Taking command behind the curtain

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:16 pm

Thanks to his career at Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc., Clay Nesler has spent much of his free time over the past seven years behind the scenes of one of Milwaukee’s award-winning performing arts groups – the Florentine Opera Company.

Nesler, who has been with Johnson Controls for 30 years and currently serves as vice president of global energy and sustainability, became involved with the opera after a Johnson Controls executive, who knew of his lifelong passion for classical music, received a call from the opera looking for board members.

Immediately upon joining the company’s board in 2006, Nesler tried to experience all aspects of the opera’s productions, from attending rehearsals to watching performances backstage to watching sets being constructed.

“I just really threw myself into understanding as much as I could of producing operas, picking operas (and) selecting singers,” Nesler said. “And I found that the more I knew about how opera was produced, the more I enjoyed it and the closer I felt to the company.”

In 2008, Nesler became even closer with the company when he was asked to take over as board president.

The following year he did, just as the Great Recession began to place tremendous challenges on the Florentine Opera’s finances.

Nesler credits his skill in strategic planning, which he has polished at Johnson Controls, in helping him lead the opera in a stable direction.

Nesler (center) with the opera’s current four studio artists (from left to right) Pablo Siquieros, Erin Gonzalez, Julie Tabash and Aaron Short.

Thanks to the board’s efforts toward audience outreach and community engagement, a commitment to producing and renting out sets and costumes, and its 2009 move to its Riverwest center, among other factors, the opera returned to a balanced budget in 2012 and picked up three Grammy Awards in the process.

“It was really that strategic plan that set the roadmap for how we would adjust our operating model while maintaining our high level of performance,” Nesler said.

Today, Nesler serves as past president on the board of directors and attends all of the 80-year-old opera company’s productions at least once.

“It is the highest form of staged performing arts, I believe,” he said.

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