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Gala, stars to honor Florida Grand Opera director Robert Heuer

By CHRISTINE DOLEN, cdolen@MiamiHerald.com

heuer When he was going to high school in suburban Detroit, Robert Heuer gave an early demonstration of the skills and determination that would carry him into the top job at Florida Grand Opera.

As a junior, Heuer played Will Parker in Oklahoma! But when senior year rolled around, the principal told the students there was just no money to put on a musical.

Heuer didn't think financing should stand in the way of art. So without asking permission, he canvassed local businesses for donations. He got into trouble for his nonsanctioned fundraising, but even so, there was a production of The Music Man that year, with Heuer as understudy in the role of Harold Hill.

And, on a far grander scale, making sure the show goes on is what Heuer, 65, has been doing ever since.

Only the third general director in the 69-year history of South Florida's oldest performing arts company, Heuer has been at the helm of the Florida Grand Opera (FGO) for 25 years. On Thursday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts -- a place that might not exist in its current form if not for Heuer -- opera stars Renata Scotto and Sherrill Milnes will share master-of-ceremonies duties at a concert and dinner celebrating Heuer's era of growth, change, occasional controversies and myriad challenges.

Heuer's job as FGO's general director and chief executive officer is an amalgam of business and art, in which days can begin at 9 a.m. and wrap up long after midnight. He is the face of an organization with an $11.5 million budget, an executive who must court donors, keep internationally known artists happy and deal with savvy opera fans, who can range from admiring to disgruntled.

Though he has a large, capable staff and an opera-by-opera succession of artistic collaborators, he pays keen attention to the details and myriad tasks involved in making each production the best it can be.

Two days before opening night, for instance, he sits at rehearsal and checks whether the English and Spanish supertitles glowing above the stage at the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House accurately reflect the libretto with perfect timing. On opening night, before he plants himself in the lobby to schmooze with donors and an array of boldface Miami names, he goes backstage to wish the cast luck, offering a crisp ``toi, toi, toi'' (opera's equivalent of ``break a leg,'').

Nationally, Heuer is a respected opera leader. Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, has known Heuer since a Miami-hosted Opera America conference in 1985. Heuer, he says, ``is known as one of the nicest people in a business filled with egos and competitiveness. He's a kind, thoughtful gentleman.''

Scotto and Milnes, both of whom spend time in Florida in the winter, are coming to Miami because of their happy past associations with Heuer and FGO. Since neither performs now, they will speak Heuer's praises, not sing them.

``It's very difficult to manage an opera house, with the orchestra, chorus, singers. You have to talk to everyone differently,'' says Scotto, an Italian soprano who has directed productions of La Traviata, Tosca and La Sonnambula at FGO. ``Bob and I are close friends. He's a very honest, beautiful person with a warm heart. He's so knowledgeable. He knows voices, and that is a talent. When he makes a decision, it's the right decision.''

Milnes, an Illinois-born baritone who advises that his throat is now ``rusty,'' sang the title role in Falstaff in 1991 and, thanks to Heuer, left Miami with an unusual souvenir.

``Bob gave me the fat suit I wore for Falstaff -- even a fat person doesn't look so fat onstage,'' Milnes says. ``Then I did a Falstaff for the Baltimore Opera, and I wore it again. I went to a patron's reception in costume, and I heard someone say, `Oh my, Mr. Milnes has really let himself go!' ''

Personnel decisions -- including the hiring of conductors, stage directors, designers, chorus masters and singers -- also come with Heuer's job, and some of his past choices have stirred controversy.

CREATED UPROAR

In 1992, Heuer asked Willie Anthony Waters to resign as the opera's artistic director, but after an uproar, he appointed Waters principal conductor. In the fall of 1996, James Judd -- who was then also serving as music director for the embattled, now-defunct Florida Philharmonic Orchestra -- was asked by Heuer to resign from his position as the opera's artistic director. Nine months later, Heuer graduated from the title general manager to general director, giving him ultimate control over the opera's business and artistic sides.

``Those [personnel] decisions are hard to make,'' Heuer says. ``I'd become close to them in creative and personal ways. You have to make a decision that's right for the company, and sometimes the reasons aren't easy to articulate to the public or critics. If I get hammered for it vs putting a person in a less-than-flattering light, OK.''

Both Judd and Waters, it should be noted, have positive things to say about Heuer and FGO. Heuer asked Judd to conduct at Thursday's tribute, but a job in France precluded his saying yes. Waters, who became general director of the Connecticut Opera from 1999 until the company folded a year ago, will return to his home town to conduct FGO's Carmen April 24-May 15.

``I'm still not sure what happened. It was a painful time but a growing time for me,'' Waters says. ``But since then, Bob and I have maintained our friendship and relationship.''

Judd, who describes FGO as ``a very conservative organization that has been a very successful organization,'' says Heuer had a sense of excitement about the risk taking Judd tried to bring to the opera's programming, including a production of Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw. Judd still lives in South Florida and has been to Arsht Center performances in the Ballet Opera House and the Knight Concert Hall, and he gives Heuer credit for ``seeing through the vision of the opera house and a concert hall, and not letting it become one hall.''

Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County's Department of Cultural Affairs, says plainly, ``Without Bob, we would not have had the kind of performing-arts center we have in terms of the quality of the spaces. He was the most involved, detail-oriented, big-picture person from the first day. . . . He wanted the whole thing to be great.''

Parker Thomson, the first chairman of the Performing Arts Center Trust and a driving force behind the creation of the center, calls FGO ``the organization that was there, that was constantly the leader. Bob was the leader speaking for all the resident groups. . . . Raising money was the deal. Bob deferred things the opera itself might have needed. He was a leader in every way.''

Heuer agrees that one can fairly say that he helped raise millions toward building the performing arts center and that he was intensely detail-oriented during its creation -- so much so that, when he first walked through it, ``it felt completely familiar.''

Opera America's Scorca has been to the Ballet Opera House, FGO's home since 2006, and Dade County Auditorium, its less-than-ideal performance space for 55 years. He praises Heuer's leadership in getting the Arsht Center built and adds, ``Compared to the old Dade County Auditorium, Florida Grand Opera moving into the Arsht is like Dorothy going to the land of Oz and waking up to find everything in color.''

FUNDING CHALLENGE

Still, Heuer must make sure FGO can persevere in its opulent new surroundings.

With the economic downturn hitting not long after FGO moved into its dream home, funding remains a challenge. From a budget high of $22.2 million for a six-opera 2006-2007 season, its first at the Arsht, FGO has slashed the current season's budget by almost half, to $11.5 million for four productions. Next season will also feature four operas: Turandot, The Tales of Hoffman, Don Giovanni and the 2007 opera Cyrano by Heuer's former boss at Michigan Opera Theatre, David DiChiera.

FGO board chairman Jane Robinson, who has been involved with the opera under all three general directors, says of Heuer, ``In his era, the growth of the company has been more difficult. There's less corporate support. Now, it's all about the private sector. . . . Going from six operas to four is painful, but it's not difficult. If you don't have the money, you don't spend it.''

Plans to build an opera headquarters with rehearsal space, offices, shops (for creating costumes, wigs and so on), parking and a small 485-seat theater across from the Arsht on FGO-owned land are on hold, and the company will remain based in a building it owns in Doral.

``We have to do that so we can get up to doing five operas in the 2011-2012 season,'' Heuer says. ``In six years it will be our 75th anniversary, and we should commission a new opera. I think Miami is exhausted from capital campaigns. So we want to see whether there's a partnership we could form with the Arsht to plan and build on the site.''

Heuer's first love was theater, but he migrated to the behind-the-scenes arts world after appearing in a Wayne State University production of Blood Wedding and deciding ``I really wasn't a very good actor.'' While working with the Detroit Youth Theatre, he met DiChiera, who made Heuer managing director of the new Michigan Opera Theatre. At an Opera America conference in Miami, Heuer met Greater Miami Opera general director Robert Herman, who lured him south in 1979. And the rest is Heuer's history.

He thinks he will stay at FGO another five or six years. For almost 16 years, he has shared his life with Mark La Fata, a former freelance film-TV production coordinator who now works as a litigation support case manager for an accounting firm. The two share a life in Coral Gables, two dogs and a home in the French mountain village of Ribeauvillé, which neither gets to visit often because of work. They met through an opera board member, though film-and-Broadway buff La Fata had never been to an opera.

OPERA FAN

``Over the past 16 years, I've been to every one. I genuinely appreciate opera now, and I would like to think I've taught him as much -- I love good `bad' movies and old black-and-white films,'' says La Fata, who adds, ``Bob is a very fair, diplomatic person, and his passion is his work. He's selfless and tireless. His pleasure comes from having it all come together onstage.''

Today, with the Arsht open and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as the opera's Fort Lauderdale home, Heuer is relieved that his only job is running an opera company. Gone are the days when the opera had to put air purifiers backstage at Dade County Auditorium to counteract mold. Or when Luciano Pavarotti, appearing in Un Ballo in Maschera at Fort Lauderdale's old War Memorial Auditorium (where, Heuer says, ``you could still smell the wrestlers from the night before''), had to go outside after exiting from one side of the stage in order to enter from the other.

Looking back over 25 years, Heuer says, ``I think the culmination is the opening of the Arsht Center, having it turn out so well and be a place that the community will go to for years to come. . . . My job is easier because it's there. It really was worth it. It's a wonderful opera house.''

'BARBER OF SEVILLE'

What: Florida Grand Opera's ``The Barber of Seville'' by Gioachino Rossini and Cesare Sterbini

Where: Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, through Feb. 28; Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale, March 4 and March 6

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Feb. 28 (Arsht); 8 p.m. March 4 and March 8 (Broward)

Cost: $10 to $225 at Arsht, $21 to $200 at Broward

Info: 800-741-1010; fgo.org

THE GALA

What: ``An Evening to Remember,'' hosted by Sherrill Milnes and Renatta Scotto, with Lielle Berman, Katharine Goeldner, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, David Pomeroy, Kyle Pfortmiller, Julia Ebner, Amanda Crider, David Bailey, Jonathan Michie, Roderick Williams, Eglise Gutiérrez, Bruno Pratico, Antonio Barasorda, Benjamin Clements, Sarah Coburn, Fernando de la Mora, Mark Walters, Elizabeth Futral, Frédéric Antoun, Andrew Bidlack, Elizabeth Caballero, Kendall Gladen, Daniel Mobbs, Helen Donath, David Alsina

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: Sanford and Dolores Ziff Ballet Opera House, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Cost: $23.75 to $153.75 for concert only, $750 to $50,000 for concert and onstage benefit dinner

Info: 800-741-1010; www.fgo.org or www.arshtcenter.org

Caption: Robert Heuer works the crowd at a recent performance of
Lucia Di Lammermoor at the Sanford and Dolores Ziff Opera House. On Thursday, he will be celebrated there at a concert and dinner. BARBARA P. FERNANDEZ

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