The news that Darren Keith Woods was summarily fired after a sixteen-year extraordinarily successful career as General Director of Fort Worth Opera added to some odd news from Vienna a short time ago seems inexplicable.
Woods became General Director of a regional company in Texas at the turn of the present century that had made little impact on the national opera scene, overshadowed as it was by the much larger Dallas Opera, thirty-three miles to its east. Up to that point Fort Worth Opera had presented a very standard repertory. Woods realized that it would never have a personality of any national interest if it continued in that fashion, and slowly but surely he refashioned it into a company that produced new, challenging works in addition to standard fare. Without a very large budget he brought the Fort Worth public to appreciate the ferment that is happening in the opera world. His reception by his audiences was excellent; his track record in choosing new operas to which critics paid attention and the public enjoyed was excellent. In the United States this course is financially dangerous but did not prove so in Fort Worth.
A number of decades ago David Gockley made Houston, a city with immense financial resources, a vanguard of the new in opera, by presenting usually one new work a season; Woods has done that and more with much less money. The surprising fact to those of us who worked to raise money and balance budgets in American opera companies is that he has balanced every budget since 2003 until he had a small deficit in the 2014-15 season. He erased it last season, and the company is now deficit free, what most American companies would call a shockingly outstanding record for a house not relying on Puccini, Verdi, or Broadway to succeed financially. A few days ago he was fired by his board. According to reports, when he tried to work out something, he was told that he was terminated and to leave the building immediately. This kind of firing has in my more than fifty years in opera only happened for very questionable financial actions or some other really serious problem. Did the board have the right to do it? Of course, but does this make any sense? Or more important to Fort Worth operagoers, would any prudent person want to work there in the future?
I think it does bring up the question about opera board members who, as I assume in this case, made a decision for financial reasons, the reasons they are most qualified to make. Mr. Woods had a fiscal record that would be envy of most American opera directors, starting with Peter Gelb. To have gone through the recession with balanced budgets while producing unusual contemporary operas is not only impressive, it’s astonishing. This means that audiences are coming to Fort Worth Opera so the company’s popularity is not in question. They certainly have the authority to do what they did; it just puts into question the structure of most American opera companies when we remember the actions of the San Diego Opera board a few years ago.+
I experienced the opposite. For thirty-one years as General Director of Seattle Opera I was supported by the opera’s board without exception. We sometimes programmed difficult works, spent a lot of money that we had to work hard to balance, did many things that would absolutely not be done in a profit business. But I never had a single person challenge my artistic decisions. Not one. I knew then I was very lucky, but this particular action strikes me as representative of why Europeans particularly call our system subject to the whims of people who don’t know opera or how it works.
Europeans have to deal with politicians, not always easy by any means. Recently the Vienna State Opera took what from this distance seems an almost equally strange step. Dominique Meyer has been Intendant at the Vienna State Opera since 2010. As one of the world’s great houses, Vienna has thrived under his leadership playing to better than 98% capacity, a figure that most large opera companies, such as the Metropolitan or London’s Royal Opera cannot touch. Meyer’s contract lasts until 2020. He knew that there would be a five-year renewal at that time, and he notified the political authorities involved in the selection in Austria that he would like to extend for that five-year period. He was told to turn in an application which he considered pro forma. It was turned down, and a man who has never allegedly produced opera and who works for a prominent record company in Germany will take his place. There could be many reasons why this choice was made, but with the kind of public support Meyer received just in terms of ticket sales and the high level of performance in Vienna, it seems more than odd. Meyer can take some satisfaction that Gustav Mahler’s time as Intendant in Vienna was also one decade…
This does indicate that whether opera companies have leaders chosen by private citizens or by the government, there is sometimes no apparent, reasonable explanation for the actions of those who appoint them. What is happening?