Tuomas Hiltunen, the FWO’s new out general director, readies to reposition the storied opera company

MARK LOWRY  | Contributing Writer
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Since Tuomas Hiltunen arrived in Texas to begin his post as general director of the Fort Worth Opera on Aug. 1, he’s had 11-hour-plus workdays trying to determine what’s next for this company. On one hand, the organization — in the past decade or so — had made national news by being on the forefront of the “new opera” trend that is now standard at every major opera company in America. On the other, there’s been some mess to clean up from the former general director, Darren K. Woods, the man who put the now-72-year-old company on the map, who was dismissed earlier this year.

“Whenever I leave work, it’s like a vacation,” says the slender, 45-year-old, Finnish-born man with soulful eyes.

But the work is, of course, what he was hired to do, when he was announced as the new man in charge, six months after Woods was fired. (At the same time Hiltunen was hired on as G.D., the organization also announced that longtime music director Joe Illick would be promoted to the role of artistic director.)

At our afternoon interview at the opera’s offices in Downtown Fort Worth, just east of its home at Bass Performance Hall, Hiltunen was awaiting a conversation with two longtime patrons who had come to discuss some concerns — most likely, the taste level of the Fort Worth Opera’s 2016 world premiere production of JFK, a costly endeavor that has left the company making some adjustments to get back on financial track.

“The company has fumbled,” Hiltunen concedes. “Our goal is to make choices that are best for this company that are sustainable. We are restructuring the company and repairing some of the damage that was caused to our brand, and that takes considerable effort and energy. As a company, we need to listen very carefully to our audiences.”

So far, he has made some “necessary trimming” of staff and rethought how a full-time staff of 10 could accomplish the FWO’s immediate goals. The company recently announced a collaboration with the Texas Christian University Opera Studio for an apprenticeship program; hired David Gately — TCU’s director of opera and a renowned opera director with a history working for the FWO — to lead the company’s discovery and training program; and upgraded longtime part-timer Sheran Goodspeed Keyton as the company’s new coordinator of educational outreach.

There will be more changes as Hiltunen acclimates to Cowtown, having relocated from New York with his husband, Damon Clyde, a San Antonio native who works for OutRight Action International, a New York-based organization promoting global LGBTIQ human rights.

Hiltunen’s credentials seem to make him perfect to sort this out. He was most recently director of administration and management of the international Barenboim-Said Foundation U.S., where he focused on growing the foundation’s endowment, advancing its brand, and
development and business plans and strategies. The American branch of the Seville, Spain-based foundation (started by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said) operates from New York’s Columbia University, where Hiltunen is an adjunct lecturer in the Finnish Studies Program. He also taught in the Barnard College theater program, and — being from Scandinavia — is an expert in Nordic drama, such as the work of modern drama pioneers Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg.

The big question for LGBT audiences that have become more prominent at Fort Worth Opera because of Woods’ programming — from the regional premiere of the opera of Angels in America to the world premiere Before Night Falls, about gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas — is whether Hiltunen and Illick will continue offering some LGBT content.

Hiltunen says he’s not ready to answer that but does promise that the FWO will continue to champion new work and continue the Woods-initiated program Frontiers, in which snippets of new works are performed in a reading setting during the opera festival. In fact, shortly after Hiltunen arrived, a new world premiere was announced for 2020, an opera about Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, by composer Gabriela Lena Frank and playwright Nilo Cruz. That is part of the company’s Opera of the Americas program, which began several years ago with a 10-year commitment to works created by Latin American artists.

The 2017 production of the mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna “did very well for us,” Hiltunen says, “and we realized that most of the people who were in the hall were probably there for the first time. … This tells me that there could be more Spanish-language programming, and ticket prices needs to be affordable.”

The Fort Worth Opera’s 2018 festival season, which includes Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, was announced before Hiltunen was hired; we’ll have to wait until the 2019 season announcement to see how Hiltunen’s findings affect programming.

“When I arrived in Fort Worth, I had a strong emotional connection and visceral response to the city,” he says, noting that his roots in a family of reindeer herders in the Arctic Circle town of Rovaniemi, Finland, gives him a connection to the city’s “cowboys and culture” slogan. “I’m looking forward to getting to know the people and the audience. It is my job to get to know people, so we can tailor our programming to what they want.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 15, 2017.