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.