It’s the elephant in the room at this year’s Fort Worth Opera Festival.
Before he was fired two months ago, Darren K. Woods had been the face and voice of leadership as the company’s general director for 16 years.
He not only planned seasons, brought in new artists he’d discovered and launched new initiatives — including the festival format itself — but he regularly welcomed audiences from the stage before productions and greeted them in the lobby afterwards. A room full of patrons and artists singing “Happy Birthday” to him at a post-performance party had become a festival tradition.
At last weekend’s opening-night concert, Woods mingled with patrons and artists as usual. But he had bought his own ticket to the concert and had flown in from his new home in upstate New York to be there.
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And in the most awkward moment in a concert full of them, one of the artists dedicated a performance to an unnamed patron from the stage — the singers had been told by FWO leadership not to mention Woods’ name on stage during the festival, they say.
The audience clapped, and Woods subtly acknowledged the tribute from his seat in the middle of Bass Hall.
When Fort Worth Opera parted ways with Woods in February, it sent shock waves through the opera world. During Woods’ tenure, FWO had become internationally known for taking risks with world premieres (including “Voir Dire,” opening this weekend).
Woods also had developed a reputation for discovering and nurturing young talent, including all the singers on the stage at last weekend’s concert, he said.
Woods’ seemingly sudden firing left his supporters feeling confused about who might be the face of this season’s festival, at best, and feeling bitter, at worst.
“Most, if not all, people in the opera community extol the commitment Darren has given to the development of new American opera,” said librettist Mark Campbell, whose “Silent Night” FWO produced in 2014. “There has certainly been a dramatic escalation in the number of new American operas produced in the past decade or so ... Darren has certainly been a major player in this movement — and I think will continue to be.”
Two months after his firing, Woods himself has nothing but supportive words for his former company. He sat down with the Star-Telegram for his first post-FWO interview last week while in town for the concert, which he had programmed.
The Fort Worth Opera is my baby, and the last thing I want is for anything bad to happen to it.
Darren K. Woods
“I want nothing more than for it to be successful,” Woods said. “Many of the singers and [music director] Joe Illick said to me, ‘What do we do? You brought us here and now you’re [no longer with the organization]’. I said, ‘Do your job.’ I want the concert to be amazing and I want those singers to remind me why I fell in love with them.
“The Fort Worth Opera is my baby, and the last thing I want is for anything bad to happen to it.”
Shortly after parting ways with FWO, Woods was hired full time at the Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake, N.Y., a community in the Adirondack Mountains. While Woods had served in part-time leadership positions at Seagle since 1996, his transition to a full-time position expanded his responsibilities to include heading up the colony’s fundraising efforts — the very thing for which he got fired from FWO.
A March 2 press release announcing his new position at Seagle praised Woods’ “wealth of knowledge about arts organization fundraising … During his tenure (with FWO), the company had substantial increases in foundation and individual giving, and also drew international attention for its groundbreaking work in cultivating and presenting new operas — an area that Seagle Music Colony also explored in recent years.”
Woods’ plans at Seagle include introducing a new development program this fall. He already has been securing funding for it, he said.
But in his firing, Fort Worth Opera officials cited fundraising as a weakness of Woods’. Mike Martinez, chairman of the opera’s board of trustees, told the Star-Telegram in February that the opera seeks to hire a leader to “focus more on business and management … to be creative with the fundraising and development aspect,” he said, adding that, “we just didn’t feel Darren could provide us with that leadership from that aspect.”
He and Woods acknowledged the board had artistic differences with him, as well.
During his last season with FWO, its world premiere of “JFK” caused a budget deficit that had to be covered by a summer campaign and matching grant. Other productions went over budget, too. But Woods said he has always considered the business administration part of the job important.
“As I was building my singing career, I worked at Chase Manhattan bank, doing balance sheets,” he said. “My dad made me take business classes. That’s always been part of my life.”
During his time at FWO, the company’s annual budget more than doubled, from about $1.8 million in 2001 to $4.7 million in 2016, he said. “JFK” raised the company’s budget to $5.2 million, opera officials said. “ ‘JFK’ met our expectations artistically ... ” then-FWO board President Al Saenz told the Star-Telegram on June 1, 2016, “but the money didn’t follow like we thought.”
Still, Woods’ legacy in Fort Worth will always be new work, something he plans to continue at Seagle. He’s not modest about his vision for an American public that is excited about seeing new works mixed in with the great operas from the canon.
“I knew that if I become a general director of an opera company, I would produce new operas,” he said.
New works have been a passion of his since college. Woods, who turned 49 on Monday, studied music for two years at Sam Houston State University, playing trombone, drums and piano, and then took a vocal class. A teacher was taken with his voice and had a connection to Houston Grand Opera. Soon, Woods made his opera debut in the chorus of HGO’s “Norma.”
His interest in new music began with a music theory class that dealt with 20th century composers. For his senior recital, he premiered a song cycle by musical theater composer Craig Bohmler.
His first chance to program an FWO world premiere came during the 2005-06 season: Thomas Pasatieri’s “Frau Margot.” Woods said he thought Fort Worth audiences were ready for new and sometimes controversial works.
“I took a lot of cues from the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, which was presenting a lot of work that was edgy,” he said. “I knew the Fort Worth community could handle it.”
He also launched FWO’s Frontiers program, which showcases snippets of works in development. It will continue into the 2018 season, the company recently announced. Opera companies all over the country are clamoring for new operas now, with every major company often offering one new work a season.
In that respect, Woods was ahead of the game.
“I do think my devotion to and being so vocal about new work and composers, and making the art form not a museum but a living breathing form, I do feel like I had something to do with the explosion of new work,” he said.
The next act
Woods, who is in the process of selling the Fort Worth home he shares with his husband, Steven Bryant, will come back to North Texas early next month.
This time, he will represent Seagle at the Opera America conference hosted by Dallas Opera. Then, May 10, Woods and Bryant will move to a new home in Schroon Lake. The plan, he says, is to also secure a place in New York City in the coming years.
“I may come back [to Fort Worth] on occasion,” Woods says. “[Opera director] David Gately is one of my best friends, and he’s on faculty at Texas Christian University. And I’ve made a lot of friends here.”
Fort Worth Opera is actively searching for its new general director.
“The Board of Trustees is currently accepting applications and will continue to do so until we find and hire the right general director candidate,” Martinez, said earlier this week. “We have received numerous applications from some very qualified individuals with exceptional résumés. We are actively going through a process, which includes phone, Skype and in person interviews, and would like to hire someone in the next few months.
“With that goal in mind, we will choose the best candidate who is capable of taking Fort Worth Opera to the next level and moving us forward. We believe we will be able to do so in the near future.”
Woods said he, too, hopes Fort Worth Opera will find a leader who keeps driving them forward.
“They should find someone who has a clear sense of what the identity of the company is, and they should avoid going back into tradition,” he says. “Someone who’s young and eager, a forward thinker, a great fundraiser. I want Fort Worth to continue to be a shining light in the operatic firmament.”
This story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.