HOUSTON GRAND OPERA
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HOUSTON GRAND OPERA. The Houston Grand Opera Association was incorporated in August 1955 as Houston's first permanent opera company. Its general director and conductor was Walter Herbert, a native of Germany, who had been instrumental in founding the New Orleans Opera in 1943. With the support of Edward Bing, a local opera singer and teacher, Mrs. Louis G. Lobit, and Charles Cockrell Jr., the opera was chartered by the Texas secretary of state with a board of directors, general manager, and conductor.
The first performances of the new company, in January 1956, were productions of Richard Strauss's Salome and Puccini's Madame Butterfly, staged in the Music Hall. Walter Herbert remained general director of the company through the 1971–72 season and made substantial contributions. Although he labored under severe financial limitations, he gave Houston good, occasionally superb, opera. Owing to the tastes of the Houston audiences, Herbert's repertory remained conservative, although he did occasionally present more adventurous operas such as Hans Werne Henze's Young Lord. Herbert also brought black artists to Houston to assume leading roles. He wanted to bring opera to as many people as possible and established opera workshops to give instruction in all phases of opera production; these resulted in some unusual summer productions. He also worked with theater groups in Houston to produce opera in a variety of settings.
As early as 1965 Herbert was named artistic director of the San Diego Opera. At first, he held the positions at San Diego and Houston simultaneously, but later became increasingly involved in the San Diego company. In 1969–70 he became full-time artistic director and conductor of the San Diego opera, sharing his Houston duties with his assistant, Charles Rosenkrans. During Herbert's years the Houston Grand Opera encountered considerable financial difficulties. It experienced a particularly difficult season in 1959–60 as a result of the failure of a maintenance fund drive.
Gradually, however, the Houston opera's financial stability improved; these improvements coincided with the work of David Gockley, who was hired in 1970 as business manager and promoted in 1972 to general director of the company. Due to Gockley's imaginative leadership, the growing sophistication of opera audiences, and booming financial support for the arts due to Houston's emergence as a petroleum center, the Houston Grand Opera rose to national and international prominence. By 1981 the company operated on an extremely sound financial basis. Its success was aided by gifts of corporations such as Armco Steel, Atlantic Richfield, Shell, and United Energy Resources. During the 1978–79 season Tenneco gave generously to the Houston Grand Opera, making it possible to tape the productions so that they might be heard coast-to-coast on the radio, as the New York Metropolitan and Chicago Lyric companies are heard.
Dating from the beginning of his association with the Houston company, Gockley showed a total commitment to opera, but opera as broadly defined. He aimed to present different kinds of opera to a diversified audience, in his own words combating "the image of opera as a medium for only the wealthy and elite." Under his direction the company expanded its repertory to include the less familiar works ranging from the Baroque era to the twentieth century. The company also encouraged contemporary opera and has staged several world and American premieres: Thomas Pasatieri's The Seagull (1974), Carlisle Floyd's Bilby's Doll (1976) and Willie Stark (1981), Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place (1987), and Philip Glass's Akhnaten (1984). In 1990, with a $1 million grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Houston Grand Opera expanded its commitment to contemporary music theater with the formation of a ground-breaking new program, Opera New World. Opera New World is HGO's ongoing program to commission and produce new music theater works that hold appeal for audiences who may have felt culturally, socially or economically removed from the traditional American opera audience.
Although consistently giving opportunities to young singers, Gockley increasingly brought in major talents from around the world. There have been a number of important opera stars associated with the Houston Grand Opera. Particularly important is Beverly Sills, whose relationship with the Houston company predated her international career. Sills appeared several times with the Houston Grand Opera in the leading roles of Donizetti operas such as Don Pasquale, the Daughter of the Regiment, and Lucrezia Borgia. Also, Marilyn Horne appeared in the title role of Handel's Rinaldo, a part with which she is often associated, and Jon Vickers appeared in the title role of Britten's Peter Grimes. In addition to these performances, a number of internationally-known opera singers have given concerts sponsored by the Houston Grand Opera. These include Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Leontine Price, Mirella Freni, and Renata Scotto. Gockley also engaged leading conductors, stage directors, and costume and set designers as the company's fame has grown.
Each spring at Miller Theater in Hermann Park, Houston Grand Opera gives fully staged performances of operas to the public at no charge. One of these productions, Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, presented in 1975, revealed a delightful American stage work, which went on to a major tour, a run on Broadway, a recording on the Deutsche Grammophon label, and a television program on PBS in 1986. A production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess was also recorded and brought the company its first Tony Award.
Among the more than forty world premiere operas performed by the Houston Grand Opera are José “Pepe” Martínez’s To Cross the Face of the Moon / Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (2010), André Previn’s Brief Encounter (2009), Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata (2005), Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree (2000), Adamo’s Little Women (1998), Steward Wallace and Michael Korie’s Harvey Milk (1995), Noa Ain’s The Outcast (1994), and John Adams and Alice Goodman’s Nixon in China (1987). Nixon in China was performed at the 1988 Edinburgh Festival and won both an Emmy and a Grammy. Houston Grand Opera's Show Boat was performed in Cairo, Egypt, at the Cairo National Culture Centre in 1989, and the 1995–96 production of Porgy and Bess toured Japan. To Cross the Face of the Moon, which HGO performed with the acclaimed Mexican mariachi group Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán in November 2010, marked the first time that opera and mariachi musical forms were united in an opera presentation.
In 1989 the Houston Grand Opera became the second opera company in the United States to establish an archives and resource center. The Grand Opera also established an Education and Outreach Department, which implemented community outreach programs, education programs for children and the general public, and the organization of STARS (Students Through Arts Reaching Success). STARS was formed to interest students in reading and writing and was cited by the Business Committee for the Arts in New York as a model arts education program.
After 1966 the Houston Grand Opera performed in Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts. By 1981 money had been raised for a new facility. The Wortham Theater Center opened in 1987 at a cost of $72 million. The Wortham Center is one of only a few theaters constructed in the United States after World War II with the specific needs of opera in mind. Others include the Metropolitan Opera House, the Kennedy Center Opera House, and Indiana University's Opera Theater.
In 1984 Houston Grand Opera began using surtitles on all foreign language productions, becoming one of the first opera companies in the United States to do so. In 1995 the company began including Spanish-language synopses in its Stagebill program for Wortham Theater Center productions. In the fall of 2000 HGO initiated OperaVision, a “system of plasma and projection screens designed to improve sight lines to the stage for the Balcony and Grand Tier.” OperaVision makes the entire stage visible to the entire audience, and also delivers special close-up shots taken by cameramen and by concealed cameras. During the opera’s 2004–05 season, its fiftieth season, David Gockley resigned as director after thirty-three years with the company.
Anthony Freud became the opera’s third director and its first chief executive officer. Under Freud’s direction, HGO initiated its Song of Houston project—a collaborative effort between the opera company and the community of Houston to, through music, tell the stories of the city. HGO was honored with the prestigious Leading Lights Diversity Award from the National Multi-Cultural Institute in 2010 for its Song of Houston program. Freud left HGO to take the position of general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2011. Patrick Summers, who joined HGO in 1999, served as the artistic and music director, and Perryn Leech was named managing director. The company made plans to produce Wagner's complete Der Ring des Nibelungen in Houston for the first time over the course of four seasons, from 2014 through 2017.
Deborah Fowler, "State of the Arts," Houston Magazine, December 1988. Robert I. Giesberg, Houston Grand Opera: A History (Houston: Grand Opera Guild, 1981). Houston Grand Opera (http://www.houstongrandopera.org), accessed October 18, 2011.