Tuesday, November 20, 2007

All I can say is WOW!

While KK is on the road for the Studio audition tour, I am stepping in as a guest host. I am the marketing coordinator for HGO, and all I can say is WOW!

As you have all heard by now, November 10 was, as KK mentioned in an earlier post, a life-changing day. Both performances of The Refuge were amazing, and the coverage it received was phenomenal. We made the FRONT PAGE (above the fold!) of the Houston Chronicle, and the front page of the Arts section in the New York Times. Charles Ward with the Houston Chronicle gave a fabulous review of the performance, stating "Overall, the production was first-class..." The Houston Chronicle published an editorial, and the evening performance was broadcast LIVE on KUHF 88.7 FM.

As I said, the coverage was phenomenal. It was also seen or heard on the following: Radio Saigon, Saigon Houston, Chronicle Vietnamese community paper, Our Texas Russian press, South Plains Public Radio (Lubbock), The Star Telegram (Fort Worth), WOAI TV San Antonio, KXAN Austin, Fox TV Houston, KPFT Radio Houston, KSWO Wichita Falls, and Austin American Statesman.

If you missed The Refuge, or if you want to see it again, I hope you will join us in May, when HGO performs it at Miller Outdoor Theatre. In the meantime, I have included some beautiful pictures taken by Janice Rubin at the dress rehearsal for your enjoyment. Oh, I almost forgot! Here are a few video clips from the dress rehearsal as well. Enjoy!

Video Clip 1
Video Clip 2
Video Clip 3

Photos © 2006 Janice Rubin

Sunday, November 11, 2007


We did it yesterday, twice. I don't even know what or how to write about it yet, so I'll leave you here with a picture taken from stage left of HGO's dedicated, skilled, generous performers. Thanks, everybody, for a life-changing day.

Off to Indianapolis today to begin the Studio audition tour. I'll be posting from the road, and hopefully linking you to much more REFUGE photography and reviews.

Till then...

Friday, November 9, 2007

In da house

Da opera house, yo.

Wednesday night was one of the most nervous nights I've ever experienced in an opera house: the piano tech of REFUGE. "Piano" means that we have a pianist (the indestructable DH) instead of the orchestra, "tech" because it's a technical rehearsal where we stop to fix any problems with lights, sound, spacing, etc. We use a piano at such rehearsals because it's easier (and cheaper!) to stop and start with one musician than with dozens. Piano techs are always our first rehearsals in the theater. Piano techs for a world premiere are more challenging because of the number of unanswered questions in a brand-new piece. And a piano tech for a world premiere that involves several dozen musicians who have never been in the theater before...wow. The prospect of putting the piece together musically was already monumental. Now add to that the task of caring for a large group of people so that they don't get lost, don't get hurt, have everything they need, feel welcome, get warmups, get to stage on time...
Oh, and did I mention that this was the one rehearsal in which everyone except the soloists received their staging directions? Madness. We got through all of the transitions -
(example: at the end of the first movement, the entire chorus, childrens' chorus, African chorus, and all six soloists are onstage. In the silence between that and the next movement, the guest dan bau player must enter with her instrument, soloists must exit and re-enter with chair and stand for her, the children must exit, the chorus must sit, the lighting has to change, and new projections must come up onto the five screens suspended over the stage. Ok...go.)
-but I thought that no one would ever remember the huge amount of information they had received. The kids were practically asleep on their feet by the time we ended at 11:30. Our intrepid and passionate director and assistant director, ES and LD, after four hours of brilliance, were exhausted. Our dress rehearsal was less than 24 hours away.
And, although as SB says, "there is not enough coffee in the world this morning", I am proud and ecstatic to report that last night's dress went beautifully. Problem-free? No, but surprisingly so: we made it from beginning to end with only one major stop. Think of it! This was the orchestra's third time through the piece, and the first run-through without stopping ever for anyone involved, and we made it! We regularly experience the whole works that we put together as being much more than the sum of their parts, and that was more true than ever at this rehearsal.
But, oh, what glorious parts:
- the joyous tenor soloist who opens the show, the dramatic work of the HGO chorus in "Africa: and the whole stage coming together for the final anthem in that movement
- The gorgeous love story of Vietnam with RM and FS, and the Vietnamese national anthem accompanied by the orchestra humming harmonies
- our orchestra rocking out on "Mexico", and the huge heart of the Sacred Heart choir
- the unearthly combination of our Quwali soloist with JB, and the ravishing duet of sitar and AS
- our amazing men, BG, LB, and RM, in the "Soviet" movement
- RC bringing down the house in "Central America", and our combined forces lifting everyone back up in the finale.
Nothing like this has ever happened before...and it happens twice tomorrow in our house. Thanks, everybody.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Rolling with it

