of Hialeah, which is 90% Hispanic, that brings opera to that community (http://www.knightarts.org/community/miami/the-new-jewel-of-hialeah ). The concerts associated to that alliance will focus on Spanish-lyric opera, something that has not happened before.

    The term “gems,” as mentioned by Ms. Danis, probably refers more to works that appeal to South Florida’s diverse community (e.g. Cuban zarzuela?, Spanish-language lyric opera?, entartete works?, etc.) and have never been performed in Miami.

    This is clearly a last-ditch appeal to the community and a concern for opera lovers. Will donors accept this new direction? Will the community support different works? I, for one, will support the new approach and am hopeful that the arts community will galvanize around this new campaign.

  7. Karen says:

    Subscribe to comments only.

  8. Joseph Fernandez says:

    The only thing I missed in the article is the salaries of the performers and the staff.

  9. flyingfisher says:

    What a surprise. Bob Heuer drove this company into the ground then summarily retired and fled to Europe to live out the rest of his days. This has been a long time coming. There is an ENORMOUS Cuban and just general latin population in South Florida which FGO has largely ignored. Programming zarzuelas at a high quality level would have put them on the map as the only large opera company in the nation to do such a thing and would have invited the latin population to participate in the opera. But no. FGO views anything like that as ‘cheap’. Domingo then decided to swoop in for Luisa Fernanda(their first zarzuela ever) and got ‘sick’ then decided to conduct and STILL demanded his $250,000 fee for the night which nearly bankrupted FGO. Checks were bouncing left and right. Previously, they also decided to buy a new rehearsal space for 7 million or so dollars and that didn’t help.This is the prime example of a completely mismanaged company that has COMPLETELY ignored the demographics of the surrounding area. ‘We are in the capital of latin american culture in the United States. Let’s not program ANY spanish/latin american music AT ALL’. Great idea. This is a sinking ship and the captain has abandoned it; Susan Danis has unfortunately run into the wheelhouse with nearly the entire bow already underwater.

  10. Jeffrey Levenson says:

    Why is she asking for $17.5M for three years??
    I would just try to save the season – ditch the
    strategic plan for now.

  11. Fiddleman says:

    As the head of Sarasota Opera, Danis oversaw the programming of many similar “forgotten gems”. Lesser known works of Verdi, such as “I Due Foscari” and “Attila”, and works of composers such as Boito, Montemezzi and Moniuszko were common and popular there. The Sarasota crowd was quite enthusiastic for these pieces, why not at FGO as well?

    1. Ray says:

      Because this is not Sarasota. I think you should be more concerned about asking the Sarasota Opera management why they refuse to even audition competent regional artists and instead overpay imported mediocre ones?
      FGO is run like a country club. Put together great productions, stage a couple of Zarzuelas along with other operas, and PLEASE HIRE REALLY GREAT SINGERS.
      That’s really all it takes.

  12. Michael Volpe says:

    Fiddleman, I would wholeheartedly endorse her idea given that our own festival has also pioneered the presentation of many rarities in the UK. I am just not too sure that it is going to save them; although to be fair, she doesn’t actually propose that they will.

  13. william osborne says:

    At least Miami is being consistent. This wealthy city with a metro population of 5.5 million doesn’t have a symphony orchestra. And now no opera.

    Meanwhile Germany continues on with 83 full time opera houses and 133 full time orchestras all owned and operated by the government.

    1. Prewartreasure says:

      Different cultures, Bill, different cultures, or had you overlooked the obvious before assembling your reply?

      1. Paul Pellay says:

        Yeah: one country uses money towards its culture, the other thinks money is culture. Any questions?!

  14. Eric Koskoff says:

    This is the kind of “sound bite” reporting that is totally irresponsible. The writer absolutely ignored the sentence “Through these efforts, there is enough funding to carry us through this season.” Also ignored are the facts that the Metropolitan resolved its difficulties and San Diego Opera raised $2 million once the facts were made public. Susan Danis is to be admired for making a strong and honest assessment, making a clean break from the past management, and leaving it up to South Floridians to decide the future (AFTER THIS YEAR) of Florida Grand Opera!

  15. Helen Kamioner says:

    I strongly suggest she should contact David Koch

  16. K says:

    So many comments negatively attacking FGO’s plan without offering any solutions of their own! I don’t believe Ms. Danis’ plan is fool-proof, but at least she *has* a plan. So many companies are burying their collective heads in the sand or biding their time until inevitable death. I ask you, readers and commenters, as someone who dearly loves this art form and wishes to see it survive and thrive–What are we to do about this? If you were in charge of this company, how would you make it fiscally viable? What would you like to see companies do to grow their audiences and cut costs? If you have no ideas and nothing to add to the conversation, then you are helping contribute to the “death of opera”.

  17. Dick Rosenbaum says:

    Maybe it is up to a Music Director to have a sense of what the community he/she is serving in wants to hear, in order for the organization to survive.

  18. Opera lover says:

    The reality of Miami is that there has to be glitz and prestige and ego satisfaction to attract the crowd. I do not think that it is a good idea to do unknown operas. The Miami crowd is not sophisticated enough to sustain that type of programming. If they had a steady budget, ok, but not now. Standards, glamour, ego, dates, flash…that is what sells in Miami.

  19. MIA in MIA says:

    No surprises here. Many accurate and interesting comments already shared Miami is a wealthy city and FGO hasn’t apparently gotten it right yet. Heuer programmed to placate individual donors and their whims and had no thought of long-term vision. FGO has no one high up on their artistic staff with significant experience or understanding of the business or art. Heuer hired and and the board renewed a waste of a music director. They waste money on rental of the Arsht Center on performance runs that stretch on too long despite frequent double casting. They waste money on inefficient and disorganized contracting in the orchestra. The chorus needs more rehearsal and they are denied it. SDreader is right – the letter inspires no confidence, the company does not act in a way which inspires confidence, and Danis, while obviously and heroically attempting to save the sinking ship, has done nothing within the company to inspire pride, cameraderie, teamwork, or communication. It would be a shame if FGO were to fold, but seems like they’ve been asking for it. This capital campaign should’ve already begun years ago. Yes, we know about the economy. It’s been told to us uncharismatically from your stage for years now.

  20. C Graham says:

    I would be interested in knowing the Board of Directors’ role in this. Might they be resistant to change?

  21. D.R. says:

    Why still blaming the old regime after 3 years in power? If you can’t have a decent season with 8 million look for another job! Sadly FGO, RIP.

  22. Jimmy R says:

    As a reader of this forum (which appeals to a very small percentage of the population) you sound like castaways on a deserted island fighting over how to get off. A better idea might be to work together. At least FGO did’t wait until it was millions in debt to launch their campaign for change. If the opera/arts community doesn’t start working together to find a way to survive, it will be gone in this country in 20 years.

  23. OPERA LOVER says:

    I agree 100%. Classical musicians need to pull together and stop bad mouthing each other; they seem to revel in others’ failure. This attitude does not help classical music and operas stay alive. Arrogance is something that turns people away from classical music; its time to get over it and instead to glorify the magic that centuries of composers and performers have created.


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