Fort Worth Opera’s Darren K. Woods on setting a new festival agenda
I guess you could say that opera festivals are in my blood. My first opera job as a professional singer was as an apprentice artist for Santa Fe Opera. I worked at Santa Fe most summers for the next 14 years, along with the festivals in Saint Louis, Chautauqua, Glimmerglass, Sarasota and several others, but eventually I retired from singing and became a general director. When I came to Fort Worth, the board charged me with breathing new life into our 60-year-old stagione company, and the idea of changing into a festival format was a natural leap for me—albeit an exciting and frightening one. It would necessitate altering our business model completely, trying something that had never been done in North Texas, and risking a patron base that was comfortable attending operas spaced out over the year. However, facing stiff competition from the hundreds of other arts organizations serving a population of over six million people in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, it was a matter of change or die.
Darren K. Woods, General Director of Fort Worth Opera
Prior to my arrival, Fort Worth Opera’s programming had always been pretty standard. Once in a great while, it would delve into the ‘modern’ repertoire by doing Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah or even Stewart Copeland’s Holy Blood and Crescent Moon, but mostly it was your standard ‘Bohème, Butterfly and Traviata’ company. Before I was hired as general and artistic director in 2001, I told the board at my interview that exploring more adventurous fare would be at the heart of my mission at Fort Worth Opera, and if they didn’t want that for their company, then I was not the right candidate for the job. I have been extremely fortunate to have a board that shares and supports my vision.
Knowing we needed to lead the audience gently to more contemporary works, rather than drop them into the thick of it, we began in 2003 with our first production of a Benjamin Britten opera, The Turn of the Screw. It may seem odd that this could be aggressive fare in 2003! After all, the opera had been premiered almost 50 years earlier and, while not exactly standard repertoire, it was at least a fairly regularly produced work. We planned to spend additional money marketing the piece and educating the audience. We also knew we should consider it wildly successful if we sold half of our tickets. The production turned out to be a real game-changer for the company. Ken Cazan’s wonderfully urgent staging and design coupled with a great cast caused quite a reaction, with cries of shock, delight, anger, joy and rage sounding from every corner of the theatre. One patron literally jumped over two rows of seats to embrace me and say, ‘This is the greatest thing that has ever been in this theatre.’ Others vowed never to return, but even they talked about it in restaurants and bars. In every corner of Fort Worth, the topic was opera.
Over the next years, we expanded the contemporary offerings with repertoire such as Dialogues des Carmélites and Mark Adamo’s Little Women. But it was only when we started planning to convert to a festival that I knew we could fully give ourselves to the work of living composers, who would take their place in our seasons alongside the great composers of the past. Of course, changing our format had more tangible reasons behind it than simply wanting to educate and expand the audience’s awareness of our art form. The most overwhelming reason was that in the stagione schedule, the dates we could book in our hall conflicted directly with our larger neighbour to the east, Dallas Opera—a significant problem considering that a sizable portion of our audience patronizes both companies.
So, facing a needed evolution, we had to get the community excited about our new Fort Worth Opera festival, and I knew the idea of a premiere was a sure way to do just that. In the company’s entire history, since 1946, we had never commissioned a mainstage opera. This would be a new adventure for all of us. In 2005, two years before the first festival, I happened to attend a party in New York at the home of the soprano Ashley Putnam. One of the guests was Thomas Pasatieri, whose music and operas I had admired for years. He had stopped writing opera and classical music almost 25 years earlier and had been deeply involved with orchestrating film scores in Hollywood. What I did not know was that on that very day, the director and writer Frank Corsaro had shown Tom a play he had written entitled Frau Margot, which both had decided would make an excellent libretto. It took a few weeks for the two of them to agree with us that Fort Worth Opera would indeed be the best birthplace for their new piece, and they invited me to come and hear the play read in New York.
Joe Illick, Fort Worth Opera’s music director, and I decided immediately upon hearing it that this was exactly what we needed. We came home and raised the money for the commission in one single fundraising call. The wonderful but unlikely donor was our local newspaper, Fort Worth’s Star-Telegram, with its publisher Wes Turner as the visionary. He knew this was important, not only for our opera company but also for the entire city. With the press supporting us, we had the publicity power we needed to attract patrons, subscribers, and all of our other stakeholders.