This past weekend saw the last two community evenings for THE REFUGE, and took us from India to Africa, from an enormous outdoor festival to an intimate restaurant gathering, and threw us into one unexpected situation after another. For example, did you know that on Sunday evening there was a traditional Hindu Diwali festival...in Sugarland, Texas? To me this was a surprise, only because I'm still ignorant about my new home. To the SEVEN THOUSAND people who showed up, clearly, there was no surprise. The mayor of Sugarland was rocking some traditional Indian garb as he welcomed us, but even he was eclipsed by the sheer charisma of the evening's host, Sunil, who has the star power of Elvis. There was traditional Indian dance and music all night (and food!), and in the middle of it, the Houston Grand Opera...

FS and LB are sharing a mic because - well, there were multiple sound challenges to be faced. It's not like the opera has ever been to the Diwali festival, so there were a lot of unknowns. But the crowd response was good. I took this picture from a site with many other good pics of the dancing and some amusing commentary about our performance: "For some reason, the Houston Grand Opera showed up..."! But he then goes on to write something that shows he was listening, so we engaged people even though we were an unexpected presence. And that's been true throughout the community evenings - we've heard over and over again that this is the first time the opera has ever been around in these venues, with these audiences. We've been greeted with such kindness everywhere. Houston is an incredible collection of communities.

Monday night was at Shanae's Place, and featured the amazing group called Gifted and Talented who will be performing with us on Saturday. The Houston Chronicle has published a piece that tells some of this family's inspiring, dramatic story here. Our oratorio begins with their voices lifted in song. On Monday night, their impossibly gifted young singer and pianist PC was jamming on an upright piano with DH, and they sang for us and with us.

Even for those of us who have grown up in relative prosperity (and by world standards, unimaginable prosperity), music can be a release, a search into light and dark places, a prayer, and a way of giving thanks. "You're not gonna take away pain with money", sings the soprano soloist in one movement of the REFUGE, and indeed the comforts of American life don't lessen our need for what art can teach us. But what further importance does music take on in the lives of people such as the Mukeles, people whose very lives have been materially ripped apart and put back together again?
The Chron has published another terrific piece on this project (thanks!) which you can read
To all of our community performers and hosts - our most sincere gratitude and admiration.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

dia de los muertos


I was raised in the frozen north. Lake Wobegon, you betcha, Da Vikes and da cheeseheads, the whole nine yards. The colors and open expressions of Texas amaze me on a daily basis. It's a long-standing stereotype that warmer temperatures engender warmer emotions and more creative language is born under bluer skies. Evidence to support these ideas is all around us in Houston, never more so than at a Day of the Dead festival. We went to the Lawndale Art Center on Saturday to perform "Mexico" from THE REFUGE, and did so among an incredible display of local art. We were surrounded on all sides by gorgeous retablos - these are home altars made to venerate any one of the endless saints. This folk art form flourished in the nineteenth century but is still practiced in styles colorful, allegorical, whimsical, spiritual. Little altars everywhere, we set up to sing.

Friday evening, I was at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston with two Studio singers (the glorious MM and RC). We're collaborating with MFAH for their First Fridays series, when we are their guests to sing for half an hour (it happened last in September). Since we're a week away from the REFUGE, RC sang her enormous solo movement, "Central America." The other movements of the oratorio combine the stories of many people, but this one is the harrowing tale of one woman who risks everything to come here from El Salvador - and fails. We wanted to give RC the chance to get it on its feet, for it's a tour-de-force in every way. Divorced from the rest of the piece, however, it's pretty rough emotional going. Our audience leapt to its feet when we were finished. Great! And then a man stopped me in the foyer. His hands were stretched out before him, palms facing me, as though he was ordering me to step back, and he was shaking his head. "You can't do music like this," he said, "You can't. I come to the opera to be uplifted. Music is supposed to make you feel better. I don't want to hear something this relentless. You can't do this to people."

