12 May 2013

The Haushofmeister’s Diary, Part 22: In Conclusion

Time to hang up my hat. Or rather, my wig.
Photo by WVM©

So, kids, what did we learn from this episode? All sorts of things, really, but I’d like to focus on this: much of the charm of my engagement with the Fort Worth Opera stems from the discovery that a community, brought together by music, is indeed possible — and right in what used to be my own backyard, where I never imagined that such a community could exist at all.

Getting to work with the company has meant getting to experience the Fort Worth Opera community in new ways. Sure, it’s impressive to see people gathered at Bass Hall for a performance. But it’s something else entirely to see the community gathered under other roofs — or, in the case of the company party at Joe T. Garcia’s Mexican restaurant, under the vasty Texas skies.

The company party at Joe T. Garcia’s:
Steven Eddy, Emily Caroline Hagens, Elizabeth Westerman,
Ian McEuen, and Amy Burgar.
Photo by Tracy Nachelle Davis©

How did this happen? In the interest of reason and fairness, I have to point out that, for all I knew in the 1970s, similar communities grew up around Fort Worth Opera and the Dallas Civic Opera, where I attended so many of my first performances. Still, for me as an adolescent, opera was linked to the isolation I felt, tied up with my uncertain sexuality and with my intellectual snobbery, all of which made me a target for taunts and blows. These in turn made me feel even more isolated, and persuaded me that, whatever I did with my life, I would have to get out of Texas altogether and find or create my own community someplace else.

It was Darren Keith Woods who brought me to Fort Worth Opera, first by producing work that was exciting enough to lure in this jaded critic from New York — namely, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, in 2003. The doorway to Darren’s Fort Worth community began to creak open, since for that production he hired my friend Joyce Castle, as well as Janice Hall, who would become a dear friend, too, as the years went on. And Darren himself, seeing that we were of like minds, kept finding ways to keep the conversation running between us.

How do you make a Hortensius?
Darren Woods, at right, in Daughter of the Regiment,
with Joyce Castle, J.R. Labbe, and Matthew Powell.
Photo by Ellen Appel©

I’ve said it before — said it, in fact, in a profile I wrote for Opera News — if Darren sees that you care about the people and things he cares about, then he must reach out to you, share with you, bond with you. It is his nature. He doesn’t merely embrace, he doesn’t merely love. I mean this in the nicest possible way, but Darren is like the Borg of Opera World. Resistance is futile.

And why would you want to resist? Consider, for instance, that conductor and FWO music director Joe Illick fell in love with Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos when he found an LP recording at a second-hand sale when he was 13 years old. Knowing nothing at all about the opera, he fell in love with its incredible music. And years later, Darren gave him the chance to conduct it — in performances that also happened to be the first time Fort Worth got to hear the piece.

WVM onstage, at right, with Steven Eddy, Anthony Reed,
Ian McEuen, Cecelia Hall, and (in background) Michael Adams.
Photo by MYPhotographyNYC©

A gift to a friend can be a gift to the community at large, as that Ariadne has been a gift to Joe and to Fort Worth — and to another longtime friend, stage director David Gately — and, need we add, to me.

Consider, too, that Darren recognizes how much the Fort Worth Opera audience loves Ava Pine. Darren loves her, too. (So do I. Really, everybody does.) So he set about looking for another opera to do with her, and hit on Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, an ideal vehicle for her vivacious personality and exquisite singing. It’s also an ideal vehicle for another friend, Joyce Castle, whom Darren brought back to the company to sing the Marquise, one of her signature roles — and seeing those names, and remembering that Hortensius had been one of his own signature roles, back in the day, Darren couldn’t resist joining in on the fun.

Everybody loves Ava.
Opening-night gala at Bass Hall.
Kris Robertson Photography©

His return to the stage after 16 years was a hit, to say the least. The audience greeted his entrance with applause (“You’re like Carol Burnett,” Joyce said to him), and in a later scene when, fed up with Sulpice’s demands, Darren declared, “You can’t order me! I run this place!” he provoked an uproar of cheers. We were all in on the joke — and it felt good.

