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.