Opera in the Heights recently kicked off its spring season with Mozart’s opera La Clemenza di Tito, in which loyal advisers and lovers plot the assassination of a beloved leader amid a flurry of gossip and false accusations. The opera’s plot offers an ironic echo of the company’s own recent history. After the OH board of directors fired popular conductor and artistic director Enrique Carreón-Robledo shortly before Christmas, rumors of artist mistreatment, financial crisis, and general mismanagement have swirled around the regional opera company.
As one of Houston’s two main opera companies—the other being Houston Grand Opera—OH occupies an important niche, supporting up-and-coming artists and giving audiences a more intimate alternative to HGO. In the wake of the recent turmoil, many in the Houston music community are asking the same question: what’s going on at OH, and what does it mean for the company’s future?
Rewind to one year ago: in January 2014, the company was in a state of confusion. Executive director Lawrence J. Fried had left the previous year to head the Albany Symphony. His temporary replacement was Lamar Mathews, the wife of David Douglas, the chairman of the board of directors.
One of the 23 board members was Stephen Glenn, who had just begun his second three-year term. “We were in a kind of crisis—it was a financial problem,” Glenn told me recently. When the board voted to hire a new executive director at what he considered an overly generous salary, Glenn became concerned that too much money was going to the administration rather than the art. He also worried that acclaimed artistic director Carreón-Robledo might be fired.
“There seemed to be a group on the board that never seemed to get along with Enrique.” Glenn said. “The more it went along, it seemed there really was no substance to opposition to Enrique. [However,] the group that didn’t like him was too small to let him go.” Glenn, who currently serves on the Houston Symphony board of trustees, was voted off OH’s board in June 2014 for failing to meet new standards for financial and time commitments, according to chairman Douglas. (Glenn said he met the standards.)
Meanwhile, Carreón-Robledo was working hard to fill the administrative gaps. “It was a matter of solving problems day by day,” he told me. “You name it—from grant writing, to PR, to corporate sponsorship. If I didn’t pull from every little resource to make a production happen, it would not have happened. It is the artistic quality of the company that brings the money in. You let go of that, and what do you have?”
Communication between Carreón-Robledo and the board had started to break down. “I was informed that my presence at board meetings was no longer required,” Carreón-Robledo said. “In 2014, I got to talk to the board for 20 minutes, and that was only because I really insisted.” Douglas, who described his relationship with Carreón-Robledo as “professional and courteous,” said that Carreón-Robledo was often out of town and thus unable to attend meetings. But according to Glenn, Carreón-Robledo always tried to participate in board meetings, especially when he was away. “Even when he was in Europe, he would Skype in to board meetings.” Glenn says. “He used to make a status report.”
On April 3 of last year, OH threw a lavish cocktail party to celebrate the hiring of Stephanie Helms, the Houston Grand Opera’s special projects manager, as the company’s new executive director. Helms lasted less than five months before quietly returning to HGO, where she’s now executive assistant in the office of the general director. (Helms declined to comment on her time at OH.)
Replacing Helms on a part-time basis was Allison Hartzell, who resigned in early December, citing other commitments. “We thought we could make it work those hours, but it became increasingly obvious that it was really a full-time position,” Hartzell told me. “The board was aware of it, and we parted on good terms.”
Then, on December 18, OH announced that it was firing Carreón-Robledo and moving in a “new artistic direction.” Eiki Isomura, the director of orchestras at Lone Star College–Montgomery, would serve as interim conductor. A few days later, the Houston Press reported that OH hadn’t paid several of its longtime contractors for their work on this season’s productions, raising questions about the company’s financial solvency.
The OH’s new direction seems to involve programming less ambitious operas that won't compete with HGO. A hint of changes to come came when OH replaced Bizet’s Carmen with Peter Brooks’s shorter, re-worked interpretation of the same work for OH’s final production of the season in March.