Next was the long strategic process of circulating the information. We knew people were going to be uncomfortable—possibly even upset—with the change. The day before the official announcement, every ticket buyer received a letter telling them of the new format, and that after the March 2006 performance of La Bohème, the theatre would go dark for 14 months until May 2007 when the festival would reopen with Madama Butterfly, Falstaff and Pasatieri’s Frau Margot. Shrewdly, we also offered the audience four different ‘town hall’ opportunities to meet and discuss the change with us, so that they could come and express their opinions. We knew it was vitally important for our audience to know their concerns were heard. Each event was overflowing with confused and angry patrons, but at every meeting, after I had presented our case and responded to their concerns, they were not only mollified but also ready to buy tickets.
Now preparing for our sixth festival and looking back, I am thrilled at what we have accomplished. By 2008, we programmed four operas, two by living composers; Of Mice and Men by Carlisle Floyd and Peter Eötvös’s gripping Angels in America sat alongside wonderful productions of Turandot and Lucia di Lammermoor. The festival in 2009 brought Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. The 2010 festival saw another premiere: Jorge Martín’s stirring Before Night Falls, which resonated particularly with our ever-expanding Latin American audience. And in 2011, Philip Glass’s provoking and gripping Hydrogen Jukebox sold out months before the festival opened. With each of these pieces, I remember walking away from the theatre with an enormous sense of purpose, knowing that we at Fort Worth Opera are accomplishing more than just producing opera—we are creating transformational experiences.
Members of the community echo this too. When we produced Angels in America, we believed strongly that the message of this opera needed to be heard outside of the theatre in order to remind the community that the AIDS epidemic was not over, though perhaps forgotten. We pulled together a group of over 50 organizations in the visual and performing arts, health care, AIDS education and social services to form ‘More Life: The Art and Science of AIDS’. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram called it ‘one of the most important series of events the community will ever see’. The coalition took on a life of its own, producing art shows in galleries, symposia in libraries, and performances all over the city with Fort Worth Opera acting as the catalyst. Collectively, we had a wonderful synergy, but my sharpest memory of the production focuses on one individual. On the opening night, I saw a highly generous opera donor enter the theatre. Since this was the most controversial work we had ever produced, I was extremely nervous. I knew it was important on many levels and would in no way apologize for our choices, but it was still risky programming.
Erin Elizabeth Smith (Harper) and Craig Verm (Joe) in 'Angels in America', 2008.
After the show, I could not find her. Fearing she had left displeased at intermission, I asked one of my colleagues who told me she was still sitting in the theatre. I walked back inside to her to find her weeping. She told me her nephew died of AIDS and she thanked me for having the courage to bring this opera to our highly conservative community. All of the staff of Fort Worth Opera left that night with confirmation of our mission and a renewed sense of purpose. That was the day that we knew for certain that whether it is Butterfly or the premiere of a new work, each opera has the power to transform, and every show deserves meticulous care.
Truly, each of our contemporary offerings has etched certain audience reactions in my mind. In Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, for the last ten minutes of the show the only thing heard from the audience, besides an almost reverent silence, were the muffled sounds of weeping. One of our patrons said to me recently, ‘Dead Man Walking haunts me to this day’. For Before Night Falls, which tells the story of the famous Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’s horrific experience under Fidel Castro’s revolution and regime, I remember a Cuban man visiting from Miami who buried his face in his hands and sobbed at the end, thanking us for telling the truth about Cuba’s dark days. I think about the patrons in the lobby after Hydrogen Jukebox using words like ‘life-changing’.
We strive to produce great art and give the audience so much more than mere entertainment. We completely engulf the audience with intense productions, and we have found that once the audience has been enveloped in our operatic world, they want to stay and experience every part of it. Much to our delight, the compressed performance schedule heightens our audience’s sense of adventure: once the festival starts, the whole city is abuzz with talk about all of our productions. Every spring, we find that people who are normally reluctant to try contemporary opera are more open to new experiences, and as we draw them in by expanding their appreciation of both traditional and contemporary opera, they develop a family-like attachment to Fort Worth Opera.
Our patrons are more involved, more invested, and feel more connected. Also, we have managed to expand our ‘family’ far beyond our metropolitan area. In the first five festivals alone, our out-of-town audience increased by five per cent. I believe we have convinced opera fans everywhere that Fort Worth Opera is the place to go for must-see performances, and no matter what is on stage, they will be transported, transfixed and transformed by this incredible art.
So now, we look forward to this year’s festival where perennial favourites such as as Tosca and Le nozze di Figaro stand hand in hand with Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata and Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, and we await the beauty of the journey, the joy of the moment, and the transformation that will surely come. We might not change the world, but we will never know whether we can if we don’t try.
Fort Worth Opera’s season runs from May 12 to June 3.