On a Tuesday night in March, Darren Woods -- the avuncular general director of Fort Worth Opera -- is engaged in the art of the soft sell before an audience of approximately 150 people inside the auditorium of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
He's here with New York-based composer Tom Cipullo to showcase three excerpts from the Fort Worth Opera's production of Glory Denied, Cipullo's Vietnam-era chamber opera that has been staged only a handful of times. It is based on the story of Col. Jim Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in Vietnam.
What Woods is really doing, though, is trying to persuade patrons to take a chance on the most challenging work of this year's Fort Worth Opera Festival. It's a role he has found himself in more than once.
On this night, square-jawed baritone Michael Mayes comes to the stage and settles onto a chair.
He performs a somber aria from Glory Denied: His character, Thompson, has just returned to the United States after nine years as a POW and catalogs all the changes he now witnesses in American society. (Imagine Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire, at a much lower register and without quite so many bouncy rhymes.)
Two more pieces from Glory Denied follow -- the music is dark, brooding, anguished. During the question-and-answer session that follows, more than a few audience members seem to want to know if this fact-based story has a happy ending. (It doesn't.)
"That's kind of my brand -- new and potentially alienating," says Woods, during an interview at Fort Worth Opera's offices, a week later. "I really like things that cause the community to talk and have important conversations."
Glory Denied, which begins a 10-performance run Sunday, is the first work to be presented by the company under the aegis of its "Opera Unbound" series: contemporary works, usually sung in English, that look and sound nothing like traditional operas such as Carmen or Aida. (It's also the first opera that the company will stage at Bass Hall's McDavid Studio, a venue that Woods says he expects to use regularly.)
Glory Denied continues the risk-taking approach that Woods first employed in 2003, with a stark and stylized staging of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw, and has continued with the likes of Peter Eotvos' Angels in America in 2008, Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking in 2009, and the Philip Glass/Allen Ginsberg collaboration Hydrogen Jukebox in 2011.
Throughout Woods' tenure, the balancing act has been a tricky one: To place the company on firm financial footing, he believed he would need to raise its national profile. But to raise that profile, he would have to mount daring work from unheralded composers -- in other words, precisely the sort of opera that might send the company's core constituency running for the doors.
Gambling on new works
It's a dilemma that many performing arts companies face, especially in a market such as Fort Worth that has a reputation for being conservative. How far can Fort Worth audiences be pushed before they push back?
"It can be a big gamble, and I always have to choose carefully," says Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, of putting forth contemporary pieces or lesser-heralded ones from the classic repertory. "It's like stand-up comedy; some in the audience get the joke, and some don't like it, but you can't go back in time and do it again, because it's already happened."
(Like Woods, Harth-Bedoya has found that audiences here respond most favorably when they are offered a more personal entree to the work -- in the case of the symphony, by bringing contemporary composers to town to talk about their pieces.)
"People understand they're going to get their regular opera done in a traditional fashion," says Woods, of his less-adventurous patrons. (This year's festival also includes Puccini's La Bohème, Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment and Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos.) "We tell people the Opera Unbound series isn't for everyone, and if you think it's not for you, you're probably right. But three or four of my older patrons came up to me after that Amon Carter preview and said, 'We get it. We're going to buy tickets to this.'"
Based on an oral history by Tom Philpott, the 80-minute Glory Denied introduces us to Thompson when he's already in captivity, looking back upon the life he once shared with Alyce and their children. When he returns home in 1975, Thompson learns that, during his absence, Alyce not only tried to have him declared legally dead but also fell in love with another man. (The only characters are Jim and Alyce, with young and older versions of each played by different singers.)
The show has been staged in a couple of modest productions, including one by Chelsea Opera in New York. But the opera community will be paying attention to Fort Worth's production -- the largest-scaled yet -- to see if Glory Denied deserves a place in the contemporary opera canon.
Cipullo, who drew the libretto almost entirely from interviews that Philpott conducted with Jim and Alyce, was a teenager during the Vietnam War. Although he acknowledges that the show might have contemporary resonances, in this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, he says he was drawn to the story because it allowed him to explore the deep fissures that opened up in America in the 1960s.
"There were all of these arguments and fights and emotions, and there were all these families split along generational lines," he says. "Just imagine a time when the National Guard goes on a college campus and shoots people. The amount of emotion stays with you your whole life."
With its grim subject matter and not quite hummable score, Glory Denied obviously isn't intended for the Three Tenors set; a few local opera fans who might have served in Vietnam or have loved ones who did may not want to revisit the period.
