Center Stage: FWO’s Darren Woods raises the curtain on opera’s future

Betty Dillard   Darren Woods has never been interested in playing it safe. From the moment he took the lead as general director of the Fort Worth Opera in 2001, Woods began breathing new life into the 60-year-old company, changing it into a festival format, introducing audiences to daring new works and world premieres to both national and international acclaim, all while keeping the company out of debt. “I inherited a really bad situation my first year. I lost all my hair and developed an eye twitch,” Woods said. “We had to go bold or go home. Since we got it stabilized, we’ve been in the black and now have a huge impact on the local economy.” Praised for his risk-taking programming and masterful turn-around skills, Woods has been named by Opera News magazine as one of its 25 important influencers for the opera industry in the coming decade. As part of “opera’s next wave,” Woods is one of only three opera company leaders on the list. Continuing to redefine the opera experience, FWOpera announced its “Opera of the Americas,” a 10-year vision of thought-provoking premieres by North and South American contemporary composers beginning in 2014. World premieres will include With Blood, With Ink and A Wrinkle In Time, leading up to the company’s 70th anniversary in 2016 with the world premiere of JFK, which focuses on the 35th president’s stop in Fort Worth on his fateful trip to Dallas. FWOpera’s seventh festival season opens April 20. A Texas native, Woods graduated from the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston and began his career as an opera singer in 1982, making his debut at the Santa Fe Opera. He returns before the footlights during this year’s festival as Hortensius in Donizetti’s Daughter Of The Regiment.  “I don’t really miss the stage,” he said. “I really enjoy being out with the patrons.”   What makes you passionate about opera? That’s such a good question and a little bit of a tough one. No matter whether you’re doing something that was written 100 years ago or something that was written 100 minutes ago, opera invokes in us a really deep emotional response. You’d have to be the coldest-hearted person in the world to sit in La Boheme and not be touched deeply by young people dealing with death and life and poverty all at the same time. In Glory Denied, written just a few years ago, you see the real pain that was experienced by a returning Vietnam POW and how war destroyed his family. Opera can invoke within our community the desire and the need to have conversations about real things happening right now through the lens of another event. Opera just evokes huge emotions. For me, it’s almost a religion. It’s what feeds my soul. I think when those people make that beautiful noise that comes out of their throat that the world just gets better.   FWOpera’s mission is “to become recognized internationally as an organization that preserves and expands the transcendent art of opera.” What does that mean? When I came here 13 years ago, our only identity was that we were not the Dallas Opera. So we tossed out words and ideas about who we were and who we wanted to be. Opera as a transcending experience kept coming up over and over. In fact, the first year of the festival it was “Fort Worth Opera: Transcend the Ordinary.” When we came to be recognized internationally 12 or 13 years ago when we weren’t sure we were even going to be around 12 months later might have seemed the height of hubris. We really thought that if we did not strive for an international recognition that we would not try as hard. Two years ago the British magazine Opera asked me to write its opening essay. Today, we have subscribers coming from France and England. We are internationally recognized now as opera’s next wave, as a company that will be among the 25 to change opera in the next decade. I think by always striving we can say you haven’t seen opera until you see Fort Worth Opera. We strive to say something about opera, about how to tell those stories just a little bit different than our audience might have seen it somewhere else while maintaining the traditional landscape.   Is that how you’re redefining the opera experience? Yeah. In redefining that experience, it is doing everything we can to make an opera like La Boheme, that you may have seen 10 times before, fresh and different. And that could be the cast. With this La Boheme, it’s set in its time period but the cast is multiracial. They’re in the 1800s where they belong but it looks like the Rent cast from Broadway. People of all races will come to the opera and see people that look like them. We didn’t try to do that. We picked the best voices and then said, ‘‘Aha. Look at that. It’s multiracial. Isn’t that great?’’ What’s also great is commissioning a favorite story like A Wrinkle In Time and then creating an operatic experience from that story. To take JFK’s last morning in Fort Worth and create an opera based on that morning here is redefining that experience. It’s something we recognize but is totally new to us at the same time. That’s where I feel like the selection process is exciting. I like really personal stories that have global implications.   You’ve said the most creative, spiritual or emotional place in Fort Worth is Bass Performance Hall. You interviewed there. What was your first impression? Did that sway your decision on coming here? They took me in the stage door and I went on stage. They opened the curtain and I turned around and it was one of the few times in my entire life I was speechless. It was so beautiful looking from the stage out into the house. I called friends who had sung there and asked how the acoustic was and they said it was one of the best in the world. I came back for a subsequent interview and it certainly didn’t hurt that there was a beautiful opera house here to perform in. It’s a real joy. It’s inviting, it’s warm in there. You feel the community of people coming together. I also find that since we have gone to festival, in particular, that the opera crowd walks in there wanting to have an experience of a lifetime. They’re jazzed about being there. One of the most exciting times, and there have been many, and when I felt it the most electric was when we did Turandot in 2008. When the final curtain came down the audience leapt to its feet and screamed and screamed like they were at a rock concert. That was life changing. That’s how it’s felt every season since then. If I get hit by a beer truck on the way home tonight, that’s what I was put on this planet for. That’s what we mean when we talk about the transcendence of the art. That’s why I do it. I want people to think about it. A patron said to me about a year ago that the production of Dead Man Walking [2008] still haunts her to this day. Wow, that’s powerful praise.   Now you’re riding the next wave of opera with a 10-year plan. Is that unusual for an opera company? It is unusual. We went against a lot of marketing grains. We already knew we were going to do JFK and A Wrinkle In Time. I said we should announce that now so the community can get excited about it. People are starting to wrap their arms around the company now in anticipation of 2016. You’ll see more of those bold moves across the country. I know people have looked at our model and have changed, not to a festival, but in bringing new works. You’re seeing big companies like Philadelphia and Minnesota opera change to a much different profile.   It also seems a bold move to focus on composers of the Americas. That was calculated, too. I’m seeing in the last few years an American voice come out, from South America and Mexico. One young Mexican composer named Jorge Sosa I have no doubt one day will write this amazing opera. I’m paying attention to what he does. Wouldn’t it be great to do an opera here by a Mexican composer in Spanish?   Describe yourself in one word. Innovative.