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:; 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" 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