A new director and new vision for Florida’s Grand Opera

Stepping into the position of leading South Florida’s most prominent opera company a little over a week before the 2023-2024 season opening, Maria Todaro set her sights not only on putting on a successful season, but on broadening opera’s reach and breaking away from its reputation as stuffy and exclusive.

“We have a bad reputation as an art form,” said Todaro, the new interim general director of the Florida Grand Opera. “We’re often told that we’re elitist. Too expensive, too loud, boring. We have all those fairly acquired titles but not anymore.” 

“Opera is one of the fastest growing art forms in America. It is also redeeming a lot of the perspective that it was written by white people, for white people; it’s not true anymore. 

“We are completely debunking the myth that you can do opera only in opera houses; you can do opera anywhere,” said Todaro. “I’ve done opera in farms, cemeteries, boats; the venue is not a thing. It’s one of the most diverse art forms that you can imagine. It’s an exciting artform, because there’s all kinds of new background cultures that are now rubbing against opera….FGO is gonna go in that direction ASAP because there’s much to be done about debunking that myth about the opera.”

Todaro is an operatic polymath: she conducts, acts, sings and directs. Some of her personal highlights include a sci-fi-inspired production of the opera “Tosca” as a drive-in performance during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as directing “The Anonymous Lover” for the Atlanta Opera. First written by Black composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges in 1780, “The Anonymous Lover” was banned by Napoleon in 1802 and is only just now beginning to see the light of day.

“I got called when [previous FGO director] Susan Denis resigned to be an interim general director, and it’s been a little more than a week,” she said in mid-November. “Immediate leadership was necessary. [It is] super intense, but I strive in intensity, so I’m happy like a little fish in water.”

Todaro is also focused on bringing opera to a younger generation. On the Thursday before the show’s premiere on Saturday, Nov. 11, over 1,400 Miami-Dade and Broward K-12 students were invited to attend a dress rehearsal of the program.

“What we offer is quite powerful and quite transformative,” said Todaro. “I would like a chance to expose more people to the diverse branches of opera.”

“For all time, it’s been old people in the theater, but it’s changing,” she added. “The new generation of the youth…is  super intelligent, savvy, clever, sustainability-oriented, community-oriented, no BS-oriented. [The young generation] is really taking at heart those humanitarian values.”

FGO Chorus Master and Barry University professor Jared Peroune holds a similar view  on the need to expand the opera to people of all backgrounds and how that wider perspective strengthens the arts.

“Cultures all over the world have a history of art and music,” he said. “Opera, as most people think of opera, is definitely a European-born art form, but that does not mean most cultures don’t have their own art and music as well, and that certainly doesn’t mean those cultures and their forms of art have not influenced what modern opera is either.”

As Chorus Master, Peroune is responsible for training the dozens of chorus members in every production, ensuring they have their lines and arrangements memorized perfectly before turning them over to the director. As a professor, Peroune trains many young up-and-comers in both the art form of classical opera, as well as the finer points of working in the industry.

“We have singers now from every cultural and ethnic background…and they bring with them their own cultural identity, so when they perform various works, then they are able to bring those experiences and ideas with them, as well,” said Peroune.

The curtain rises on “La Traviata”

The lights dim. The curtain rises. The audience holds its breath as soprano Violetta Cecilia Lopez takes her place on the stage, stepping into the role of famed courtesan Violetta Valery in the Florida Grand Opera’s new production of “La Traviata” at the Arsht Center in Miami. They applaud as Violetta sings about the lavish life she leads, filled with balls, finery and wealthy suitors; they watch as the drama unfolds between her, her lover the Viscount Alfredo, and Alfredo’s father, who forbids her from seeing him; they shed a tear as Violetta and Alfredo are reunited, only for Violetta to succumb to a fatal case of tuberculosis and die in Alfredo’s arms. 

Written by composer Guiseppe Verdi and first performed in 1853,  “La Traviata” follows the tumultuous love affair between courtesan Violetta and nobleman Alfredo as circumstances conspire to keep them apart and see them reunited for a tear jerking finale. It has maintained a prominent place in pop culture; it was even featured in the film “Pretty Woman,” which is seen as a lighter take on the tale. 

It is this staying power that Todaro says makes “La Traviata” an ideal choice for the first show of the FGO’s  2023-2024 season.

“On stage, there are humanitarian values that are very, very relevant to today. Traviata talks about women in the workplace, relationships with the family…the relationship of your place in society, social media — even if it’s like in the 1800s, the values are still the same. We can identify,” said Todaro.

Show director Chia Patino says it’s the themes of love and choice that make the show consistently popular with audiences, young and old.

“We want love to work, and we want people to believe in love, and we want people to believe in love ourselves. So when those questions are arisen: Do we love or do we choose anything else except for love? We always want to believe that love will win,” said Patino.

Audience members are of a similar opinion when it comes to supporting the opera.

“The music and the atmosphere, this is special,” said audience member Paul Birek, 76, who has been attending opera performances at the Arsht since it opened in 2006. “The soloists…are very important for me. The music is amazing. I like opera, I like ballet. I am permanent here.” 

“La Traviata” has wrapped up its run at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami and moved onto the Broward Center for the Performing Arts for two shows on Nov. 30 and Dec. 2. 

Following “La Traviata,” the FGO will be staging “I Pagliacci,” the famed tragedy of the sad clown of Calabria from Jan. 27 to Jan 30 at the Arsht Center and Feb. 8 to Feb.10 at the Broward Center, as well as “La Boheme,” the story of bohemian artists in Paris from April 6 to April 10 at the Arsht Center and May 2 to May 4 at the Broward Center.

Alexander Luzula is a junior double majoring in political science and journalism, with a minor in international relations. After graduating, he wishes to pursue a career in journalism.