Arts & Culture

Fort Worth Opera names not one, but two new directors

Tuomas Hiltunen has been named the new general director of Fort Worth Opera.
Tuomas Hiltunen has been named the new general director of Fort Worth Opera. Tarja Tuppurainen

Six months after the general director Darren K. Woods was terminated from the Fort Worth Opera, the board of trustees has named not one but two replacements.

The new general director is Finnish-born, New York City-based administrator, educator and actor and opera performer Tuomas Hiltunen, who starts Aug. 1. The newly appointed position of artistic director goes to Joe Illick, who has been the company’s music director since 2002.

Hiltunen, 45, was most recently director of administration and management of the international Barenboim-Said Foundation USA, where he focused on growing the foundation’s endowment, advancing its brand and developing business plans and strategies.

The American branch of the Seville, Spain-based foundation (started by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said) is run from New York’s Columbia University, where Hiltunen is an adjunct lecturer in the Finnish studies program. He also teaches in the Barnard College theater program.

Along with the Fort Worth Opera’s recent announcement that legendary Spanish tenor Placido Domingo will head its new National Artistic Council “to help preserve and uphold the company’s vision and artistic integrity,” it looks like the Cowtown company will become more international.

But there’s one priority that stands above all else.

“The goal will be for us to strengthen the financial health of the company,” Hiltunen says.

As for the artistic vision, he adds “The Fort Worth Opera’s mission statement speaks of expanding horizons, and from the administrative point of view our job is to follow that.”

New works

Illick, 58, who has conducted many operas here and around the country, and has been artistic director of opera companies in Florida and Louisiana, notes that the dedication to new works — with which Woods took the company to national fame — will remain.

Illick 3
Joe Illick, shown directing the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra during a dress rehearsal for the Fort Worth Opera production of “The Barber of Seville” last year, will be the opera’s new artistic director. Rodger Mallison

“There are plenty of people who want to see their first ‘Carmen’ or ‘La boheme,’ and we’ll always do those works,” Illick says. “But we love finding new pieces and discovering new composers and voices. How we find new and meaningful works, and respond to changes happening around the world, will always be part of our mission.”

Hiltunen was born in the Arctic Circle town of Rovaniemi, Finland, to a family of reindeer herders.

He was educated in Finland and fell in love with music and theater, which had a foundation on Nordic playwrights Ibsen and Strindberg and the Russian and later German (Brecht) schools of drama. He also loved opera — at age 14 he played Toby in a production of Menotti’s “The Medium.”

He moved to London to study at the famed Guildhall School of Music and Drama, auditioning in the same cycle as noted film actors Damian Lewis (“Homeland”) and Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love”).

After those studies, Hiltunen was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Columbia University, studying with such innovative theater makers as Anne Bogart and Andrei Serban.

A lyric baritone, he has worked in theater, opera and film in Finland, England and the United States, performing with the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic, and had a small speaking role in the 2009 film “Confessions of a Shopaholic” starring Isla Fisher.

Texas ties

He is familiar with Texas. Husband Damon Clyde, a San Antonio native with family there, works for OutRight Action International, a New York-based organization promoting global LGBTIQ human rights. Hiltunen also notes that, given his reindeer herding heritage, he feels a connection to Fort Worth’s “cowboys and culture” slogan.

“When I arrived in Fort Worth, I had a strong emotional connection and visceral response to the city,” Hiltunen says. “I’m looking forward to getting to know the people and the audience.”

“I am very impressed with [Tuomas],” Illick says. “He knows what’s happening in the world of opera. It is deriving its work from a wider arrange of sources, medieval music to cyber-technology.

“That he is well-rounded is part of his appeal. Another part is he is a very shrewd businessman.”

Illick says that the Fort Worth Opera plans to continue programs instituted under Woods’ watch, such as the Frontiers new works initiative, and Noches de Opera, a commitment to Hispanic composers. As for the festival format, it will remain intact for at least the next few years, but Illick mentions wanting to expand programming throughout the season, in addition to the festival.

For Hiltunen, those decisions will come after he has had time to get to know the company, staff and most importantly, the community.

“My first boss said that one thing that doesn’t change in theater and opera is the fact that everything constantly changes, and if you embrace that, you’ll have a grand time,” Hiltunen says. “Opera and the arts are very important for the image of the city.”

The next Fort Worth Opera Festival, slated for April, will feature “Das Rheingold,” “Don Pasquale” and “Maria de Buenos Aires.”