Yet again, we had — all of us — been brought together in opera. By Darren. In Fort Worth. Which, you may recall, is in Texas.

Darren swears this was his swansong as a performer: he’s got his hands full just running his company, popping in to check on rehearsals, keeping in touch with donors (and potential donors), auditioning singers, attending performances, and maintaining his vast network of friends. (I’ve noticed that Darren’s friendship is something like the kiss of the Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz: folks in Opera World are much more likely to look kindly on me when they know that Darren and I are friends.)

The General Director, in his other leading role:
Darren at the closing-night Artists’ Circle Dinner.
Kris Robertson Photography©

He prefers to call fundraising “friend-raising,” and he emphasizes the sociability — the community — of the process with dinners and parties. The donors don’t merely become Darren’s friends, they become friends to one another, too. And, since the artists and staff — and a certain Haushofmeister — join in these events from time to time, we become friends, as well, just as Jeff Jones and Rhonda Krasselt and Joseph Lesley and I have become friends.

Darren means for these relationships to last. If you bought a ticket to one opera, he’ll try to persuade you to buy a ticket to another. If you bought season tickets this year, he’ll try to persuade you to come back next year. If you gave money once, he’ll try to persuade you to make a regular habit of it. It is for you as it was for me: once Darren starts the conversation, he’s going to find ways to maintain it.

It’s for this reason, I think, that Darren insists that the fact that an opera is new isn’t enough to persuade him to produce it. He wants “operas that stimulate conversations within the community” — his words — and he sees to it by sponsoring talkback sessions like those that followed performances of Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied and the works we heard in the Frontiers showcase.

Discussing Glory Denied with the community.

These conversations are beneficial on all sorts of levels. For starters, Darren isn’t leaving the audience to fend for itself in the often-intimidating sea of new music. You have a question for the composer? Ask her — she’s sitting right here! And chances are, she’ll learn something from you, too. In sessions closed to the public, the Frontiers composers also heard from the panelists who selected their work, and as I say, we didn’t merely talk at them but exchanged ideas, while they shared with one another, too.

The singers took part in the Glory Denied sessions and were moved each time by the voices they heard from audience members saw their own life stories in those of the Thompsons. And the network weaves itself more and more broadly, spreading outward, catching up more and more of us.

Your moderator, Kurt Howard, discusses new music.
Photo by WVM©

In large measure, what happened this season is that people got chances — to hear music, yes, but that’s just the beginning. Michael Mayes got the chance to perform a powerhouse role the like of which he’ll be lucky ever to find again. I got the chance to co-host a radio program. Curating the Frontiers showcase, producing director Kurt Howard got the chance to branch out in even more creative ways, not least by moderating the feedback sessions, which he did with all the aplomb of a seasoned news anchor. Composers got the chance to hear their unpublished work performed for an audience by first-rate singers — who got the chance to work with living composers. And so on.

I often recall that, before The Turn of the Screw, my brother had never gone backstage to congratulate a performer after a show. He got that chance because I knew Joyce Castle, but now Darren gives everyone the chance, basically by moving “backstage” to the mezzanine lounge at Bass Hall, where the audience can mingle with the singers.

Lounge Singers: Wes Mason and Derrick Parker meet
young audience members after a performance of La Bohème.
Ann Coleman is in the background at left.
I think this is another Kris Robertson photo.

And so next season, seeing that Ava will sing in Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, you may think, “Oh, she was so good in Daughter of the Regiment, and I really enjoyed meeting her. And you know she went to TCU! Maybe I’ll give this new opera a try.” And you’ll have a chance to share in another musical adventure.

It’s an extraordinary thing, what has happened in Fort Worth. And for the city, for its opera company, and for this Haushofmeister, it has happened because of Darren Keith Woods.

Vielen Dank, mein gnädiger Herr.

What a time I’ve had!
Photo by Suzy Williams©

No comments: