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‘Not your grandmother’s opera.’ Meet the woman who plans to shake up Florida Grand Opera

Maria Todaro sits and poses for a photo.
Courtesy of Florida Grand Opera
Miami Herald
Maria Todaro was named Florida Grand Opera’s new general director. Todaro, an accomplished opera singer, says she has big plans to revamp the storied opera company and attract more visitors.

Maria Todaro resented the political science and law degrees her parents pushed her to get. She wanted to be an opera singer like her parents, not a lawyer or businesswoman.

Now, Todaro, an accomplished singer, stage director, fight choreographer and arts entrepreneur is stepping into her biggest role yet, ushering in an ambitious rebrand for Florida’s oldest opera company as the Florida Grand Opera’s new general director.

“I was telling my my parents at the time, ‘Who cares about that? Why do I have to do law school?’ And now, years later, it makes sense,” she said. “It’s like everything I’ve ever done in my life was for this.”

Todaro joined Florida Grand Opera, the oldest producing arts organization in Florida and the seventh-oldest opera company in the United States, in October as interim general director after her predecessor Susan T. Danis left the company after 11 years at the helm. Late last month, FGO announced that Todaro would continue as general director with a three-year contract to “infuse new energy” into the 82-year-old company. Board chair Tina Vidal-Duart called it “an exciting new era for FGO.”

“In collaboration with my board and my team, we want to do everything,” Todaro said. “We have a huge, huge vision for this company.”

Vidal-Duart said the board has been pleased with the change Todaro has brought to the company in such a short amount of time. The feedback from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, Vidal-Duart said. She added that some individuals who felt that the company “had grown a little stale” and stopped attending FGO performances are now coming back. The board hopes this new wave of energy will bring more fundraising opportunities for the opera company, which is a nonprofit.

A woman in a red dress holds a guard rail near a display of flowers.
Courtesy of Florida Grand Opera
Miami Herald
Maria Todaro was named the general director of Florida Grand Opera. Todaro has fresh ideas for the state’s oldest opera company.

“That’s something that we haven’t seen in the past couple years,” she said. “It is a big testament to [Todaro’s] efforts to really resonate and build foundational relationships.”

Todaro sees FGO as not just a source of entertainment, but a resource for South Florida. And one of her many goals is to make sure the public sees a night at the opera as fun and exciting as going to prom.

She wants people to know this: “It is not your grandmother’s opera.”

A life in opera

Todaro has been on stage since before she was even born.

She was born in France to two world-traveling opera singers: Italian tenor Jose Todaro and Brazilian mezzo-soprano Maria-Helena de Oliveira, who performed while pregnant with their daughter.

She remembers her opera-immersed childhood fondly. Her babysitters were stagehands. Her family celebrated holidays in hotels with cardboard Christmas trees. So it wasn’t surprising when she began singing on stage when she was 4 and officially started her career as an opera singer at 18.

Still, her parents pushed her to pursue higher education. The life of an artist is hard, and they wanted her to have something to fall back on in case things didn’t work out, she said.

Things did work out, though, especially with the help of her education, she said. At 21, she founded Arteodor, a French production company. She co-founded the Hudson Valley International Festival of The Voice in upstate New York. During the pandemic, she pioneered the United States’ first drive-in opera live performance. And she’s made a name for herself as a stage director. Notable productions include “L’Amant Anonyme,” a rare Baroque opera by groundbreaking Black composer Joseph Bologne that Todaro reimagined as set on 18th-century Guadeloupe.

Her international background didn’t just help her prepare for the general director role, Todaro said. It also helps her feel right at home in Miami.

"I’m still very new, but I’ve found my people. My Latina heart is here,” she said. “This is the only place where you say goodbye [to people] and you’re all still there 45 minutes later.”

Opera everwhere

Florida Grand Opera’s reputation as a legendary company is known around the world, Todaro said. So when she learned that the previous general director was stepping down, she jumped at the opportunity to get involved and sent the board a letter to offer her services.

Todaro recalled the positive impact the Hudson Valley International Festival of The Voice had on the region. And after spending much of her life traveling for work, she wanted set roots somewhere.

“I wanted to be settled,” she said. “I want to make a difference in one community. I was looking for community.”

Some of her initiatives, ranging from community outreach to increased job opportunities, are already in nascent phases, she said.

Under her leadership, Todaro said to expect collaborations with other local arts organizations and educational programs to bring South Florida youth to the opera and inspire them to pursue arts. This year, Vidal-Duart said, the opera company expanded its educational programming by welcoming over 10,000 students to opera performances.

Courtesy of Florida Grand Opera
Miami Herald
Florida Grand Opera’s production of “La Traviata.”

Todaro also stressed the economic and social impacts opera can have on a city and its residents’ overall wellbeing.

An opera company hires for hundreds of jobs, she said, from marketing to makeup artistry to costuming to set building. Todaro is especially passionate about creating job and training opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds and underprivileged women. Besides increasing community and educational outreach, Todaro said she is also looking to collaborate with Baptist Health on musical therapy programming for community members.

“It’s planting seeds,” she said. “Like a good garden, you water your seeds.”

This upcoming season, Todaro hopes to excite audiences with a Dungeons and Dragons-inspired production of “The Magic Flute,” “Elixir of Love” in time for Valentine’s Day and the beloved “Carmen.”

Vidal-Duart said audiences have a lot to look forward to in FGO’s future, including immersive concert experiences and collaborations with different types of artists and musical genres.

“It’s the wow factor,” she said. “You’re going to see from Florida Grand Opera something that you’ve never seen from the opera company.”

At the core of all of these ideas is a rebrand, not necessarily for the company but for the art of opera itself. Admittedly, Todaro said, opera has an image problem. Many view the art as a niche, antiquated form of entertainment meant for elite aristocrats and the highest of high brow music lovers. That must change, Todaro said.

“We have a bad reputation. Opera has a reputation to be snobby,” she said. “Debunking that is part of the branding. It’s more telling people, ‘You don’t need to know anything to love opera.’”

She envisions a rebrand that sells Florida Grand Opera shows simultaneously exclusive yet accessible experiences that anyone can enjoy. A night at the opera is a chance to get dolled up, go on an adventure and experience something different, she said. “It’s prom all over!”

Todaro certainly has her work cut out for her, especially as she challenges peoples’ notions of what opera is and who it is for. But people are more familiar with opera than they think, she said. Opera is everywhere, from “The Godfather” to paper towel commercials.

“[The opera] is a place of meeting that’s been reserved for the elite until now, but it was never meant to be for the elite. Its always been popular,” she said. “Come check it out and you’ll be transformed.”

This story was produced with financial support from individuals and Berkowitz Contemporary Arts in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.

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