In many ways, Tuomas Hiltunen, the new general director of Fort Worth Opera, appears to have a lot in common with numerous other opera managers around the country: He comes from a faraway land and has impressive credentials related to performance and art management.
But it is probably a pretty safe bet that he is the only member of that particular, rarified segment of the American job force who had a pet reindeer when he was kid.
“When I was 5 or 6, I started to own my own reindeer. I suppose I wanted a dog, but I got a reindeer. A big stag,” says Hiltunen, who took the helm of the FWO in August 2017.
That unusual choice of a pet was geographically dictated. Hiltunen grew up in Finland, where his family, who were primarily educators, also raised reindeer.
“His name was Slippers, and he was afraid of the color red,” says the soft-spoken administrator, who has only a very slight, and unplaceable, accent. “He would not charge toward red. He would just get crazy and run the other way.”
Hiltunen’s musical career began in his adolescence, when he sang in the Scandinavian debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Evita” and was noticed by an opera director. He was encouraged to continue his musical studies and ultimately went to London where he studied theater, voice and violin. More recently, he headed a Finnish language and studies program at New York’s Columbia University while also overseeing the Barenboim-Said Foundation USA, an organization devoted to developing new musical talent. It was founded by famed conductor Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian pianist and music scholar Edward Said.
“I have left my performing career behind,” says the former lyric baritone. “I did that for more than a quarter of a century, and I am very grateful I was able to do it. But I am concentrating on being an administrator now.”
So, while the 45-year-old Hiltunen has not previously directed an opera company, he does have a broad resume that suggests he is a good fit for the job. And he has the right attitude.
“I am a personality type who thrives when there are challenges,” he says.
And that is fortunate. Hiltunen has already addressed some daunting issues in his first days on the job.
A few months ago, Fort Worth Opera announced with great fanfare that it would be bringing Wagner to Bass Hall for the first time with a production of “Das Rheingold” as part of the 2018 Fort Worth Opera Festival. But in October, it announced that the massive opera, which is the first of the four comprising Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” would be dropped and replaced by a new opera, “Brief Encounters” — a work featuring three short operas by contemporary composers Jake Heggie, Mark Adamo and FWO artistic director Joe Illick, which was presented at the Santa Fe Opera this past summer. Because tickets to the festival had already been sold based on a lineup that included “Das Rheingold,” some patrons were not amused, despite the opera company’s offer of refunds.
“It was a difficult decision. But looking at the high production costs, we could not afford it,” says Hiltunen. “If we had sold all the seats, we would still have had to have absorbed a half-million-dollar loss. Our fiscal health is the most important thing.
“This company has had some challenges and has fumbled. I’m not part of that past. We have to put our house in order. Basically, that means showing that we are fiscally responsible and that we are grounding our decisions on reality. We can’t afford to base our decisions on what he hope might happen. We need to do our preparation and planning so that this company can move from surviving to thriving.”
And, to that end, Hiltunen is already making progress on improving the company’s bottom line.
“Fortunately, within these past three months, we have been able to pay all of our debts and balance our budget,” says Hiltunen. “We are finalizing our very first annual report ever.”
As for the future of opera, Hiltunen says he likes the template suggested by the three operas in the 2018 festival. “Don Pasquale” is a crowd-pleasing Donizetti war horse that puts the audience on familiar ground. “Maria de Buenos Aires” is a 20th century Spanish-language opera by Astor Piazzolla. And “Brief Encounters” is a new American opera.
“It is important that we continue to provide new operas to our audiences,” says Hiltunen, who is especially enthusiastic about continuing the opera company’s “Frontiers” program, which showcases new works in progress in presentations during the festival. “And ‘Brief Encounters’ may appeal to younger audiences because it is about relationships and getting married.”
Hiltunen says he is already reaching out to other arts organizations to work with them to find new ways to lure young patrons to fine arts events. And he feels that educational outreach is vital in winning that battle, at least in part because he feels grateful for the musical education he received.
“Finns are known for their excellent educational system and also our music school system. For a country of just over 5 million people, we produce so many wonderful conductors, opera singers and instrumentalists. Even where I grew up far north in Lapland, we had just wonderful music teachers. And I was fortunate to go through that system,” says Hiltunen. “I think it is really important for young people to be exposed (to the arts). And it is heartbreaking that some are not.”
So Hiltunen is not waiting for young listeners to come to the opera. He is bringing opera to them.
“Our Children’s Opera Theatre had 44 performances planned this fall. And we hope to do more of that sort of thing,” he says about the program that takes kid-friendly operas to area schools.
Hiltunen has also been energized by his initial encounters with other area arts organizations and performers.
“For me, these first months are truly precious, because I am noticing so many amazing things that local people maybe take for granted,” he says. “I have been impressed by the number of talented people who live here. The quality is amazing. And it needs to be highlighted.”
So Hiltunen’s initial days in his new position have included making the rounds to see other performing arts groups in action and meet their administrators.
“I have been meeting hundreds of people,” says Hiltunen, listing several theaters, museums and campuses he has visited to get the lay of the local artistic land. “I have been so pleased by how welcoming people have been and how willing these other organizations are to collaborate.”
Hiltunen frequently stresses that he cannot achieve his goals by himself.
“I’m not doing this alone. We have excellent board members. It would be a shame and a great pity not to take advantage of that,” he says. “And when I listen to the board members, the staff, the donors and the audience, they all care. That’s my job, to stay open and listen.”
So Hiltunen has hit the ground running. And while he has obviously been busy with opera matters, he has also managed to start being a Texan. He and his husband, San Antonio native Damon Clyde, have found living quarters and Hiltunen is already feeling very much at home here.
“This is a big city, and I have been living in big cities. But I come from a small city. So when they say this is a small town in a big city, I know what they mean. There is a special intimacy here.”
Hiltunen even already has a favorite Texas dish.
“King Ranch casserole,” he says with a smile. “There have been many days when I have had a lunch of King Ranch casserole left over from the night before.”