On the one hand, as I listened, I thought, excellent, it's powerful, he really got it. I mean, he wasn't happy about the experience, but he had a real experience, moved well beyond his zone of comfort. On the other hand, it was frustrating. Music supposed to make you feel better? But the classical industry has been telling people for a generation that we're like salve, therapy, chamomile tea. Relaxing music for your commute! Classics to soothe! Mozart to make you smarter! The upset gentleman had totally internalized the message that classical music was a protection and escape from the dangers and terrors of the world, and didn't want to hear those things expressed through classical music's language. Yikes. Dia de los muertos.


So back to Lawndale. We're with DH and ER, as usual, Studio soloist AS, and six terrific soloists from the University of Houston. There was no way we could schedule singers from the HGO chorus to do this performance (they're still involved in an opera or two), so we reached out to UH for a sextet to take over the very complex choral parts of this movement. Kudos to them all for their professionalism and hard work, and for an excellent performance.

In this movement, the solo soprano sings the words of an interviewee: "Sometimes I think it would be better to stay behind with your kids...you're not going to take away pain with money." It's a stark moment of contrast with the essentially joyous feeling of the choral sections, and it adds real pungency to have these words arguing against immigration, against that kind of risk, in the middle of a work that celebrates it. Another twist: these words are sung by AS, a young woman who is herself a transplant from another country, in Houston to hone her craft as a singer, to give herself a chance at a rare and fantastic life.

One story of risk that ends in failure, another of a success passage tinged with doubt over the real rewards of the risk involved, artists at crossroads, little altars everywhere. Upstairs at Lawndale, we look at Day of the Dead works by Houston highschoolers: Superman as a skeleton, a retablo venerating Jimi Hendrix, an altar to a dead father made of ramen noodle packets and his favorite CDs. Downstairs adults and children make sugar skulls. Brilliant colors and music and dance celebrate the dead, the living, the saints, all here in one room together...I would say it's just like at the opera house, but isn't that obvious?

DC and AS with their skulls, Drop dead gorgeous.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I've related a few stories to you about the REFUGE-related community events we've participated in. Re-reading them, I see that I've emphasized the positive (what a weak word - try life-changing) aspects of bringing musics of different cultures together. It has been positive, amazing, unexpected, dramatic. And also awkward, full of occasions to unintentionally cause misunderstanding and insult, and downright scary.

At the end of "Vietnam", the second movement of the piece, our bass-baritone sings the Vietnamese national anthem. That's not been sung since 1975. We had no idea how people would react to it. I talked in an earlier post about the tricky task of singing the stories of the interviewees for this piece. One of our Vietnamese subjects had sung the national anthem in his interview; he was talking about singing it secretly with his fellow inmates in a North Vietnamese prison camp. Our composer and librettist understandably included that proud, unbearable moment in the piece. But one Vietnamese man's pride could be another's poison. How would other people from that place react to hearing the anthem - and react to it sung by representatives of a nation so deeply involved in the war that divided Vietnam?

These are enormous questions. And, in the moment of performance, their burden lies most heavily on the shoulders of the performers. The words and the voices that will move the audience are coming out of individuals who can then end up being the focus of the listeners' forceful emotion. The stories they are telling are not the performers', that's what we've been saying. Except now we know that, in the moment of performance, the stories do belong to the performers.

RM, FS, BG, and DH ended up the focus of forceful positive emotion at the Vietnamese event. But there have been moments all along that felt like potential powderkegs. There's a text in the Pakistani movement where the interviewee speaks of feeling a lack of religious freedom in Pakistan. When we first rehearsed this movement with our guest Quwali singer (Ali, who is incredibly skilled and gifted), he became very concerned at this and about the reaction it might get. Now, the text in question came from a Pakistani man, but in the piece it's placed in the mouth of a mezzo - JB happens to be the young white daughter of Harley-riding Georgians. When she sings that text, it is hers in that moment. All went well at the Pakistan-American Community Center when we performed the movement, but there was a lot of anxiety about that text.

Misunderstanding has flowed the other way. A fair amount of humor has arisen during the preparation and rehearsal of this piece. Theater folk understand that tension is diffused in this way, both tension over the amount of work involved and tension over the subject matter. And theater folk can also be monumentally blind to the fact that not everyone is part of their world. We've had to put out a few fires when someone joking about a text setting or a line set in an awkward vocal way has been perceived by someone as joking about the story.