Yet the show's creators and cast stress that, at least compared with a lot of jarring and atonal modern pieces, this one will please the traditionalists.
"It's not easy music, and it's very rhythmically complex," said Mayes, who has previously performed with Fort Worth Opera in Dead Man Walking and Mark Adamo's Lysistrata in 2012. "But it's also not hard on the ears. It's very tuneful and listenable."
Bringing a new opera home
And the story of how Woods secured the show speaks volumes about his revitalizing approach to Fort Worth Opera. When he took over the company in 2001, it had long been considered a poor cousin to the Dallas Opera -- and one that rarely ventured beyond a musty collection of chestnuts, from Don Giovanni to Madame Butterfly to Tosca and back again. He has since set about staging two world premieres, Thomas Pasatieri's Frau Margot in 2007 and Jorge Martín's Before Night Falls in 2010, and commissioning work from rising stars such as composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, whose tentatively titled JFK is scheduled to premiere at Fort Worth Opera in 2016.
In the case of Glory Denied, Woods knew nothing of Cipullo before reading a New York Times review of the Chelsea Opera production. But he immediately met with Cipullo, listened to his work, and then traveled to see a production at UrbanArias in Arlington, Va., in 2011.
"When I go to New York City, I don't go to the Met," Woods explains, of his eagerness to find unheralded work. "I go down to Le Pousson Rouge, I go to The Kitchen." (A tenor before switching to opera administration, Woods will be performing for the first time with the company this year, playing Hortensius in The Daughter of the Regiment.)
The opera world seems to have responded in kind. Last summer, industry bible Opera News named Woods as one of 25 people who represent "opera's next wave." Reviewers from national publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post have traveled to Fort Worth to cover the opera festival in recent years -- another sign that the company has effectively raised its profile.
"There's buzz," says Cori Ellison, dramaturg for Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England, and a longtime observer of the opera scene. "If you are plugged into the contemporary opera world, you know that Darren has turned around Fort Worth Opera. Whenever I'm in mentoring sessions with young composers, Darren is always the first person on the list of people I tell them to send their work to."
For his part, Cipullo says he leaped at Woods' invitation to bring Glory Denied to Fort Worth. "Fort Worth is in the vanguard, and they've made a tremendous commitment to opera in the Americas," he says. "The opera of our time should be of interest to people, but it takes leaders like Darren to get them interested."
Closer to home, the risk-taking has had an impact, too. In 2007, Fort Worth Opera shifted from a year-round performance schedule to its current festival format, with three or four productions in repertory over the course of a month. Despite some initial blowback, the festival schedule has been widely embraced by audiences. Woods reports a couple of lean years during the recession, both in fundraising and ticket sales, but he says this year things appear to be back on track.
By comparison, Dallas Opera -- a larger company that has also been aiming to produce riskier work in recent years, including the world premiere of Jake Heggie's Moby Dick -- struggled with much-publicized financial problems in 2011. The company had to abruptly cancel a scheduled production of Leo Janácek's Kát'a Kabanová for its 2011-12 season and reduce the number of productions each season from five or six to three or four, the same number as Fort Worth. (The Dallas Opera did complete a $20 million endowment capital campaign that same year, and officials have said they hope to be once again operating in the black by the 2014-15 season.)
"We've been teaching and getting our audience to see that we have to embrace these new works in order to keep ourselves credible," says Kris Lindsay, chairwoman of Fort Worth Opera's board. Now that the company has hit an artistic stride, Lindsay says she hopes to focus on increasing its endowment, which currently stands at a little more than $1 million.
"To be confident, we'd love to grow that to $20 million -- that's a major goal of ours, and I know that's a major goal of Darren's," she notes.
The next few years should be telling. The 2014 festival will offer two contemporary works: the regional premiere of Mark Campbell's Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night, which is based on the French film Joyeux Noel, and the world premiere of With Blood, With Ink, by composer Daniel Crozier and librettist Peter M. Krask, about a 17th-century nun forced to renounce her life's work. With Blood, With Ink will also feature costumes by Austin Scarlett, the flamboyant fashion designer who rose to celebrity on the reality show Project Runway.
And then there's Little and Vavrek's Dog Days, which Fort Worth Opera will stage at some point in the next three years. The plot summary alone -- a man dressed as a dog shows up at the doorstep of a post-apocalyptic family, begging for food -- lets you know you're far, far from The Marriage of Figaro.
"You watch this family slowly starving to death," says Woods. "Heidi Waleson, the critic for The Wall Street Journal, said it right -- it's a sock in the stomach."
He adds, "But if you're not doing work that says speaks to the time, then you're going to get stale."