Managing the performing arts is driven by the mission to bring forth the best in the performers and truly contribute to the advancement of the art. Darren Keith Woods learned this from having spent a lot of time both onstage and backstage. Darren is currently the Artistic Director of Seagle Music Colony, the country’s oldest and most prestigious singing program, where he has held a few leadership posts since 1996. Before stepping into a managing role, however, Darren had a career as a tenor, singing for more than 20 years in both the US and Europe. He is a keen observer of people – a trait that he brought into observing companies, which led him to learn what separates good management from the rest. In this interview with Elizabeth Bachman, listen to his brilliant insights on bringing mission and management together plus some practical tips for aspiring singers looking to make a breach in today’s monolithic industry and still be able to put food on the table.
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Mission-Driven Managing With Darren Keith Woods
Part of “The Relationship between Business and Art”
I’m excited we’re doing this special series about what business can learn from the arts. I am thrilled to have my dear friend, Darren Woods. I want to remind you that this is the show where we talk about how you can use your presentation skills to get the results that you need. I get to interview very smart people about aspects of leadership, visibility, presentation skills which includes singing. This is why I’m asking Darren here what business can learn from the arts, which is all about presentation skills. It’s a conversation with someone who is interesting and a dear friend. The official bio for Darren Woods is that he’s the Artistic Director of the Seagle Music Colony, which is the country’s oldest and most prestigious singer training program. I think there are other programs that would compete with that, Darren, but the Seagle Music Colony, which is in Upstate New York and I visited, it’s gorgeous.
He’s also the Artistic Director of the newly formed American Center for New Works Development. Mr. Woods has been with Seagle in some leadership capacity since 1996. He was formerly General Director of the Fort Worth Opera, a company that was transformed by a restructured festival format and a devotion to new American opera. He’s considered a leading expert in 21st-century opera composition. He was hailed by Opera News in 2012 as one of the 25 influencers in the world of opera for the next decade. In addition to mainstage opera productions, Fort Worth Opera launched a contemporary chamber opera series in 2008 called Opera Unbound.
In 2013, Mr. Woods further advance the company’s commitment to new work by starting Frontiers which is a composer and librettist competition to identify new opera still in development. Mr. Woods also had a career as a character tenor for twenty years singing in the US and Europe, which is where you and I first worked together. He’s a frequent judge of vocal competitions, including the Metropolitan Opera National Council, the Tucker Awards, Dallas Opera Competition, and many others. As a singer, Darren Woods has performed in some of the most prestigious theaters in the world including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Teatro Verdi in Italy, Oprah Madrid in Spain and the Glimmerglass Festival to name a few. There were a lot of them.
Darren Woods, welcome to the show.
Thanks so much. It’s great to be here with you.
It’s good to see you. Before we get started on the stated purpose of it, the question I ask all my guests is if you were to have a dream interview, an interview with somebody from history who is no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them? Who should be in the audience to hear that?
That was a good and very intriguing question to go over a bit because there are several people that have influenced your life, but I came to John F. Kennedy. Part of the reason was I got to delve into his life and his family life when I commissioned an opera called JFK for Fort Worth’s 70th anniversary. In going through the speeches and I’m going through the way that he spoke to his audiences and to people, he was somebody who could speak so beautifully, but he always galvanized people. They always took action. You go back to when PT-109 was destroyed and he was in the water with his troops and he said, “We can surrender or we can try to fight out of this.” There was no real way that they could get out.
He was able to convince them to fight on and they lived. He suffered a lot of back pain for that. When he was running for president, everyone tried to talk him out of it but he was able to always articulate why he wanted to run and what he would do when he was running. He got all those people that wanted other candidates to come around to his way of thinking. The most interesting to me is when I dug into his life and found out how troubled he was with back pain, the loss of two children, one stillborn and one five days after their death. He was addicted to painkillers because of his back pain. He says he couldn’t even hold his children and yet how was he able to hold up that Camelot legacy when there was so much pain underneath?
