Ian Derrer: A Singer’s Journey to CEO

by Catherine Womack (’08)

As general director and CEO of The Dallas Opera (TDO), Ian Derrer’s responsibilities include overseeing the company’s fiscal health and steering its artistic direction. Twenty-four years ago, however, when he went to work for TDO for the first time, his duties were much simpler: picking up dry-cleaning and chauffeuring visiting talent around town.

Derrer was a vocal performance student at Meadows in 1995 when he interned for TDO. At the time, the aspiring singer was studying Richard Strauss’s “Elektra” for an elective class. It just so happened that TDO was presenting that same opera during its season, so Derrer approached Jonathan Pell, TDO’s artistic administrator at the time, and asked if he could attend rehearsals as research for his term paper.

Pell offered Derrer something more: the opportunity to work as an intern assisting esteemed director John Copley. It wasn’t long before Copley realized Derrer was capable of much more than fetching coffee, and began to mentor him in the art of directing.

“[Copley] became a very big help for me,” Derrer recalls. “He said, ‘You know, you really should look into this part of the business as well as singing.’ He got me an interview for a production assistant position at Santa Fe Opera.”

After graduating from SMU, Derrer took that position in Santa Fe for the summer before eventually heading to Northwestern University and Brooklyn College for degrees in opera production and performing arts management.

For a time, Derrer straddled two worlds, pursuing a performing career and working behind the scenes as a stage manager and assistant director at various opera companies across the United States.

“Only when I decided that I wanted to be in administration did it all come together for me,” he says. “I loved directing. I loved stage-managing. I loved singing. But the big thing I realized was that I loved opera as a whole more than any of its parts. Once that was really clear in my mind, I felt like I’d found home.”

Derrer held administrative positions at New York City Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago before he returned to Dallas in 2014 to serve as artistic administrator of TDO. In 2016, he became the general director of Kentucky Opera, a position he says helped prepare him for his current leadership role at TDO.

Ian Derrer
Ian Derrer delivers his commencement speech at McFarlin Auditorium for Meadows’ class of 2019.

Derrer says he is excited to be back in Dallas, in a city that has changed drastically since his college days.

“When I came back in 2014 I was shocked by the amount of growth in the city in general, but also specifically in the arts district. When I left in 1996, TDO was still at Fair Park and the arts district was basically just the Meyerson Center and this one little purple sign. My mind was blown by the level of development that has happened since then, and the world-class venues we have now.”

In his new position, Derrer says he still relies on skills he picked up as a TDO intern and as a vocal performance student at SMU all those years ago.

“Certainly because of the voice teachers I had at SMU, I really have a great appreciation and keenness to be able to listen for technique in singers,” he says. “But in addition to those musical proficiencies and skills, Meadows really gave me a robust picture of the arts. I loved my history classes. I was able to take orchestral conducting. I loved art history classes, too. My education there helped expand my mind. All of that is enormously helpful in this role.”

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