Beyond this is the simple burden of singing about unbearable, harrowing experiences. Not all of the REFUGE deals with these - the piece has humor, lightness, joy. But some of the stories are beyond description in their horror and grief. Every performer must learn to deal with emotion, singers especially; they must learn to draw on their emotions without letting their throats close in response. But even the most harrowing operas I know tend to deal with subjects like murder, rape, or abuse in a stylized way. THE REFUGE simply puts those words out there. It doesn't portray rape or murder, it speaks of those things. There's no veil of character for the singers to wear. Indeed, they realized quickly that "character" was not the right approach. RC and I talked about this a lot - she has the task of singing an 11-minute tour-de-force that tells the story of a woman who walked from El Salvador to Houston. It would be one thing to "play" that woman, a la LA VOIX HUMAINE or ERWARTUNG, but that's not the piece, and not the way to honor this real, living woman and her experiences. So RC's job is just to say the story, which is almost literally unspeakable. In fact, the woman who told it spoke parts of it for the first time ever to our interviewer.

And so our singers deal with discomfort and terror, in the face of people who have experienced things they cannot imagine. And in the course of singing the words, they do imagine these things, they must. But none of the singers mistakes imagining for experience. They are all heavily aware of the responsibility they bear. This is completely new territory.

In writing the above, I realize that I'm speaking about the experiences of people I know. I don't know everyone in the project equally well. I can't say that none of our singers, soloists and chorus, have ever experienced events as shocking and terrifying as the ones in the libretto. If so, what is this piece like for them? Wrenching? Liberating? And again, why does this piece engender these questions, when WOZZECK or WAR AND PEACE never would?

I'm saying a lot and having trouble finding what it is I'm trying to say. All of this comes after the events of the weekend, and after reading a beautiful unrelated blogpost by nick, so honest, and also this by yankeediva: two friends musing on the nature of what we do and why we do it. I've just re-read both posts and am no closer to an elegant wrapup of my own.

A few days ago I wrote about how much classical musicians and listeners love knowing what to expect. Our technique arms us as we set ourselves against the storm of this performance, this life. Even new pieces contain familiar gestures, familiar forms. Rarely, if ever, will we have the task, the opportunity, of taking on so much that we do not understand and cannot predict in the course of preparing familiar gestures and forms for public performance.

We get into the whole business of performing to express something. It's usually personal at first, and can grow into something more universal. How amazing, then, to be confronted in one piece by so much human experience, and to suddenly see it all around you, where it always has been, where it always is. It's an enormous task just to stay open enough to take it all in.

The very techniques, the very forms musicians have learned as vehicles for expression, can then become the places where they hide. Their refuge.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

angle of repose

It's 2 PM on a beautiful Saturday. The Texas sky in October and November is something to behold, blue as a robin's egg; when it's cloudless and filled with sunshine, it's one of the prettiest sights I know.

We opened FILLE DU REGIMENT last night to standing ovations. How gratifying to have our first pair of operas up and running, to hear our chorus and orchestra making such beautiful music, to hear and see our varied, skilled, unique soloists. All sorts of work behind us now, with all the requisite celebration.

THE REFUGE is kicking into high gear, however. Coming up in the next ten days are performances of individual movements of the piece in five different community venues, including a gallery, a huge outdoor stage, and a restaurant the size of my hometown high school. We'll hear traditional Vietnamese string players, sitars, tabla, African choirs, mariachis, and they will hear us.

As they travel around Houston for those REFUGE nights, the Studio is also
beginning to coach the repertoire they'll sing for a staged concert of opera scenes in December. They're auditioning for visiting guests. An acting coach has been in town working with them for the past week, and a celebrated soprano will arrive in a few weeks to do a master class. Our library is consolidating the scores of two premieres the company will do in the next year and a half, and distributing music as it arrives. The guest conductors of our winter operas are in contact about details for the orchestra parts. The music staff is preparing to, well, prepare it all.

