If you talked to Susan Hellman Spatafora when she was an administrator for the St. Petersburg Opera Company, you were meeting someone skilled at putting others in the spotlight.
If you heard her sing, perhaps you wondered why you hadn’t seen her in that spotlight more often. The first time I had that experience, she was singing the title role in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. Spatafora filled the hall with a rich soprano, evoking grief simply by inhabiting the aria, no more and no less.
Spatafora left her post as associate development director in 2019 to pursue singing opportunities, which were too numerous to attempt while working in such a demanding administrative role. She performed in Opera Tampa’s Carmen weeks before its performing arts venue closed due to COVID-19, then anchored Die Fledermaus as Rosalinde in December with Opera Orlando, one of the first live opera performances since the pandemic.
She grew up mostly in Duluth, Minn., the daughter of a physician and a teacher. At age 4, according to family lore, she pitched her parents on piano lessons by plunking out an original tune composed for the occasion.
The parents caved. Subsequent musical milestones included pedaling a bicycle 75 miles with the adults to the Madeline Island Music Festival in Wisconsin. She wrote songs and recorded herself singing them.
“I would never in a million years share those with anybody,” she said.
Spatafora majored in vocal performance at Indiana University, then earned a master’s degree at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. She landed young artist spots with the Central City Opera, Sarasota Opera and the Palm Beach Opera and roles in the Glimmerglass Festival.
To survive in New York, she took a vocational test at a temp agency.
“They said, ‘Well, basically, all you are qualified to do is filing.’” Spatafora recalled. In particular, she needed to improve her command of Microsoft Office.
“I said, ‘Do you have resources?’ She said yes, I could come back and take courses. I said, ‘Can I do it now?’”
The agency placed her at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a nonprofit with a global scope. She stayed for most of a decade while singing in a variety of venues. A role in 2010, as Micaëla in Carmen with the St. Petersburg Opera, marked a fork in the road.
Florida was a place people come to die, she thought on the drive down. She wondered how a three-year-old company in God’s waiting room survived and whether the orchestra would be any good.
Her doubts turned to elation with the company, including the theater’s technical director whom she met at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club after a rehearsal, the company’s unofficial after-hours haunt. Her relationship with Christopher Spatafora continued after she returned to New York. She moved to St. Petersburg in 2012, started working for the St. Petersburg Opera and married Christopher at the shuffleboard club.
Meanwhile, as associate director of development, she operated behind the scenes in a way few performers can, handling everything from finding housing for visiting talent to their transportation to the opera’s relationships with its donors. All of those emails and phone calls, cost estimates and communications influenced not just the community but Spatafora herself.
“I learned that you need to be extraordinarily kind to the people who run the company,” she said. “There are so many people that go into a production. It’s not just about the singer. And I think that is important when you are onstage singing, recognizing that. It gives me a sense of comfort, maybe takes a little bit of pressure off, knowing that there are so many people supporting and surrounding a production.”
Yet Spatafora felt the operatic stage calling.
“In my younger life, even though I went to these top-tier schools and had an incredible music education, I never was fully prepared to commit myself to this crazy life, this crazy career completely. For years of my life that has plagued me, that I didn’t put myself out there enough or that I didn’t leave myself open to rejection or failure, but at the same time, success.”
Now fully committed to pursuing her singing career, she and Christopher recently bought a house in the country, “a beautiful money pit,” in a prime location for early morning kayaking on an ice blue spring-fed river.
She signed with Athlone in recent months. Vocally, she has never felt better. “Recently I’ve fallen in love with singing again in a way I haven’t since childhood,” she said.
— By Andrew Meacham