The audience I would want would be any young professional who wants to lead an arts organization company and a volunteer organization because at the end of the day, we have to see that dream that we want for our organization no matter how we feel. The organization, when they hire us, they hire us to lead. They buy us to do that. I have my time where I need to go be Darren Keith Woods. Most of the time, I need to be the Darren Keith Woods that my audience and singers need me to be. JFK felt that mantle greatly and it’s one thing to feel it. It’s another thing to be able to deliver it about every time.Everything that's not mission-driven is distraction. Click To Tweet
This whole theme of leadership, it’s the same for any company. You get promoted into the C-level and you’re responsible for a lot of things. People are looking at you to deliver the information. I’m a presentation skills trainer, so my brain goes to it and you will be asked to speak about it. You’ll be asked to show up and do that. Out of curiosity, we’ve heard many myth-busting stories about JFK, very human person, flawed in many ways. How do you come to terms with wanting to interview someone who is on one hand a legend and on the other hand, people have said many terrible things about him?
Everybody has a side of themselves that they don’t want to show the world. At the end of the day, looking at what he was able to accomplish spoke a lot to me. I was unaware as most people were that he took morphine every night to get through the night. To get up to do what he had to do as president, he had to take amphetamines and other drugs. He had a real history of that. He was a notorious womanizer. Could he survive in a 24-hour news cycle now? Probably not. Looking through everything through now, it’s much more difficult than looking at it through the lens of history. I was alive in 1960 barely, but I’d remember that at that time, my parents idolized him. I remember being in kindergarten during the assassination and being taken out of kindergarten. I remember that portion of my family life and how upset my parents were. I’m looking at it through that lens is much different than looking at it as the 62-year-old man now and seeing all those flaws. When you lose go down to speakers who get results, you can’t deny that he was able to do that.
He was able to do that and he had a team that helped him, so that made a big difference. He spoke to what people in the time wanted and what appealed to the country.
What can you do for your country? We’re going to put a man on the moon. All those aspirational things that seemed impossible when he was saying them, eventually we did those things. He also was one of the first presidents who gave it up for the arts. He and Jackie did that. That was the beginning of a lot of national politics starting to embrace the arts. I would agree to that now but it was the beginning of that.
Both you and I transitioned from performers, working artists to running something. I thank you now. I still remember when I was starting to found the Tyrolean Opera Program. You were one of my go-to people and say, “I know how to think about renting pianos and what that should cost but how do I think about this, this and this?” Some of the things that you said to me as I was figuring it out was the advice I’ve passed on over and over again. Talk a little bit about the transition from worker to boss and why.
I went back and found an interview that I did with the Kansas City Star years ago when I was singing the Witch in Hansel and Gretel in the City of Kansas.
That’s a role that can be done by a mezzo-soprano or by a tenor.
I love doing it. I said I’ve always wanted to have three lives. I wish I had three lives because I’d be a singer, administrator and teacher. I’ve gotten to do all those things. I knew I wanted to run a company almost from the time I started singing. I started looking at companies and what people don’t know about a character tenor is we’re the secondary singer. We’re not the lead and we’re not the star. Your job is to do your part well, but let the leading lady or the leading tenor shine. I was playing older people, the mean people or defending people. I was always a keen observer of people and then I began to become a keen observer of companies.
What development my departments were stewarding their donors? What did their donor room look like? Was there a them against us feeling in the company? How did the marketing director and marketing forces sell the tickets? Is the company being driven by ticket sales or was it being driven by mission? All those things to start to add up when you look at great mission-driven companies like the Santa Fe Opera back then, they still are, but I was under John Crosby. That development department and that marketing department, everything ran so well. I used my skills as a singer. I was playing Arnaldo, which is another women’s role and often done by a tenor. I remember going to Central Park and watching the elderly ladies walk with their bags coming from the grocery store.
I applied that same observation techniques to companies. What I realized was that the companies who treated their artists the best, the company that put the art at the forefront were the companies that were the most successful. They’re the ones whose leaders could articulate to their board the mission that could live that mission with their singers, backstage, orchestra, everybody, and the development people, their patrons could see that mission in action. When I did get my first company, I would always say when the artists were getting there, “Remember, these people are coming to our town to give us their gifts. We are servants to the art and the artists. The only job that they have is perform the art that we’ve asked them to do.”
What is it about focusing on the mission that makes the profit and loss statement better?