Tonight is BALLO again at the opera house. I'll be sitting a few miles away listening to the Houston Chamber Choir. Two reasons - first, a love of choral music that goes back to my roots in Minnesota (where people still sing in church!). Second, a reminder to myself that it's important to sometimes just be a listener. Some other group of people agonized over every detail, logistical and musical, of tonight's choir concert. I will have the privilege, the sheer luxury, of coming to take it all in.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bringing it

You are viewing the back of David Hanlon and the front of Evan Rogister, our line of first defense in the musical preparation of THE REFUGE. Here we were rehearsing the movement described in an earlier post, which we have since performed for a community group - this has happened with one other movement as well. David has been diligent in teaching this score to our Studio soloists, and together with Evan, to the musicians in our community who are participating. They are our resident experts on how to mic a sitar, how to balance a singer and a dan bau, and how to pronounce an anthem in Congolese. We would be hard pressed to do this work without them.

I write this in haste before running downstairs to the dress rehearsal of FILLE DU REGIMENT. This week will see auditions (Studio singers singing for agents and general directors of other companies), casting meetings, the beginnings of another large program, and another community performance of part of the REFUGE. In short, everything we've been preparing for is beginning to happen. We're bringing it - and the preparations for things two and three months down the road have begun.

We also welcome for the first time today our friends from the San Francisco Opera, who are holding auditions for their training program here. They'll audition in other cities too, as will we in their city in just a few weeks. We're all looking ahead to next summer and next year, checking on the progress of talented singers around the country, dreaming up what might come next...

...all while the daily work continues, I remind myself as I hear the orchestra tuning over my office monitor. Time to go!

More catch-up: Opening Night

In my frenzy to catch up with my posting, I have neglected to mention the fantastic photographer who has contributed to the last few entries. Eric Melear is on our music staff: pianist, conductor, coach, and intrepid lensman, he's a truly multitalented person. He captured the beautiful image above at one of our last BALLO rehearsals: Tammy Wilson, in perfect light, ready to go on as Amelia. "I literally dropped everything when I saw that light," Eric told me. I know the feeling - moments like the one above are so brief. Before you know it, that door has opened, and a person/career/life/opera has moved into something new.

The slow and "unsexy" (as one of my colleagues, SB, terms it) work that I've been describing does add up, and then one of those doors can suddenly open. Life in the Studio is a rollercoaster that shuttles musicians between the incredibly mundane and the unbelievably dramatic. This year, the 30th anniversary of our program, will see quite a few dramatic steps forward, with Studio members stepping into starring roles. It can be a very strange things for the artists involved - being required to show up for language class, for example, and then walking into the leading lady's or gentleman's dressing room. And when to launch a developing talent is always a big question, one to which there is no single answer.

Opening night was joyous for me as one of the Studio's mentors, but it was also fascinating for me as a musician and a lover of opera. A story unfolded on our stage, sung by musicians at various stages of their musical lives, some right at the start, some just hitting their stride and some well into their prime. That combination sounded like real life to me.

The photo in this post speaks romantically of a new beginning, but I hope it also speaks to you of your experience in the theater. What happens when you open that door and walk through?

More catch-up: Bayan on the Bayou

HGO's home, the Wortham (for those of you not familiar with H-town), sits right on Buffalo Bayou. This was a matter of considerable interest to me when I came here from New York last year. I thought I had come across all manner of remarkable creature in Manhattan (including one memorable and intensely brave rat on the 168th Street A train platform), but nothing prepared me for the alligators. Seriously. After a good rain, you can sometimes enjoy the antics of a gator or two in the temporarily flooded park across the street from the opera house, all within sight of the freeway. Gators one moment, Verdi the next: not a combination I had ever expected.

I've thought about this a lot. We in classical music are used to being able to expect things. We traffic in known styles, known traditions. Many of us, and many of our fans, treasure this dearly. One colleague of mine, attending a punk jazz show with me several years ago, turned to me at one point and asked, "But how do they know if what they're playing is RIGHT?" Being right is important to us, and indeed every virtuoso builds a technique that will enable them to be both fearless and unerring.

Enter THE REFUGE. Have I mentioned THE REFUGE?

As we entered the week of our opening night, we also started to rehearse with some of the community musicians who will be taking part in THE REFUGE, and we found ourselves increasingly more overwhelmed at the scope and meaning of this work. Pictured above is Vadim, our bayan player. Along with Ryan McKinny, Liam Bonner, and Beau Gibson, he was rehearsing his movement of the piece for the first time. That movement tells the story of several refugees from Soviet Russia, all of whom encountered prejudice and violence as Jews.

