Former opera soprano Judy Lisi is ringmaster of the Straz Center

Judy Lisi, who has run the Straz Center since 1992, said the arts complex will be fully open at full capacity in October.
Judy Lisi, President and Chief Executive Officer, Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
Judy Lisi, President and Chief Executive Officer, Straz Center for the Performing Arts. [ Photo: Courtesy Rob-Harris Productions, Inc. ]
Published July 17, 2021

Times Correspondent

Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, has run the sprawling entertainment center since 1992. She founded Opera Tampa in 1995 and the Patel Conservatory, where aspiring performers train, in 2004.

Lisi, a soprano, studied opera at the Juilliard School, taught by singers from the Metropolitan Opera, and she performed early in her career. She loved it, she said, but opera singers have to tour and she couldn’t do that with two young children at the time.

“My career sort of morphed from one thing to the next, but it’s been great because I love what I do as much as I love performing,’' she said. “It’s very satisfying when you produce or present events and you bring artists and people together.’'

Lisi, 74, talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the work, the pandemic and what’s coming in the fall.

How did the Straz fare during the pandemic?

When this first came down a year ago last March... we had to close all of our six theaters and the conservatory, and we had to cancel like a thousand shows. ... Many of us never thought it would last this long. … Frankly, I think if we had known how long it was, it would have been worse. We just got through one thing after another. ...

We had just opened an outdoor theater on the Riverwalk called the Riverwalk Stage. We just opened that in February, just prior to having to close down. Just a coincidence, a happy coincidence. And we were able to do programs on that stage throughout the pandemic with social distancing and masking and outside. ...

From a financial perspective, we were able to get two of these federal PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans. They’re forgivable loans and we got the first one forgiven and now we have the second one. … Financially, we will come out – knock wood – without any debt.

When do you expect to be fully open?

We have productions that are happening now inside in some of our smaller theaters, but September is when we really start ratcheting everything up to normal activity. We have a bunch of what we call top one-nighters, a lot of comedians. …

Our Broadway actually starts in October. From October onward we are full force. We’ve got a full Broadway season, full opera season, dance, music. … And we’ll all be at 100 percent capacity.

What motivated you to start Opera Tampa?

I always say that the three classical forms in a large performing arts center are symphony, ballet and opera, and then of course in America it’s Broadway, because Broadway is so big. … But those are the three primary legs of the stool, and here in Tampa we have an excellent orchestra and we have a ballet company that’s part of our conservatory, but we didn’t have opera. And opera is really hard to do because it doesn’t tour. It’s too big. … Opera is like Broadway on steroids. Everything’s bigger. The orchestra’s bigger, the chorus is bigger, the set scenery is bigger. ...

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When I came down here in 1992... I went to the board and said I would like to do this. We had a debt at that time, accumulated debt, and they said, Judy, if you solve the debt problem you can do whatever you want (laughs). So we started it in 1995 and it’s done really well.

Judy Lisi, Opera Tampa general director and Straz Center president and CEO.
Judy Lisi, Opera Tampa general director and Straz Center president and CEO. [ Courtesy of the Straz Center ]

Was there a big audience for opera in Tampa at that time?

No, there really wasn’t much of an audience for opera. … They had some attempts at it but not that were able to be sustained. … When I start something, I like to start small and brood it... and then it grows. ... So we only started with one or two operas a year. One opera and then we added another one – now we do about four productions and then some smaller stuff – so people had a chance to discover it.

And it was so funny. I remember at the beginning I would talk to people and say, “Are you coming to the opera?” And they would say, “Well, no, I don’t like opera.” And I’d say, “Oh, that’s too bad. Maybe it was the production. What operas have you seen?” Well, they would say, “Oh, I’ve never seen an opera. I just don’t like it.’' And that’s when I realized they had no exposure to it, so it takes time to develop that.

Why did you decide to start the Patel Conservatory?

I have an absolute passion for arts education and see what it can do for young people… so we started our education programs when I got there (at the Straz). They were very small, and they just kept growing and growing and growing. And finally… I went to the board and said this community is asking for more. Will you help me get there? And they said yes. So we built the conservatory. … And now we’re expanding it, it’s done so well. That’s been a joy in my professional career, an absolute joy.

Your job requires you to do fundraising. Is that hard to do?

Performing gave me amazing platform skills. … It also kind of makes you fearless in a way when you have to do something.

What’s it like to ask a donor for millions of dollars?

Actually, I always talk about what we do and not so much what we need. … Anybody can ask for money, but I think you have to explain what your hopes and aspirations are for this program that you’re trying to do and the impact it’s going to have on people and how it’s going to help the community. In a way, once that happens, the rest is easy after that.

The Straz is a not-for-profit organization. How does it do financially from year to year in normal times?

We have some programs that make money, but most of our programs need funding. For example, the top shows from Broadway generally make money, but with that surplus that we make from that, we put it back into the community-based programs that need funding. … Every year our operating budget ranges between $40 million and $50 million a year, and we usually have a $6 million gap between what we call earned income, and so we have to fund-raise for the rest of that.

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