Everything that’s not mission-driven is a distraction. Everyone, including us during the COVID crisis, is trying hard to put on online content. Let’s push opera out on video. Let’s all sing. Let’s put it out there to prove that we’re still viable. Our mission is training singers and live performances. We are not pushing out content. We are doing some content on working with our singers over the summer with some virtual classes, business classes, strategic planning, marketing, financial, those things. The only thing we’re putting out there is the virtual gala. We’re going to do that but running archival videos of our shows does not show who we are. We’ve made a decision to stay mission focus and we’re planning to 2021 and praying that it will happen. Everything we do from raising money to talking to our patrons is about living our mission.
If we were going to put out all those archival videos, it would be as a distraction. We wouldn’t be focusing on the singers. We’re going to be here and would be worrying about other things and crafting that mission. When Fort Worth talked about putting art at the forefront and what does art mean, when I came there, it was the top twenty operas all the time. I said at my hiring, “If you want to do that then I’m not the person for you to hire. If you want to explore new work, you want to explore subject matter that is seminal to the days and times we’re living in now. I’m the guy but I’m not that guy who’s going to do Bowen every other year.” We all know what we’re getting into.
It brings up another point I wanted to ask you about which is anytime that you’re creating a company like that, you’re working with your board and your board comes from your community. It’s very much about what works in your community. This is one of the things that I’m talking to speakers about all the time is who’s listening and what is it that they care about? It sounds like you’re putting together a mission that appeals to your community and is relevant to your community. Talk a little bit about interacting with the board.
Boards are wonderful things. They’re the people that support you, give the most money, and do a lot of the legwork, especially our board here. We have a staff of three at the Seagle Music Colony. Our board of 25 people is incredibly important to us as far as fundraising, marketing and being mission-driven. What I have always said is whenever you’re speaking to a board, crowd, rotary club, is to tell the unvarnished truth. “This is what this season is going to cost. This is how much money we’re going to need. This is how much money we’re sure we have. How do we get this $200,000? If we want to do this season, we have to focus on this.” When everybody says, “I want to vote in that season,” that means I will also help make that budget come through. Marc Scorca is the Head of Opera America. I remember when I got my first general director post, I said, “This is my first board and I’ve never dealt with patrons before except as a singer.” He said, “If you do it right, you’ll fall in love with them and they will too.” It’s the same thing when I had my first commission.
By commissioning, you mean commissioning a new piece. This would be analogous to hiring people to put together a new project or create a new piece of software. I think a lot about founders here, so I’m going to be asking you a lot about the founder questions.
The person I ask advice for going into a commission because it’s a three-year dance with a composer, librettist, cast and it’s a long process. Diana Wanda Fritz said, “Be there for your composer. Be there to say yes when it’s yes and be there to say no when it’s no. Be able to articulate why it’s yes and why it’s no.” Everything applies for a board. Here’s what I think. Here’s how we can create this beautiful thing that we want to create. Here are the obstacles. If we think the obstacles are too great, then we have to move into a different direction, but a different direction can be a little different and still be mission-driven. It may not be this piece. It may be another piece that is along those same lines. I like to do pieces that when people left the theater, they thought about it. I remember when we did Dead Men Walking, a US representative came to see the show. A couple of years later, he said, “I’m still a death penalty Republican but I think about that opera every day.” I was like, “That’s all we can ask.”
Since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, which is next door to Fort Worth, commissioning an opera about him and I believe you told me it took place the night before he was killed, right?Follow your dream, but do it with your eyes open. Click To Tweet
Correct. They spent the night in Fort Worth, Texas before they flew to Dallas because they wanted a nice photo op getting off the plane in Dallas.
It’s not very long to drive from Fort Worth to Dallas.
It’s longer to fly. All we knew that they did was spend the night. That would be a boring opera. I didn’t want the assassination to be a part of it. Briefly, a lot of people in town at that time knew that they were upset that they weren’t going to get to see the museums. Ruth Carter Stevenson went to all the museums and private collectors in Fort Worth, got 70 different pieces of art, and hung them in the rooms. There are two bedrooms in the suite. Rumor has it that the next morning, Jackie was like, “That’s real.” She was an art historian. We had the thing where he took a shot of morphine and the paintings came to life. Everything goes intrinsically Fort Worth about that night was put in the opera and then they left the next morning.
