Kevin Moriarty, Keith Cerny and Ann Williams in the Arts District panel at Opera America
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Opera Conference Highlights

General Director & CEO Keith Cerny offers his personal highlights from the 2017 OPERA America Conference here, including new opportunities for artistic collaboration in the Dallas Arts District.

published Friday, May 12, 2017



Dallas — As readers of this column know, The Dallas Opera was invited to host the annual OPERA America conference this year, in part because of the company’s growing national and international reputation for community outreach and artistic innovation. This conference attracted nearly 500 delegates to Dallas, mostly from the United States, but there was a sizable group from Canada and Europe as well. The conference was hosted by The Dallas Opera and presented with Opera Volunteers International. Other participating organizations included, Opera Europa, and Fort Worth Festival Opera.

The annual Board meeting of OPERA America, which is the national service organization for opera (, also held its Board of Directors meeting immediately prior to the official start of the conference. The Dallas Opera had prepared intensively for more than a year for the four-day event, including adding special programming and events. Administrators, volunteers and the entire Dallas Opera staff “pulled out every stop” to do their part in preparing for the arrival of colleagues from across the country.

One of my primary goals in working with OPERA America’s President & CEO, Marc Scorca, was to make this conference to be as inclusive as possible: showcasing the city of Dallas, the Dallas Arts District, and, of course, The Dallas Opera, while also drawing new audiences to the Winspear Opera House and other Arts District venues, both indoors and out. The conference included dozens of different events, organized into a number of plenary events and a set of functional “tracks” that allowed individuals with similar roles (e.g. Marketing Directors) to attend smaller sessions organized around their particular areas of interest.

I had been invited to make a brief address welcoming the delegates, and chose to highlight the central role that TDO’s collaborations with other institutions in the Arts District—and beyond—had played in the company’s gradual financial recovery from “The Great Recession.”  These included:

  • Engaging the Artistic Director of the Dallas Theater Center, Kevin Moriarty, to direct Peter Maxwell-Davies’ The Lighthouse in 2012 and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in 2014
  • A marketing, Board, and artistic collaboration with Dallas Black Dance Theater in TDO’s first ever musical, Show Boat
  • Free public simulcasts to Klyde Warren Park, drawing crowds of up to 7,000, in partnership with the AT&T Performing Arts Center
  • Seminars and presentations at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, linked with TDO’s programming
  • An art song/visual arts series entitled Music and Masterpieces at the Dallas Museum of Art
  • As I described to the audience, even TDO’s special programming for the conference represented an important collaboration with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, as these performances were preview events for their international Soluna Festival
Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Opera America at the Nasher Sculpture Center

With so many performances, meetings, sessions, and social events, it was a whirlwind of a weekend for me and everyone who attended. The following made the greatest impression on me: 


  • “Partnership in Play” Panel Discussion. Immediately following the opening session on May 5, Marc Scorca interviewed six leaders from the Dallas Arts District in a panel discussion. These were Agustín Arteaga, The Eugene McDermott Director, Dallas Museum of Art; Doug Curtis, President & CEO, AT&T Performing Arts Center; Kevin Moriarty, Artistic Director, Dallas Theater Center; Jeremy Strick, Director, Nasher Sculpture Center; Ann M. Williams, Founder and Artistic Advisor, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and myself. I was proud to share the stage with these distinguished leaders to explore the opportunities, and occasional pitfalls, of artistic and operational collaboration in the Dallas Arts District. It is no exaggeration to say that this panel discussion, featuring such a diverse group of executives working side-by-side in a single unified arts district, could not have taken place in any other American city.
  • The positive audience reaction to TDO’s performance of Douglas J. Cuomo’s Arjuna’s Dilemma at the Winspear Opera House. On Thursday, May 4, Principal Guest Conductor Nicole Paiement led a taut and compelling performance of this unique work, managing instrumental and vocal resources from both Western and Eastern traditions. This work also created important new opportunities for collaborations. We worked closely with Amy Hofland, Executive Director of the Crow Collection of Asian Art, to animate the sacred texts from the Bhagavad Gita set to music in Cuomo’s work. We also collaborated with the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Indian media to bring an enthusiastic new audience to the Winspear Opera House.

