Fort Worth — This week’s announcement from the Fort Worth Symphony about their new CEO was quite the surprise. Keith Cerny is a real coup for them considering his international reputation for building arts organizations, but his recent spate of musical chairs does raise an eyebrow or two.
Cerny starts his newest gig as President and CEO of the Fort Worth Symphony in January after a short stint—almost exactly one year—in the head position with Canada’s Calgary Opera. His abrupt move to Calgary after eight years at the helm of The Dallas Opera caused a similar stir when he resigned at the end of 2017.
Of course, reasons for dramatic career moves and corporate personnel decisions are always multilayered and, understandably, closely guarded matters on both sides of the equation.
He accomplishments at the Dallas Opera are considerable: Cerny came on the local scene for the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick (co-presenters included Calgary Opera) pulled the organization out of the red and went on to commission major new works, including Great Scott, with music by Jake Heggie to a libretto by Terrence McNally; Everest by Jody Talbot and Gene Scheer; as well as Becoming Santa Claus, an opera in one act with music and libretto by Mark Adamo. Perhaps his most important feat was to launch the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, a program still going at TDO.
For five years, Cerny also wrote a monthly column for TheaterJones, called Off the Cuff. His final entry is here, and it has links to the previous columns.
Although Cerny is low-key by nature, in a recent phone interview he was upbeat. He is justifiably proud of his work in Dallas. He also feels that he brought some leadership to Calgary and helped with their long-term plans during his short tenure. In a press release, the Calgary board praised his leadership abilities and said that he will remain a friend of the opera company. His educational background in the arts as well as business and technology has perfectly prepared him for a life at the helm of modern day professional music.
Cerny says he plans to contribute to the musical life of the Metroplex in other ways as well. He intends to be more active as a chamber music pianist once the dust settles.
The leaders of the Fort Worth Opera are thrilled. “We are very excited to work with Keith Cerny, who possesses both acute business expertise and excellent artistic taste," says Fort Worth Opera Artistic Director Joe Illick. "Our most important partner is the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, and this superb orchestra deserves visionary leadership, which Keith will provide."
“This is an exciting appointment. Fort Worth Opera is delighted that Dr. Keith Cerny is to join the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra—the Opera’s most important partner," adds FWO General Director Tuomas Hiltunen. "I look forward to the future working together and a very productive collaboration.”
An interesting sidebar to the story is that Cerny’s replacement at The Dallas Opera, Ian Derrer, left Lyric Opera of Chicago to join the Dallas Opera staff under Cerny. Soon after arriving, he suddenly departed to become head of the Kentucky Opera. When Cerny left for Calgary, Derrer was selected by TDO’s Executive Committee and Board to return to Dallas and take on Cerny’s vacated job.
It just goes to show you: You might think you can leave Texas in your rear-view mirror but, even when the grasses are wearing their summer browns, there are few greener pastures to be found.
Cerny talks about the recent developments in the interview below:
TheaterJones: What tempted you to jump to the Calgary Opera from Dallas?
Keith Cerny: Of course, I knew the company and their management through my involvement in OPERA America [an organization of North American opera companies both large and small]. But my closer connection to the company goes back to the world premiere production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s opera Moby-Dick in 2010. The premiere took place in Dallas but a consortium of opera companies that included the Calgary Opera commissioned it. We worked with these companies as they produced the opera in their respective markets.
I was attracted by Calgary’s record of world and Canadian premieres and the outstanding young artist program they run to develop new talent. When I went through the interview process, I was even more impressed with the context of our discussions and the quality of the board leadership—as well as their ambitions for the future of the company.
Then why leave?
It was a very hard decision but the reasons are personal ones. My family needed to remain here due to a number of factors, not the least of which is that our son Nicholas is just starting his junior year of high school. The commute was more difficult that I initially imagined and it was unfair to my family for me to be gone for such long stretches of time.
Why the Fort Worth Symphony?
The job itself presents exciting possibilities for the future. One of my goals in arts management is to build local collaborations with other organizations and the FWSO already does this. They are more than just a symphony orchestra. They are also the orchestra for the Texas Ballet Theater, the Fort Worth Opera, and the internationally renowned Cliburn piano competitions.
What else about this organization attracted you?
The FWSO has always shared my passion for new music and has a vibrant composer-in-residence program that brings outstanding composers, both emerging and established, to the area. The orchestra also stands at the brink of a new era with the retirement of, and attendant celebrations, for its long-time music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Finding his replacement will be a challenging task.
But you have some experience in spearheading this kind of effort.
True. I was involved in the search for the music director of the Dallas Opera, Emmanuel Villaume. I was also instrumental in bringing Nicole Paiement in as Principal Guest Conductor. In 2017, I helped to launch the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, which is already producing amazing results.