You saw a grainy film of the assassination where you couldn’t see it but it was about them spending the night and the hospitality that the Fort Worth people rolled out. You also got to see him at his worst, sick, ailing and frail. There’s a wonderful aria that Jackie sings at the end of act one where she calls him American phenomenon, “Look at you, you’re a heap on the floor. If people knew.” All the opera projects that I’ve put together have been special. That was among the most special. Crawling into that family’s lives, head and seeing them for real people and not the mythological people that we made them.
Going back to what I first started to ask you, making the transition from worker and performer to manager and boss. Can you remember what it was that surprised you? What were the things that you didn’t realize? I know you’ve been running things for a long time now.
More than I’ve been singing. I sang for years or maybe they’re even. It’s surprised me all the moving pieces. When you’re a singer, there are moving pieces, but if you do your job and you know the piece, you’re okay. I was lucky because I started the Seagle Music Colony while I was still singing. Seagle Colony was my training wheels. I was doing this part-time while I still do my singing career. Once I’d done this for years, I was like, “I can do this.” It surprised me initially, not at Seagle because the Seagle board is different than a board where it’s more of a corporate board, that there could be many varying opinions and that there could be many strong things. It’s your duty to hear everything, and not only to hear. What we’re learning in today’s world is you can’t just listen, you’ve got to hear people. All that ball of opinion and try to make sense of something that you can articulate back, that can at least galvanize people to work toward a vision instead of 25 or 50, or when I first came to Fort Worth it’s 150 visions. When I’ve been to Texas, it’s the size of the gigantic boards. Now that was something that surprised me.
Talk about a little bit of what that scene is like. You have a board of 150 people because you count on getting the contributions, right?
Yes, and that’s the way some boards work. Give $1,000 or $5,000 and you get to be on the board. I’ve never liked that way running a board because anyone could give $1,000. Not everybody can be an expert in marketing and hold my hand and say, “Let me take that vision of yours and do it.” Here, people get on the board because they feel like it is a great honor. That big boards like I had in Texas, the big board was there to have coffee four times a year and the real work was done by the executive committee of about 20 or 25. The officers were another subset of that. The micro-level got done at that level. Those boards met more often four times a year. Here, we have the board which is the policy and finance stuff. We also have an advisory board that are people who are regular givers who love to come and love to be a part of it. They’re a nonvoting board, if you will. They’re generous givers and they have a lot. Managing people is the thing that I won’t say surprised me because I thought I’d be good at it, but it takes a lot of time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how training singers which both of you and I did for years is similar to running an incubator or an accelerator program, depending on which level you’re at and where you’ve got founders who have an idea. They have a great idea they’re going to create this new company, and they all think that that’s going to be the company is bought by the venture capitalists for a bazillion dollars and they’re going to become billionaires. It’s all wonderful whereas fewer than 5%, if that much, wind up doing that. It’s the same thing for sports and arts. Fewer than 5% of the people who train for it wind up doing it for a living. Even if you do, you only get about ten years nowadays before along comes somebody who is younger, cuter and cheaper. What do you say to the people with an idea, a twinkle in their eye? We’ve got people who are founders in the startup community. I see this as very much like incubating startups. What do you say to these young people with ideas who think they’re going to be big stars with the diamonds, champagne, Ormond and all of that?
That ship sailed a long time ago, don’t you?
The reality is hardly anybody does diamonds or Ormond anymore. It’s fake if you do.
We were all back at Santa Fe in the early ‘80s. I remember one of the people there saying, “You’re right now considered the 40 best young singers in the United States or 40 of the best singers.”
You were an apprentice.
“If four of you have careers, we will consider that a gigantic success.” That was the real world. What I try to tell singers, we talk a lot about transferable skills that as a singer, you have many things that are going for you already. You have a facility with languages, multitask and plan. We get them from the first day to own their own artistry. You are now the Darren K. Woods company. You need to own that company. That company, like every company, it may be a singing company for ten years. You may find that you get along with donors so there’s nothing wrong with morphing into development or if you’re good with technology, why not be a web designer while you’re being a singer? I have a financial planner come in. I’ve got some online classes. I have three singers that were here that have now been in the Met Chorus for several years now. They made a career in the Met Chorus. I’ve got four that are in the Armed Forces courses. They’re going to talk about those careers.
