Darren Woods, General Director of the Fort Worth Opera, is used to hearing congratulations about the work his organization produces. Pats on the back and even superlatives are commonplace for a man who has a national reputation for quality productions. But a recent comment stood out: "[A woman told me] Dead Man Walking haunts [her] to this day, two years later,’ That’s great theater when you can do that."
And that’s what Woods aims to do. Since he was appointed to the post 10 years ago, his goal was always to introduce North Texas audiences to newer and lesser known operas, something it has done steadily since 2003, and especially since it began the a festival format in 2007. In the first four years of the festival, Fort Worth Opera has staged two world premieres (Frau Margot and last year’s Before Night Falls), and hit hot-button issues with area premieres of the opera versions of Angels in America (adapted from Tony Kushner by Peter Eotvos) and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.
Those last two, along with Before Night Falls, based on the memoirs of gay, activist Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, say volumes about the kind of work that turns Woods on.
"I probably wouldn’t have been the person to do [Heggie’s] Moby Dick [seen at Dallas Opera in 2010], even though I consider it a masterpiece and Jake is one of my best friends," Woods says. "But I want the pieces we do to be—I don’t want to say controversial—but I want them to be current, pieces that people talk about when they leave the theater. I want it to be more than a great show, I want to really think and have opinions and talking about it 10 years from now in a bar and hashing out what it meant to each of those people individually."
Perhaps the work in the upcoming 2011 festival with the greatest chance for future conversations will be rarely performed chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox, based on the infamous poem "Howl" by polarizing Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, and set in operatic form by equally polarizing composer Philip Glass. It’s the first Glass opera for FWO, and its second since Bass Performance Hall opened to be produced in a smaller space; in this case, the Sanders Theatre, a 100-seat black box space in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. (In 2008, Angels in America was performed in 250-seat Scott Theatre, also in FWCAC.)
And that’s not the only first for 2011. The opera’s mainstage shows, at Bass Hall, feature the group’s first attempt at a Handel opera (his take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), using a host of countertenors; and a modern-dress version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, complete with Segways, purple hair and Hello Kitty backpacks. And then, to appease the traditionalists, there’s Verdi’s Il Trovatore.
It’s Woods’ bravest season yet here; and that’s saying something.
It looks like it’s paying off, too, not just with buzz, but with ticket sales. Granted, Hydrogen Jukebox is in a much smaller venue, but there are 10 performances, and the run is already sold out. Woods is quick to point out that last year, Before Night Falls outsold a more traditional offering, Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love —which likely had as much to do with the fact that it was a world premiere as much as the subject matter.
Daniel Beckwith, who is conducting Julius Caesar, says that such a strategy, of slowly introducing audiences to a particular kind of opera, can pay off.
"Minnesota Opera, 15 or 20 years ago, made this commitment to start presenting these bel canto operas and casting them as best they can; and who knew they’d become the operas that consistently sell out?" he says. "Let’s face it, everybody wants to see the ABC operas —Aida, Boheme, Carmen—they’re famous for a reason. But how many people really know Norma or Roberto Devereux? Once you build the trust of the audience then you’re able to branch out and be a pioneer in presenting contemporary work or a traditional opera in a new way."
The Mikado director, John de los Santos, a young theater director whom Woods pulled into the opera world early on (he directed 2009’s acclaimed Carmen), agrees. "I think [Fort Worth Opera] has gotten more positive exposure. Because now there’s this festival that’s concentrated, with all these performers and directors in town at the same time, more people are hearing it about it and coming. I think the quality has gotten better, too."
Woods sees the FWO’s 2003 production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, based on the Henry James story about child abuse, as the turning point. The production earned FWO a gushing review in the national magazine Opera News, and more importantly, had audiences talking.
"There were people who loved it, and people who marched out and were furious," Woods says. "There was no in-the-middle. But everyone said they were prepared for the experience. … That was our first real departure from the normal repertoire. I think we’ve done a really good job of leading the audience since."
That’s not to say that the grand opera will go away. Nobody, including Woods, thinks that’s a good idea. But he is committed to finding more chamber pieces and newer works for future seasons, dropping a hint that Mark Adamo’s opera of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata could appear soon; and he rhapsodizes over seeing Ricky Ian Gordon’s one-man chamber opera Green Sneakers.
"I want to do some really out-of-the-box stuff, and it may not be in a theater, it might be in a warehouse or a garage. In another three years or so, we might have five or six shows in a season. Three will be big operas in Bass Hall, and others might be a one-character chamber piece that last an hour."
And if Woods has anything to say about it, it will be something that audiences will be talking about for many years to come.
◊ This article originally appeared in the May issue of Arts+Culture Magazine, which is on stands around town now. A+C is a TheaterJones media partner.
◊ The Fort Worth Opera Festival 2011 features three mainstage shows and one studio production. Unless noted, the performances are in Bass Hall. The schedule is:
- Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado: 7:30pm May 14, 27 and June 4; 2pm May 22
- Verdi's Il Trovatore: 7:30pm May 21 and June 3; 2pm May 29
- Handel's Julius Caesar: 8pm May 28; 2pm June 5
- Philip Glass' Hydrogen Jukebox, in the Sanders Theatre at Fort Worth Community Arts Center: 7:30pm May 24-26, 29, June 1-2, 5; 2pm May 28 and June 4