Stephanie Helms followed a long and winding road to her new position as executive director of Opera in the Heights. While she sang in church choirs and loved musical theater growing up in Houston and Las Vegas, she went to Baylor University intent on studying pre-med to eventually become a psychiatrist. Ultimately, she ended up dropping out, moving back to Vegas and getting married. The marriage ended in divorce, and in 2002 Helms came to Houston, where she worked in administration at the University of Houston Law Center before following her boss, Greg Robertson, to Memorial Hermann and eventually to the Houston Grand Opera, where Robertson is now chief development officer.
At HGO Helms was soon promoted to special projects manager and liaison to the general manager and music director, a position in which she did everything from locating passages in musical scores to helping manage day-to-day-operations. Helms left the HGO in 2011 to become director of the National Opera Center in New York City, which provides recital and practice spaces to opera professionals. “New York and I never really fell in love with each other,” she said. “But we’ll always be good friends.”
That’s part of the reason why, when Houston’s Opera in the Heights came calling, Helms not only answered the phone, but moved right on in. Founded in 1996, OH's mission is to bring opera to Houston audiences in an intimate setting—Lambert Hall on Heights Blvd—and at an affordable price: tickets start at $10. The company hosts annual auditions in Houston and New York and prides itself as a place for young artists to launch their careers.
Helms takes over after a bumpy year for the company. Last August, Executive Director Lawrence J. Fried left the organization. Lamar Matthews, a Houston entrepreneur and long-time supporter of OH, stepped in as interim director for the 2013 – 2014 season, and is helping with the transition. In the weeks prior to Helms taking over, two more staff members left OH. Board Chairman David Douglass declined to comment on any of the recent departures.
So, how was your first day at work?
There’s a lot of information to absorb and a lot of things that still need to get done to get ready for our upcoming opening of Lucia di Lammermoor in a few weeks [the classic Donizetti opera runs from March 28 to April 6]. It was a dark day in production, no rehearsals or any of our cast and artists around. So that meant I could focus on the business end. It was a good day. And we’re off. Here we go.
What does it feel like to be home?
It feels right. It feels exciting. This is my home. I was born in Houston, and we moved to Las Vegas when I was 12. But I came back to Texas for college, and then I got married, and I came back again to Houston to work. My family is here. I’m currently staying with my aunt in Clear Lake while my apartment in the Heights is being readied. This feels like home. It feels like it’s supposed to be.
What are your duties going to be as executive director?
I’ll partner with [Artistic Director] Enrique [Carréon-Robledo]. He’ll oversee the artistic vision and I’ll handle the business side: all the finances, marketing, ticket sales, contracts for singers. I’ve so far been working very closely with interim director Lamar Matthews for the end of OH’s season. Going forward, I’ll be looking to develop new subscribers, new donors, and new audiences, while building on the foundation we’ve created over the last 18 years.
You’ve been around opera now for nearly 10 years. But you admit you’re not an opera buff—you told me that you play musicals and sometimes even country music in your office. When was it that opera made you sit up and go, “Wow, this is a big deal.”
There were two moments. The moment I fell in love with opera was in the Founder’s Box at HGO in 2006 for Don Giovanni. [Soprano] Ana María Martínez was singing “In quali...Mi tradi quell'alma ingrata,” Donna Elvira’s aria from Act II, and it’s about how she’s fallen in love with this man who’s a womanizer, who seduced her and left her…but even as she hates him, she realizes she still has feelings of affection. And it really resonated with me and what I was going through at the time. That’s when I fell in love with opera. But the first time it really moved me, I was backstage at HGO for Aida, right near the end, when Radames is being lowered into the tomb. And on stage, all you see is him. But backstage, there was an army: there were 80 chorus members, 40 crew members, the stage managers, the cast was lining up in the wings because it was right before bows, management was there. And it hit me that everyone involved—the front of house staff, the development team waiting in the green room for the after-party—was coming together to create this thing that was bigger than ourselves. And I love that feeling. It was this moment where I said, “these are my people.” And it’s become a metaphor for me. I know as I go through my life, I have this great cast of people around me who help me craft my story.
So what story do you feel you want to tell about OH? What makes it special?
Its sense of community and collaboration. When I was interviewing for this position, I attended OH’s performance of Don Giovanni, and sitting in Lambert Hall that sense of community is so prevalent. It’s an intimate space, and you just get this great sense that everyone there feels a part of it. OH’s volunteers are passionate about this company, and it would be impossible for an opera company with an annual budget of less than $1 million to put on four shows a season without that level of engagement and commitment. And everyone involved with OH, from the office staff to the artistic team and the singers and designers, really believes that he or she is bringing his own best talents to the table, and we’re all working to make something bigger. I love that feeling.
OH obviously shares the opera scene in Houston with HGO. But the two are very different organizations.
Yes! You know, Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country. It can completely sustain two distinct opera companies—look how many theater and music groups we have. But OH and HGO aren’t in competition with each other. We can’t do the same things HGO can do; we don’t have the size or the budget. But what we can do is provide an intimate experience for people to experience this art form, to see emerging singers who are someday going to be stars. I want people to know that at OH they have a chance to see a very old art form in a very new way.
Right before you arrived, you had some staff turnover. What’s that like?
Transitions are hard. OH has a very small office and administrative team, less than a dozen people. But we had a great interim director in Lamar [Matthews], and she brought in some people on a contract basis, and from what I’ve seen this week, I am very, very excited to have them as part of the team. I’m going to spend some time observing and seeing how things are working. That’s the most important thing for anyone coming into a situation to do, and I really believe that with challenges come opportunities. OH has great strengths—it’s a small, regional company that offers an up-close look at a beautiful art form. You can’t get that same kind of experience of opera anywhere else in Houston.