We have several that have matriculated to general directorships and artistic administrators. We began saying the reality is not everybody’s going to make it. The bigger reality right now is when we were coming up, you can make a nice living just singing or directing on the regional level. Not all the big companies are on a regional level. If you were lucky enough to sing at the bigger places a couple of times in Europe, even better. I had nice regional career. That is not possible anymore. The singers are below the poverty level. New York City Opera’s gone that one of our fest companies where you could go live in New York City and sing at City Opera. It’s a good gig economy, even more so. They must have transferable skills that they can use to make a living so that they can sing when they’re asked to.
For many years, I did a class called The Hard Truths Class. I did it up at Seagle that time I came up where I talked to them about the realities of the money. Imagine you have a gig. I had them all write down, “I’m going to be making $3,000 this weekend,” then you subtract all the expenses. The people wound up being depressed so then I always brought chocolate. I said, “Now that I’ve got you all depressed, let’s talk about what you do about it.” That’s one of the reasons why I stopped doing the Tyrolean Opera Program is because universities had finally caught up to be teaching this. I would teach it in masterclasses wherever I was but the thing is, follow your dream. Don’t use that as a reason not to follow your dream but do it with your eyes open and be aware that even if you do, the time will come that will be the end, just like all those people who were high school athletic stars or athletic stars in college. Few of them wind up playing baseball or football for a living. It’s a useful thing.
Going back to the parallel with founders. One of the things that I knew but had surprised me when I began to run an opera program was I was responsible for raising the money. I had to do a pitch. That’s where I learned about the art of speaking to get people speaking to get results. It was because I had been speaking to entertain for many years. You sang to entertain for many years. Suddenly, we both found ourselves in the position where we had to do it in a way that got people to donate all their credit cards out of their wallets. What can you say to founders now, people who are starting a company, whether it’s in a software company or any other kind of company? There are lots of other companies besides in tech. What would you say to people who find that they have to speak to investors?
If it doesn’t come naturally, you have to develop the skill. Real development directors are people who can ask for money. You can learn the skill but it’s a lot easier if you are able to do it. It came easier for me. What I would tell them about is if they’re afraid about it, turn it around from, “I’ve got to raise some money,” to, “I’m going to tell you why this is such a great idea or a great opera that you’re going to want to invest in. Here’s why it’s important that you become a part of it.” People certainly the upper world, and if I’m going to invest in your tech company or your sports team or whatever, I’m going to want access. I’m going to want to know what it is that you’re going to do with my money and how I’m the one that can help you.You will always be an artist even if you do something else to put food on the table. There is no shame in that. Click To Tweet
The more personal you can make that to that donor or that group of investors, the better it’s going to be. When you’re raising money for anything, there’s a time where you have to close your mouth and listen to what the donor or the investor has to say. You also have to be able to pivot like if you’re going in there and you’re sure that that education program that you’ve got is going to be the thing and within a couple of minutes, you can see the eyes glaze over, you need to have another direction to go so it might be this production. The most important thing is doing your pitch, shutting your mouth, letting them talk to you and hearing what they have to say.
I always say rule number one is make it about them. What is it that they want? You might have an idea of what they need, but they’re going to come and listen because of what they want.
To that investor, I would say I’ve never had anybody that I went to to invest in my opera company or in a piece that didn’t know that I was coming to ask them to invest in a piece into my company. They’re not surprised. I had never found anybody that was insulted when I asked them for a gift. People are often flattered when you ask them for a gift or you cared enough to say, “I think that you can be one of the people that can make a difference in what we’re doing now.”
People shoot themselves in the foot all the time if they approach and ask whether you’re selling a product or you’re asking someone to invest. If you approach it from the point of view of, “I need this money,” it’s going to damage them by taking money from them, then no one’s going to want to want to give you the money. If you approach it as, “Here’s this cool thing that you can make this come to pass, happen, and work. This is what you’ll get from it.” That took me a while to learn, to get out of my own head and make it about them.
When singers call to ask me for advice, I give my opinion and my advice, and then they try to talk me into, “Here’s why I don’t want to take your advice.” I’m like, “It’s fine. You don’t have to take my advice I’m telling you.” I don’t try to talk them into something that they don’t want. Sometimes, you’ll get a no and no is okay.
I’ve got one more question for you. I’m guessing that a lot of people who are reading are part of the 95% who trained in one of the arts. They learned to play an instrument, danced, sang or performed at some way but are doing something else to pay the rent. What do you say to the people who took a different path? Part of the reason why I ask is because often as aspiring performers, we are shamed for not being totally dedicated to the art. I see that with the startups I’ve worked with that you’re shamed for not being totally dedicated to your idea and your company and you even consider that it would be possible to do something else. What would you say to the people who are reading about that?
I would say what I say when I get a call. There is no shame in that at all. Success is success. You have to put food your table and take care of your family. The truth is I’ve worked as a banker for four years while I was building my singing career. Working as a banker helped me run a company years later. I have had singers call me and say, “I don’t want to disappoint you but I’m going to take a position on the Met Chorus.” I’m like, “Why would that disappoint me? You’re singing and you’re making money.” “I hope you weren’t disappointed. I feel like I’m checking out but I’m going to be the development director of the North Carolina Opera.” You’re moving the arts forward. You’re helping other artists. There are even people that are getting into a completely different field.
I have one of my kids who had a great run but she decided that she wanted to be a nurse and she still sings. She says, “I sing when I want to. I sing to my patients. I am happy caring for people in a hospital.” She’s been through the COVID thing and she’s okay. Everything is great but I see her as happy as when she was singing. She got to do a Messiah in 2019. She said, “It might have been the best Messiah ever to sing because it’s not the way I have to pay my bills. Every cent that I make is not riding on that high C and rejoice graple.” Even if you pick something else, at the end of the day, what I would tell every person listening is find your joy. That might not be singing and it might not even be in the opera field. That’s okay. You just have to find what works for you. The thing is that you will always be an artist. We will always be artists. You can’t take that away from us because I’m raising money or Tony’s balancing a book. He’ll always be a pianist, I’ll always be a singer and nobody can take that away from us. We are part of that.
Using my opera experience directing singers and now helping speakers is when I first made this shift, there were people who said, “What does opera have to do with presentation skills?” I said, “It has everything to do with presentation skills.” It allowed me to do all in the service of great communication. It is an art. Darren Keith Woods, I’m happy to see you. I’m happy to have your wisdom. I’m excited for this. Cross our fingers, I know that the thing that is missing from life is the energy you get from live performance. We’re all of necessity working online but I can’t wait to get back into a theater and have that energy, that feel of what it’s like even if you have to be 6 feet apart. Thank you so much for this.
- Seagle Music Colony
- Fort Worth Opera
- Darren Woods
About Darren Woods
Darren K. Woods is currently the Artistic Director of Seagle Music Colony, the country’s oldest and most prestigious singer training program and also of the newly formed American Center for New Works Development. Mr. Woods has been with Seagle in some leadership capacity since 1996. Mr. Woods was formerly the General Director of Fort Worth Opera (2001-2017) a company that was transformed by restructured festival format, and a devotion to new American opera.
Considered a leading expert in 21st-century opera composition, Mr. Woods was hailed by Opera News in 2012 as one of the “25 influencers in the world of opera” for the next decade. In addition to mainstage opera productions, Fort Worth Opera launched a contemporary chamber opera series in 2008 called Opera Unbound and in 2013, Mr. Woods further advanced the company’s commitment to new work by starting Frontiers, a composer – librettist competition to identify new operas still in development.
Mr. Woods had a career as a character tenor for twenty years singing in the U.S. and Europe. He is a frequent judge of vocal competitions including the Metropolitan Opera National Council, the Tucker Awards, the Dallas Opera Competition and many others. As a singer, Mr. Woods performed in some of the most prestigious theaters in the world including, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Teatro Verdi in Italy, Opera Madrid in Spain and at the Glimmerglass Festival to name a few.