In a surprise announcement Feb. 12, the board of the Fort Worth Opera announced that it was replacing Darren Woods, general director for the last 16 years. Reaction from fans and performers was immediate and strong.
“I don’t have the words right now to fully express what Darren K. Woods has meant for opera, for new works, for the city of Fort Worth, for young artists and for me professionally and personally,” soprano Ava Mason – who performs as Ave Pine – said in a post to Woods Facebook page. “I never would have started singing opera if it hadn’t been for him – he was the catalyst that led me to the most rewarding experiences of my life. I am so deeply sad right now.”
Mike Martinez, chairman of the board, refused to characterize it as a firing in an interview, saying instead, “The best way to put it is that it was a parting of the ways.” Woods has been mostly silent except to say, “I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from the Fort Worth community and from the music community around the world.”
Martinez, partner in the Fort Worth energy company Edge Resources, said that the decision grew out of a reassessment of fund-raising and business management after the successful and acclaimed – but expensive – opera JFK at last year’s opera festival. Those discussions included Woods.
“We wanted to build on what Darren has provided … but we also needed to be realistic and make sure that we were looking at the business and financial aspects,” Martinez said. The result was a decision to hire someone with more strength in those areas.
Over the summer of 2016, the Fort Worth Opera launched a three-month campaign that raised more than $500,000 matched by an anonymous donor. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that when the drive was launched, then board chairman Al Saenz said the intent was to cover a projected season deficit of about $675,000 caused by a decline in giving and the $1.3 million price tag of the opera’s world premiere of JFK.
“The reality is that the budget starts over, at least for Fort Worth Opera, at the new fiscal year and calendar,” Martinez said. “That satisfied what we needed satisfied for the previous fiscal year, and we were having to look at the next fiscal year.”
Under Woods, Fort Worth Opera became known as a venue for new or rarely-performed works, established the Opera of the Americas initiative with Noches de Ópera (Nights of Opera) – an outreach to what is perceived to be an untapped audience among Hispanics – and changed to a one-month long spring festival season.
“Darren demonstrated that it was possible to remake a traditional opera company into a leader in the area of new works and artist development,” said Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of OPERA America, a nonprofit organization that supports opera and opera organizations. “He also showed the potential impact of re-formatting a standard season into a festival. Leadership takes courage and Darren was a bold general director.”
Martinez stresses that the 2017 festival is well underway and will not be impacted by the board’s decision. “Our love for Darren is honest and true and sincere and we feel the best way to honor his legacy … is to ensure that we continue putting incredible art on stage,” he said.
Martinez said a search for a new general director will begin immediately, with an emphasis on qualifications rather than speed. Still undetermined is how that might look – whether the general director is also the artistic director.
“The role of a general director has become increasingly challenging from both artistic and business perspectives.” Scorca said. “General directors must have a blend of artistic sensibility and financial savvy; success requires a sophisticated balance of both qualities. As in every other professional, continued skills training and practice are essential.”
But it is fair to say that even though the executive committee was unanimous in the decision to end the relationship with Woods, no one took any pleasure from the decision.
Includes information from www.fwopera.org and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram