How this Vocalist Became a Nonprofit Leader

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Theresa Smith-Levin has a lifetime passion for the performing arts. As the founder and executive director of Central Florida Vocal Arts and Opera del Sol, she uses her love of performing to nurture talent in others.

Born and raised in Winter Park, she performed in high school productions and was named the alto section leader of the Winter Park Presbyterian Church Choir in her senior year. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in music education. She also holds a Master of Music in vocal performance from the University of Miami.

Her resume includes voice teacher at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, and adjunct professor of voice and ear training at Valencia College.

When asked about her dream career growing up, Smith-Levin said, “I wanted to be a performer. In fact, I can remember being in elementary school and having a vision of singing in a big navy-blue ball gown. By high school, I knew I wanted to be a voice teacher as well.”

Here, Smith-Levin discusses her career path and the challenges of leading a nonprofit.

What inspired you to start Central Florida Vocal Arts?

It literally happened overnight. In 2012, I had been asked to sing the leading role of the mother in “Amahl and the Night Visitors” alongside my then voice student, Nicholas Bethencourt. The production was canceled due to casting concerns, and I woke in the middle of the night with the unshakeable feeling that I needed to produce the show. I sat at my kitchen counter and wrote down the names of friends I could cast and church venue connections I had. The next day, I filed 501(c)(3) paperwork and the rest is history. Even though I founded the company without formal training or strict vision, I knew the performing arts could be a catalyst for good in our community.

Opera del Sol was started by Nicole Dupre in 2017 under the umbrella of Rethink Homelessness. Quickly realizing how much management goes into a nonprofit organization, Nicole approached me about collaborating. We had a very similar passion and vision for the future of arts and its role in our community and that synergy led to the adoption of Opera del Sol. Since 2018, it has operated under CFVA’s fiscal umbrella.

What is a typical day for you as an executive director?

One day I might be sitting at the computer for ten hours working on grants and press releases. The next day I might be speaking to an influential leadership group about the role of the arts in the social sector. The day after that I might substitute teach a community class at The Mayflower or the Eatonville Boys & Girls Club. We don’t have an office space and as a result my team and I are spread out across Central Florida, connecting with those we serve and those partners who can help achieve the greatest impact.

What is the greatest challenge you face at the Central Florida Vocal Arts and Opera del Sol?

Capacity and burnout. Like everyone right now, we face labor shortages. And like nearly every other nonprofit organization, passion can turn to burnout when you’re not careful. We try to increase our impact and do the greatest good in a manner that is sustainable for our second decade of work.

Which performance is your favorite?

Central Florida Vocal Arts’ most recent production, “The Sound of Music,” with the Space Coast Symphony Orchestra was particularly special. Witnessing the deeply emotional reactions of so many audience members to the performance was particularly impactful. Second to that, our original work, “Requiem”, which melded Mozart’s “Requiem” with contemporary music to address the opioid epidemic in our country was also very meaningful.

If you could achieve anything in your current position, what would it be and why?

Being a young female founder, it was very difficult to find people who would take my passion as a leader seriously. I can’t tell you how many times a man told me how to run my company or dismissed my work as a hobby. I want to blaze a trail for other female founders with a passion for changing the world through their own special gifts. By being recognized for the work I do alongside my male counterparts, I want every other little girl, especially those from under-resourced communities, to know they, too, can do great things.

What advice do you have for people interested in vocal arts?

Sadly, many young people are told something negative about their voice or their singing and so they stop singing. If you want to sing, find a class, find a voice teacher, or audition for a community theater show. Don’t wait until you think you’re good enough because that day never comes. Find someone who will nurture both your voice and your heart to grow into everything you can be.

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