Most opera singers, Susan Hellman Spatafora believes, don’t choose opera as a life’s pursuit. It chooses them.
“I used to do open mics, and write cheesy music, but my voice is suited for opera,” says the Minnesota-born soprano, who’s lived in St. Petersburg for five years. “And I like to be somebody else when I’m doing something. I tried playing piano and singing in a jazz band, and it was a horrid experience. I am not cool enough.”
She does have a day job that she’s pretty good at. As Associate Director of Development for the St. Petersburg Opera Company, Spatafora’s mission is to schmooze, hob-nob and otherwise mingle with the area’s culturally-conscious, to enthuse and to persuade them to support the company financially. In short, she asks people for money.
For her, it’s a no-brainer, because she happens to believe in the product. “I think that making opera approachable, and making it comfortable, and being surrounded by it is such an amazing thing,” she enthuses. “And St. Pete Opera does that beautifully.”
The 13-year-old company performs at the 800-seat Palladium Theater, which has no orchestra pit – conductor Mark Sforzini and the 80-or-so musicians are strategically placed behind the sets on the deep stage. It’s unconventional, but it works, and the company – which brings in pro singers from across the globe – is considered one of the crown jewels of the city’s cultural makeup.
Susan Hellman-Spatafora first performed with SPO in 2010’s Carmen. She was living in New York City at the time, armed with a Master’s in Vocal Performance, auditioning with opera companies coast to coast and paying the bills by working as a singing waitress and bartender.
Back home in Duluth, music – piano lessons, an award-winning high school choral group – had always been a big part of Susie Hellman’s life. “There’s a big choral tradition in northern Minnesota,” she says. “I never listened to opera.
“But my friends and I really liked the musical Rent. It was always in the Rent contract that the tour would save the first two rows for the people that wanted to wait for tickets. Somehow our parents would allow us to make the three-hour drive down to Minneapolis, and sleep outside – in Minnesota! – with our sleeping bags, so that we could sit in the first two rows.”
She and her best pal read that Rent was based on an opera, Giacomo Puccini’s La Boheme. They got the CD and listened to it on one of the drives to Minneapolis. “Wow,” they said, “This is so much better than Rent.”
And just like that, opera entered her life. She was captivated by the drama of it all. Unlike the source material, in Rent the tragic character Mimi is miraculously saved at the end of the story. “In musical theater, they always come back to life,” Spatafora says. “And it’s so much better when they die. The music is so much better. It bugs me when they wake up again. That’s not real life.”
She found her second calling in New York, when a temp agency placed her with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a financial management company.
“They had me doing very basic things,” Spatafora explains, “but apparently there were people dumber than me who had been their temps before. So they took me under their wing, and they were amazing enough to let me go perform places when I had gigs.” She spent a summer singing in Cooperstown, N.Y. at the Glimmerglass Festival.
Other jobs followed, with nonprofits and philanthropic institutions. She learned as she went, all the while flying out for opera jobs. She took honors in numerous competitions including the Florida Grand Opera Young Patronesses of the Opera competition, the Palm Beach Opera International Vocal Competition, and the National Society of Arts and Letters Voice Competition.
It was while performing with the Palm Beach Opera in 2010 that she got wind of the fledgling St. Pete company. Sforzini liked her voice and cast her in Carmen. She even sang scenes from La Boheme as part of St. Pete Opera’s “Seasonal Sparkle” concerts.
In the spring of 2013, Sforzini offered her the job as Associate Director of Development. Two years later, she married Christopher Spatafora, the Palladium’s tech guru (“he was thoroughly unexpected,” she smiles). They are outdoor buffs who spend what little free time they have kayaking, camping and exploring North Central Florida’s stunning artesian springs.
Her dance card also includes the Miami-based IlluminArts Art Song recital series. She is the program’s executive director.
Thursday night (Nov. 8), Spatafora will perform, along with several other SPO featured vocalists, at the Iberian Rooster, part of Sforzini’s entertaining “Cocktails With the Maestro” series.
Spatafora will sing an aria from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, in which she appeared (singing the title role) in 2014.
And she’ll continue to be head cheerleader for the St. Petersburg Opera Company. “There is opera in Sarasota, there is opera in Tampa and there is opera in St. Pete,” she points out. “We are all in very close proximity, but we all offer something completely different.
“And I think there’s room for all three; I don’t think that anybody is competing with one another. We’re all doing our own thing, and it’s absolutely beautiful.”