  • Presenting six conductors from Hart Institute for Women Conductors during the Young Artist Auditions. One of the privileges of the host company for each conference is to present young singers to important decision-makers from across the continent. This year, The Dallas Opera partnered closely with Fort Worth Opera Festival to showcase eleven talented singers. In addition, we presented six of our twelve conductors from the Hart Institute using streaming video of their performances with full orchestra during the residencies, and personal introductions on stage. As a side note, we are about to begin our selection process for the third Hart Institute residency, which will take place in November of this year.

  • Host Company Reception at the Nasher Sculpture Center.  Another privilege for the host company is hosting a reception for all of the conference participants. In TDO’s case, we were fortunate to have the support of the Nasher Sculpture Center to host this reception in the gardens. The weather for the event was perfect, and many delegates expressed their amazement to me that there was such a tranquil oasis with artistically significant sculpture in the heart of Dallas.

  • The world premiere of Joby Talbot’s Everest Prelude, and a semi-staged performance of Everest. On May 5, Music Director Emmanuel Villaume conducted the world premiere of Everest Prelude, set to archival footage from the British Film Institute of George Mallory’s attempts to summit Mount Everest in the 1920s, followed by a semi-staged performance of Joby Talbot and Gene Scheer’s Everest. The two works blended seamlessly, and Director Leonard Foglia successfully recreated much of the opera’s dramatic power—even with costumed singers performing on a simple set on a relatively narrow part of the stage. Emmanuel Villaume’s conducting added great majesty and fluidity to the performance, and the audience responded to this poignant and powerful opera with a standing ovation.

  • The performance of BreakThru films’ The Magic Piano with pianist Derek Wang. On Saturday, May 6, TDO presented this charming animated film, accompanied by pianist Derek Wang performing works by Frédéric Chopin. Derek, who is just completing his freshman year at Juilliard, gave a stunningly virtuosic performance, but one with real “heart,” too. The concert attracted a lot of interest from my colleagues at the conference, and quite a few have expressed interest in presenting the work in their cities.

  • The Dallas Opera’s final season performance – Bellini’s Norma. Our original Norma for this production, Elza van den Heever, had to withdraw from the final performance due to a family emergency, and we released her with our blessings and sympathy. We were fortunate to secure a young Canadian soprano, Aviva Fortunata, who gave an excellent performance, expertly guided by TDO’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume. The stylistic contrast between classic 19th  century bel canto, and the contemporary works by Cuomo and Talbot gave me particular pleasure, as the company performed these disparate styles with distinction.
  • Numerous conference speakers representing other Dallas arts groups and educational institutions. Another of my goals for the conference, other than showcasing TDO’s musical and artistic capabilities, was to be as inclusive as possible with other leaders in-and-around the Dallas Arts District. I was delighted to see numerous colleagues featured in 10 additional sessions at the conference, in addition to the plenary panel discussion described above. These smaller sessions included executives and staff from the Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and the AT&T Performing Arts Center, as well as Southern Methodist University, Big Thought, and the Dallas Opera Guild.

From my point of view, the conference achieved all of its community outreach and artistic goals, and I am very grateful to TDO’s dedicated staff for having run such a large event so smoothly—in tandem with the equally energetic OPERA America staff. I am proud to live in a city with such a significant investment in the arts, and was delighted that so many arts organizations were featured in both plenary sessions and breakouts. I was especially pleased, too, that The Dallas Opera was able to successfully present four such varied musical works in a four-day conference “mini-festival.”  Many of our Board members and supporters attended these events, and it was clear that the opportunity to see The Dallas Opera set in a national context was energizing and exciting for them, too. While we were honored to be selected to host the conference this year, we were also pleased to “pass the torch” to the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, next year’s host company. We wish General Director Timothy O’Leary and his staff tremendous success, and I know that a number of us are already planning to attend.


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Friday of each month in (Note: As of Feb. 2017, it will run on Fridays; and the May 2017 column will run on the second Friday.)









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Opera Conference Highlights
General Director & CEO Keith Cerny offers his personal highlights from the 2017 OPERA America Conference here, including new opportunities for artistic collaboration in the Dallas Arts District.

by Keith Cerny

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