Carreón-Robledo rejected the implication that he was trying to compete with HGO. “Had it been up to me, I would never have programmed Rigoletto or Carmen [this season], stepping on the footprint that HGO had just left,” Carreón-Robledo said. (HGO had produced both operas during the 2013–14 season.) “We sought pieces that really belonged in the house. When I came to the company, the first uphill battle that I ever won was the Shakespeares. That was the concept and the vision that I had for the company.”
The conductor was referring to his first full season as artistic director, 2012-2013, when the company presented an exceptionally creative program that began with Rossini’s Otello and ended with Verdi’s Falstaff. Carreón-Robledo said he wanted to program operas like Mozart’s Idomeneo, Delibes’s Lakmé, and, perhaps most of all, Der Freischütz, a mystical opera by Carl Maria von Weber that sparked the German Romantic tradition and paved the way for Wagner.
“I wish I knew what this new direction that OH is going in so at least I could have an opinion about it, but I really have no idea,” Carreón-Robledo said. “Let’s look around at the great models that really work—Seattle Opera comes to mind. They have something in common: a true artistic director with a board of trustees that have stood behind them all the way.”
By the opening night of La Clemenza di Tito a few weeks ago, Opera in the Heights had three new faces in leadership positions: Eiki Isomura as interim conductor, Miriam Khalili as executive director, and Josh Agrons, a partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, as board chairman. The board of directors has recently contracted from 23 members to 13, the advisory board from 17 to 6.
Before being named executive director, Khalili had worked as manager of operations at OH for almost a year, which, given all the staff turnover, makes her something like a company veteran. She told me that she enjoys a good relationship with the Isomura and Agrons.
“[Agrons] is taking the time to come out and meet the patrons and answer questions at every single performance. Obviously, everyone is different. His personality and style are different from David Douglas. [They both] dedicated the time. I think we’re in good hands moving forward, for sure.”
She said many people have misunderstood the company’s new direction. “[It] means communicating with the community and other arts organizations. We can make sure that we’re doing something relevant and unique, and that we’re not competing with our partners here.” She also said to expect more educational and family-friendly programming, including a summer class where children will stage their own opera.
For his part, board chair Agrons said his top priority is to provide Houston with opera performances of the highest professional caliber while maintaining the uniqueness that sets OH apart. “I think we have to [make] certain to earn and retain the trust of our audience.” Other priorities? “Relevance, quality, financial stability.” He said La Clemenza had the key features OH is looking for in the future. “It was staged in the right scope, we didn’t try to compete in costuming or set design beyond the level of our financial resources. We did something that was simple.”
La Clemenza has indeed been a success—a minor miracle given that Isomura had three weeks to learn the piece. “I like to spend three months preparing a piece like that,” the conductor told me. “That was definitely very hectic. But once we got it through the staging and everything, it hasn’t been a struggle or anything.” Although his position is temporary, Isomura told me that he has a vision for an OH season. While he threw out the name of Benjamin Britten and discussed more contemporary works, Isomura said he wouldn’t want to focus only on chamber operas.
“The orchestra is one of [OH’s] best assets. And doing solely chamber works, cutting down on players, would be a real shame. I know the choir has expressed some anxiety over that. Any season would and should utilize the best assets.”
Anyone who has been in the industry knows that all non-profit organizations come with a little dysfunction. But how much turnover can a small company handle? OH plays an important role in Houston’s art scene, giving young artists critical experience, and the company is still deeply beloved by many opera-loving Houstonians. Not everyone wants grand opera at the Wortham all the time. Yet even with administrative vision from Agrons and Khalili, the company is without a permanent artistic director. At the moment, the company’s future seems precarious.
When I last spoke with Carreón-Robledo, he was thinking of La Clemenza going on without him. “These last few years I fought the board to get that opera,” Carreón-Robledo said. “And yet I knew I had gathered the most competent and talented people, and there was no question in my mind that we were going to pull it together.”
As he listed off the names of singers like Vera Savage, whom he had been trying to cast for years, he said it was very difficult not being there to see Clemenza come to fruition. “It’s very personal. It really was my life.”