Fort Worth — A few weeks ago, the musical world was surprised to learn that Tuomas Hiltunen, the General Director of the Fort Worth Opera since July 2017, resigned from that position. The Board of Trustees accepted his resignation on Jan. 21, 2020. (Hiltunen was hired after the February 2017 termination of Darren K. Woods, who had steered the organization artistically for 16 years, becoming notable for commissioning new works.)
Nelson E. Claytor, Ph.D., who is the chair of the opera's Board, has stepped into being the acting general director. I talked to Claytor about the development.
"Tuomas came from an international background,” Claytor says. “He was born in Finland but was living in New York City when he came to the opera.”
Although this was his first job as an opera impresario, Hiltunen brought a varied background in the arts to the job at the FWO. He was a product of London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama and received a Fulbright Scholarship to further his studies at Columbia University. His surprising résumé also includes a turn on the stage as an international performer in theater, in concerts, on television, film, and, yes, even in opera.
“[Hiltunen's tenure was] critical in a time of restructuring, due to the funding stresses that all performing arts organizations face every day,” Claytor says. “Over the past two seasons, he made significant improvements to our financial reporting, and did a good job of cutting expenses without damaging the quality of what went on stage. …We are grateful for his leadership."
Quality offerings within an established budget is the mark of successful arts management, and this can sometimes slip away — inadvertently — in any arts organization unless carefully watched and allocated. Alas, this is too often ignored by the very largest international organizations as well as the smallest of community theaters.
Claytor spoke confidently about the future prospects of the company. "We are excited about our fantastic 2020 festival ahead and looking forward to announcing our 2021 75th anniversary season soon.”
The figure of 75 years might come as a surprise to the casual observer. But "…Tuomas contributed to planning for this remarkable milestone alongside with our Artistic Director, Joe Illick,” Claytor adds.
"While most of Tuomas' experience was in the closely related world of the theater, his contributions will continue to be part of the company's service to the community,” Claytor says. “Further, Joe’s artistic leadership is one of the strengths of the company. Joe was highly influential in the selection of this year's marvelous season as well as the exciting one ahead."
One example offered of Hiltunen’s community involvement was his establishment of the Fort Worth Opera's Relaxed Performances program, specifically aimed at audience members who fall within the autism spectrum as well as those with learning disabilities. He made this a reality through the formation of a strategic partnership with other Tarrant County organizations, which will remain strong well into the future, Claytor assures.
In an email to TheaterJones, Hiltunen stated that was stepping down "…because of different visions of the direction and goals of the company."
While this may be true, Hiltunen’s “vision” had significant influence in shaping the past two seasons. Still, newly appointed general directors know that it is wise to make haste slowly. We may never know what "different visions" he was talking about.
The current vision of the company is certainly laudable, as you will see when the new season opens this spring. They will present a remarkably balanced season, running April 17-May 3: a three-hanky Italian opera, Puccini's La bohème; a Viennese domestic comedy, Revenge of the Bat (better known as Waltz King J. Strauss' Die Fledermaus); and a world premiere, Héctor Armienta’s Zorro. The latter character was a dashing hero to an entire generation, including yours truly, donned a mother-made black cape to reenact his derring-do and Robin Hood-like adventures. (For tickets and info, visit www.fwopera.org or call 817-731-0726.)
All organizations, from corporate-land to arts-land, go through management changes on a regular basis — more regular than in the past when music directors were appointed "for life." Change can be refreshing to any organization and appears to swing from one management style to a completely different one and back again. So, all artistic eyes will be on the choice of a successor. The board is working on setting up that search. Hopefully we’ll see a replacement by the time of the company’s 75th birthday