Robert Heuer, general director and chief executive officer of Florida Grand Opera, said Monday that he intends to retire at the end of the 2012-2013 season.
Heuer said he thought it was time for new leadership at one of South Florida’s most venerable artistic institutions. A national search committee will be formed in January to seek his replacement.
“There comes a point in time for the organization to seek new ideas and new leadership,” Heuer said Monday. “I was probably the right person for the company at the time when I became general director. But the community has changed.”
Heuer becomes the second head of a major South Florida arts institution to announce plans to step down in 2013. Less than two weeks ago, Edward Villella, founder and director of Miami City Ballet, said he would leave his post at the end of the 2012-2013 season.
Heuer, 66, joined Florida Grand Opera in 1979 as director of production, when it was still presenting works at the acoustically lamentable Miami-Dade County Auditorium, and is only the third general director in the opera’s 70-year history. During his tenure as the opera’s head, the company will have presented 134 productions, including 33 new to the company. He led the merger of the Greater Miami Opera and The Opera Guild of Fort Lauderdale, creating Florida Grand Opera in 1994 and was one of the key cultural leaders whose efforts led to the building of the Adrienne Arsht Center.
Michael Spring, executive director of the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, said Heuer was the “voice of reason” in the long campaign to build the Arsht Center, an effort Heuer had worked on since 1979.
“Bob is one of our cultural statesmen,” Spring said. “He’s the kind of person who has a grasp not just of the opera but of the entire cultural community.”
Parker Thomson, the first chairman of the Performing Arts Center Trust, said Heuer’s leadership was essential in getting the PAC built. “Bob was the leader speaking for all the resident groups,” Thomson told the Herald in 2010. “Bob deferred things the opera itself might have needed.”
In addition to the PAC, Heuer is proudest of creating the opera’s Young Artists Studio, founded in 1984. Designed to coach and launch young singers, the program receives 600 applications a year for nine spots. One of its graduates, former University of Miami student and FGO choir member Elizabeth Caballero, now sings leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera.
Heuer says he conceived of the program after Luciano Pavarotti abruptly canceled an appearance in 1984.
“We started moving away from the star system and towards an ensemble approach and building our own stars, where people identify with them as artists they’ve come to know,” Heuer says.
Classical music critic Greg Stepanich praised Heuer’s willingness to try new productions and operas, citing the company’s world premiere of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina in 2007 and innovative productions of Carmen and Tales of Hoffman. “He was innovative and bold enough to take these risks,” Stepanich says. “He could sit back and do big favorites all the time — he’s only got four operas [a year] — but he tries to do new things.”
There have been challenges and disappointments in Heuer’s tenure as well.
After moving into the Arsht Center in the 2006-2007 season with a budget high of $22.2 million for a six-opera season, the financial downturn forced Heuer to slash the budget in half and to cut the number of productions to four. Lack of funding has also stymied a long-planned headquarters for the opera, with offices, rehearsal studios, production shops and a small theater, on land it owns near the Arsht Center. Bringing that project, which already has $9 million in funding, to completion is something Heuer will focus on during his remaining 20 months at FGO.
Raised outside Detroit, Heuer was an aspiring musical theater actor until he realized that he had more enthusiasm than talent. But “I had already made the decision I wanted to live my life in theater,” he says Soon after college he helped found the fledgling Michigan Opera Theater, where he remained for eight years until he got the offer to come to Miami. Now music is his greatest love.
“It would be hard for me now to do something that didn’t have music,” Heuer says. He will miss the rehearsals, the auditions, the painstaking creative minutiae of putting a production together — and seeing it come to life onstage. “I love the interaction with artists and feeling that connection from audience to stage,” he says. “Putting things together, a director, a conductor, an artist, and watching that grow.”
Jane Robinson, who has worked with Heuer for seven years as president of FGO’s board from 2004 to 2009 and as chairman since then, says he wanted to spend more time with his partner of 17 years, Mark La Fata, in a house they own in Alsace, France.
The recent deaths of the two men’s mothers had also pushed them to take more time for themselves, she said.
But mostly, Robinson said Heuer had simply decided it was time to move on. A couple years ago they were talking about the fabled singer Maria Callas, and Heuer said how disappointed he was that she kept singing past her prime.
“He said to me ‘when do you know it’s time to go?’ ” and I said “you’ll know”,” Robinson says.
More recently, Robinson and Heuer attended a meeting of Opera America, and noted how much younger their counterparts seemed.
“And he turned to me and said ‘Remember how you said I’ll know when it’s time? It’s time.’ ”