Katie Dixon as Gretel, Hilary Ginther as Hänsel, with chorus (children from HITS Theatre)

A few weeks ago I stood up at Lambert Hall in the Heights and, along with the rest of the capacity crowd, to give Opera in the Heights artistic director Enrique Carreón-Robledo an enthusiastic ovation. He had just finished conducting a rousing production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s great 19th-century German Romantic opera Hänsel und Gretel, a dream project for him (see above). He had recruited New York director Mary Birnbaum to direct the opera, borrowed an orchestration from the Scottish Opera, and managed to double-cast the lead parts with outstanding young singers.

Although Lambert Hall’s postage stamp–sized stage cramped things a bit, the singers and orchestra delivered an extraordinary performance for an appreciative audience. Houstonia’s opera critic Sydney Boyd ranked the production as the second best of the year, behind only the Houston Grand Opera’s Das Rheingold. (OH’s spring production of Lucia di Lammermoor also made her top five list.) The production seemed like a vindication of Carreón-Robledo’s vision to make OH into a leading regional opera company, with the highest artistic standards. 

Enrique Carreón-Robledo

Apparently, it was not viewed that way by everyone. On Tuesday evening, Carreón-Robledo received a call at his Houston home from Josh Agrons, the vice chair of OH’s Board of Directors. Agrons told him he was fired—the board had decided to take OH in a different direction. In a press release issued yesterday, OH announced the appointment of Eiki Isomura, the orchestra director of Lone Star College–Montgomery, as the interim director. Isomura will lead the final two operas of the season, La Clemenza di Tito and Carmen.

Carreón-Robledo was taken aback by Agrons’s call. Just a few weeks ago he had flown to New York to audition singers for OH’s 2015–16 season. “I guess when you’ve been in this business as many years as I have, it’s hard to be surprised by anything, but I was definitely shocked,” he told me. “Every day with the company I did my absolute best effort with the very limited resources I was given. I never heard anything negative from the board about what I was doing.”

According to board chairman David Douglas, one of the reasons for Carreón-Robledo's firing was his decision to program two operas for this season—Rigoletto and Carmen—that the HGO had mounted just last year. "We had people coming up to us and saying, HGO just put on Carmen last spring," Douglas told me. "Why would we see it again at Opera in the Heights? We didn't have open lines of communication with HGO when we set the repertoire for this season." But Douglas also said that firing Carreón-Robledo was about sending a message. "We needed to go ahead and make a statement to the market that we're changing direction." 

Carreón-Robledo's firing contributes to a sense of turmoil at OH—executive director Lawrence J. Fried quit in August 2013. He was replaced last spring by former special projects manager Stephanie Helms, but only weeks before Helms was scheduled to assume the position two more OH staffers quit. Helms herself was only on the job for a matter of months before she too left the company. Allison Hartzell is the current executive director. 

Before being hired at OH in 2011, the Mexican-born Carreón-Robledo maintained a busy schedule as a freelancer, conducting everywhere from the Ballet du Capitole de Toulouse to the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. He scaled back his travel over the past four years (three years, nine months, and six days, Carreón-Robledo corrected me—he has the exact length memorized), and is now planning to hit the road again, although he’s open to a full-time appointment.

Although he’s heartbroken about being fired, Carreón-Robledo said he’s proud of the work he did at OH. “From where I stand, it was a very fruitful four years. I’m very satisfied with the artistic results we achieved. And if Hänsel und Gretel had to be my swan song, I can’t think of a better way to go out.” 

 

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