Our soloists had been talking a lot about the daunting task of delivering the text of this piece. What is the greater meaning to us or to our audience of our young, white, mostly American soloists delivering the stories and words of people who have been oppressed, disadvantaged, disenfranchised? There are many operas that deal with individual, societal, or political violence, but it's very different to deliver the words of people who are living, who are right in your audience. Or onstage with you.

As it turns out, one of those stories is Vadim's. It all comes home.

Trying to be right, an opera house in a swamp, combinations we never expected.

Catchup, part 2

It's good to be the king!!

In the last scene of BALLO, the king has invited his court to a masked ball. In our production, everyone at that ball is dressed as the king. It is, in a word, postmodern - in another word, cool.

While our chorus resides in AwesomeLand (when not becaped for Verdi, they are singing precise French and marching about in FILLE DU REGIMENT rehearsals), work continues apace on THE REFUGE back in the Studio. The week is full of an interesting conjunction of the sorts of assignments that can come the Studio's way: two singers are away at a patron's ranch for an important event, one is in New York singing a recital, four are singing Brahms quartets for a Houston-based ballet performance. Three are in BALLO, two are in FILLE, and the music staff is running interference in between all of these activities, sometimes coaching, sometimes practicing, sometimes performing. At this moment, a brand new and technically difficult work like THE REFUGE feels like quite a burden. It's long, it's difficult, and it's really hard to sing - and for people who have all this other performing to do, it feels like a burden and a compromise. It especially feels so confined to the practice room - but that's the slow and steady work I referenced a couple of posts ago. When you're shuttling between the stage and the practice room, the practice room can feel so small. That's where we are. Patrons and recital lovers stand up to applaud us one night, we lurch with a huge opera toward completion the next - and after it all, we head back to the practice room for more slow, unspectacular work. Those kingly robes feel mighty pretend at times.

And so the Daddy Tomato said...

Props to anyone who gets the Pulp Fiction reference.

Um...hi there. Remember me? I think the last thing I wrote here had to do with slow and steady work. Well, nearly a month has gone by, filled with said work, certainly steady but rarely slow. Let me try to catch you all up on some of it! Opening night of our season is past, our second production is set to fly, and THE REFUGE advances (seriously, Mahler 8 seems like an afternoon runout gig in a cafetorium compared to this piece)...well, take your shoes off, stay a while.

Back around that last post, we had just started rehearsing Verdi's UN BALLO IN MASCHERA. Fabulous mid-Verdi goodness: betrayal, loyalty, misunderstanding, amor, more amor, death, forgiveness. Big choruses, glorious orchestra, glamorous and amazing soloists. But now I'm speaking of opening night, and in this blog we're not there yet. You see under the green hat in the picture the grin of our leading lady. Tammy wears Ryan's chapeau in one moment, but in a few weeks that hat will be worn by a conspirator who wants to take the life of that same lady's lover, and we'll all be drawn into that tragedy. I never get tired of this transformation.

The last week in September sees our BALLO cast rehearsing together, while elsewhere in the opera house...
-the High School voice students begin their lessons, and Opera To Go gets going.
-the Studio singers have voice lessons and coach; a few are in BALLO, others prepare for FILLE, one is preparing a New York City debut recital, another prepares a huge all-Russian program for Houston, and two others are away on important jobs.
-A recital program featuring Studio singers happens at an art museum in Houston.
-Our REFUGE coach and I are working with the Studio soloists on this oratorio, but also attending Congolese and Spanish church services and working with a group of singers from The University of Houston as we prepare this piece. Sue Elliot, our Special Projects Coordinator, is also talking to specialists in Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, and Russian music and securing their participation in this piece.
-and...writing this several weeks down the pike? None of us have ANY idea of what lies ahead.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Refuge

The Refuge is an exciting new work which tells the stories of people from Houston's African, Central American, Russian Jewish, Mexican, and Vietnamese immigrant communities. The Refuge will unite performers from these communities with HGO Chorus, Children's Chorus and Orchestra in a true song of Houston, all under the baton of HGO's music director, Patrick Summers. Commissioned by HGO and composed by Christopher Theofanidis and with a libretto by Leah Lax.

The Refuge - World Premiere!
November 10, 2007 - 7:30 PM
One Performance Only

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Slow and steady

I can't imagine how much effort it would have taken most of us in the last week to remain completely unaware of the fact that Britney Spears was having some trouble. One week without turning on the TV, accessing the Internet, standing in line at the grocery store, or speaking to other humans...I guess would be possible if you were incredibly organized...

We've started another season of watching (and helping) the artists of the Studio develop. Some days, they take major steps; already, in just the last few weeks, one artist made a role debut with a major US company to wonderful acclaim, and another signed with a prominent agency. Most of the steps we see are smaller, daily steps: steady technical improvements, a new emotional risk in a song or aria, a more beautiful connection with language or poetry.

What does this have to do with Ms. Spears?

Already I see that the Studio artists are growing up in a totally different world than the one I knew. When I got out of San Francisco's Merola program in 1992, I went off on several national tours with Western Opera Theater, which was one of several national touring opera companies. I conducted my first Bohemes on that tour, in Midland, Texas. The singers in our company got to perform their roles a dozen times or more, in small venues across the country. It was safe, off the radar; you could take risks, make mistakes. HGO's music director Patrick Summers, also a WOT veteran, has written a beautiful article about the defunct tour which you can read here: http://www.sfcv.org/main/mainarchives/main_4_1_03.php; it's well worth the read.

There is no "off the radar" anymore. That's the curse that comes along with all the blessings of our technology. Music of all genres is available at a click, and beautiful sound clips of most singers are available on their own websites. I can begin writing this blog inspired by the amazing blogs of other musicians (Alex Ross, Kim Witman, Jeremy Denk, Joyce DiDonato - also well worth your time!). But along with all that access comes...well, constant access. At its extreme is the kind of access that everyone of us has to someone like Britney Spears, when without even trying we know intimate details of her life. Opera singers, in general, don't end up on the covers of US or PEOPLE. But how do you train - the kind of slow, daily progress I was talking about - when everything you do is potentially accessible?

There's a more disturbing part of this. Back to Britney, and the number of people who tuned into the VMAs knowing she would be a mess - hoping she would be a mess. How do we train up artists who will be brave enough to take chances, challenge assumptions, and keep our beautiful art form alive, in a culture that enjoys watching failure?

These questions are on my mind as we get ready to start rehearsing our fall repertoire. More slow, steady, daily work.

Monday, September 10, 2007

I believe it's the Spice of Life.

Every holiday, there's at least one relative who's bound to look me doubtfully in the eye and say, "so...what exactly is it that you....do?" I know every coach/accompanist/cover conductor/prompter/large ensemble musical assistant of any kind knows that question and the feeling that ensues.

Well, these are some of the things that have happened since my introductory post. Each of these events requres a pianist, preparation time, a room to be scheduled, a tuned piano...multiple events happen just to make the following list possible.

(Monday and Tuesday: voice lessons for each Studio singer).

Tuesday: chorus music for BALLO, sixth floor of the Wortham. Men arrive from all over the city: students, working guys, new parents. Men who are making it as freelance musicans, and men who give us some of their precious time away from a 40-hour-per-week job. Maestro Richard Bado has them sitting in a circle, intoning Verdi's music on spoken counts: "and one and two-ee-and-a..." Setting aside for one moment text and expression, the chorus internalizes the rhythm that will keep them performing as a unit no matter how much or how wildly they are asked to move onstage.

(Wednesday and Thursday: Studio rehearsals with pianists. How close to memorized am I for this small part in the first opera? What about that recital next month? There's a patron event that needs a duet. I have to sing an audition in New York this week, can I learn this music in time?)

Thursday: all the Studio singers and pianists perform for the senior administration for the first time. Audition clothes, headshots, resumes. General Director Anthony Freud and Artistic Administrator Diane Zola choose arias, and everyone makes their first impression. It's a strong afternoon, well done on all counts.

(Friday and Saturday: learning solo parts in THE REFUGE. An original and a revised version are haunting the building - is everyone's music up to date? Difficult rhythms get taken apart, scores are compared. David Hanlon, the principal coach, keeps a list of questions for the composer).

Friday: a recital at the Museum of Fine Arts. Two of the Studio singers brought Duparc and Schubert into a large, solemn space with the resonance of a thousand bathtubs. A crowd of several hundred people dampened the acoustic to cathedral proportions, It was our first time in this space for this crowd, and a success. I was worried that our program was too serious, but the space demands serious performance and concentration, it was designed for that.

(Saturday: children's chorus auditions. Highlights include a six-year-old with beautiful pitch and absolute confidence and a nine-year old who announced, just as the piano introduction to his piece was fading: "I never agreed to this! It was my mom's idea!")

Sunday: Special Projects coordinator Susan Elliott, David Hanlon, and I visit a church, searching for African singers to be part of one of the REFUGE movements. This group meets in a motel on the Southwest highway, in a room redolant with ancient cigarette smoke down the hall form the karaoke bar. There are sixty people. The pastor has the tenor voice of a strong and carefree angel, and every voice is lifted in the call and response. One impossibly talented teenage boy is the de facto music director, running synthesizers, calling out instructions. While the eldest members of his group converse only in Swahili, and their children in Swahili, French, and English, this young man has copied every move of 'N'Sync, and even performs a Christian rap in English over one of the choir's African songs.

The next time you ask a musician "What is it exactly that you do?", be patient when she hesitates in answering. It's complicated...and wonderful.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Telling Stories


It is my pleasure to welcome you to the Houston Grand Opera, and to our new blogsite. I'll be your host here, with plenty of colleagues and guests taking part in telling our story - or, more accurately, stories. There are hundreds of people working in dozens of departments to make our season happen, each with his or her own significant tale. One of the major events of our year, in fact, revolves around a mosaic of stories. There's much to tell.

For us, everything starts with the music, the great repertoire that exists and is still being created. I'm HGO's Head of Music Staff. My days involve work with our conductors, directors, pianists, and coaches, liaison with our choruses and orchestra, contact with our library, and meetings with staff from all departments. Most rewarding of all, I'm heavily involved with the daily work of the HGO Studio members, singers and pianists who are taking their first steps - and leaps - onto our stages, under our guidance. This is a remarkable vantage point from which to watch our season take shape.

Yesterday was a beginning for the Studio as we all returned from our summer activities. We met with the Studio Program Director, Hector Vasquez, and our Program Coordinator, Rubena Buerger, and began planning and preparing for the year ahead. It was so good to hear everyone. I've missed these gifted musicians, and am thrilled at our new arrivals. This year will see these people in major roles, supporting roles, in recital, in competitions, and away at other companies.

Our first day was merely the continuation of work for most of HGO's people. Our chorus has been at work for a week, learning the complex and beautiful music of UN BALLO IN MASCHERA under maestro Richard Bado's guidance. Our marketing and development departments are catching their collective breath after a successful open house last week (and a hugely successful new subscription campaign over the summer). Senior staff members have been all over the world taking in productions, hearing singers, and continuing the constant work of planning for the future.

Woven through all of this is HGOco, our company's innovative revamping of education and outreach. This initiative is ambitious, challenging, risky, and totally exciting, and its first project will consume our collective energy this fall. HGOco's stated goal is to unite our community through art, and THE REFUGE meets that goal head-on. It's an oratorio that tells the story of Houston through narratives collected from the city's diverse immigrant populations. It's a massive work for orchestra, chorus, soloists, and community musicians. This is going to stretch us all in ways we've not experienced. The soloists, for example, are from the Studio. We have a good idea of how to teach challenging new music to skilled singers. A world premiere, even a piece on such a large scale, is something of which HGO's people have deep experience. But now we have a chance to meet and work with musicians from other traditions, in musical idioms we haven't all practiced. Our composer, Christopher Theofanidis, has skillfully written music that goes from the florid style of Indian singing to African-tinged call and response to hard-driving, complex Latin rhythms. Another challenge lies in the stories themselves, which are by turn wrenching, brave, desperate, good-humored, angry, and hopeful. The people from whom these stories come deserve our honor, and our best musical performance; the responsibility is great.

All of this and we're not yet past Labor Day! Tuesday morning will bring the first voice lessons and coachings. Singers and pianists will work to put one note together with the next, striving for beauty and consistency, all in the service of telling stories old and new. I hope you'll meet us here often in the coming weeks!

Thanks for reading.

Kathy Kelly

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Welcome to HGO's blog

We are in the process of creating a brand new blog for Houston Grand Opera, which will be available soon. Please subscribe to this blog and continue to check back for information on our extraordinary 2007/2008 season, the HGO Studio, podcasts, events and more!

For information on our 2007/2008 Season visit our website at www.HoustonGrandOpera.org.