As leaders of Houston’s arts groups determine what next steps must be taken toward repairing theater spaces submerged in the waters from Hurricane Harvey, as well as what will become of the current 2017-2018 arts season, there’s an overriding determination that the show must go on.
The Wortham Theater Center, home to the Houston Grand Opera, suffered severe damage in its basement costume and wig shops. An email to supporters late last week noted that HGO had also had its “power sources, internet, and website connectivity have been badly damaged,” which created “many hurdles for our artistic, production, and technical teams in preparing for the upcoming season, limitations in our ability to bring education programs like Opera to Go! to schools and community centers, and delays in our audience outreach efforts.”
Nonetheless, the company still plans to open its 2017-2018 season as planned with Verdi's La traviata on Oct. 20, and continues to move forward in its artistic initiatives.
One of those initiatives is the critically-acclaimed Song of Houston series, administered through HGO’s HGOco community outreach and education arm, a collection of commissioned new works that share the stories of the people and history that populate HGO’s home city. Launched in 2007 with The Refuge, an opera that shared the stories of seven recent immigrant groups to the Houston area, it was widely praised for its sensitivity to the issue of immigration and for the dedication the company showed in working with members of each immigrant community to gather stories and share their words. The 2010 Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), thought to be the world’s first mariachi opera, went from Houston to a stunning premiere in Paris and has toured around the world since then.
Song of Houston now has two more commissions in the works. Home of My Ancestors, by composer Nkeiru Okoye and librettist Anita Gonzalez, will premiere in March 2019. The not-yet-titled second opera, by composer Nell Shaw Cohen and librettist Megan Cohen, will premiere in March of 2021.
“Home of My Ancestors is an important piece in telling the story of African-Americans in Houston,” says Carleen Graham, the director of HGOco. “It tackles the issues of gentrification, of family, of Juneteenth. I think it tells such an authentic story.”
That authenticity is vital to the Song of Houston commissions. Graham says HGO has made it part of the initiative’s mission to ensure that Song of Houston artists and the company itself work directly with members of the community to help tell their stories. She says it’s less about going into a community like Houston’s Third Ward and saying, essentially, here’s this thing we wrote for you, and more about working with community leaders and residents to ask about what’s happening in a place and if the story created is true to the community represented.
Home of My Ancestors tells the story of a woman living in Chicago who returns to Houston’s Third Ward upon the death of her grandmother. The funeral takes place on Juneteenth, something that seems fitting given the family’s activism and commitment to the community. As she goes through her grandmother’s things and must decide whether to sell the home to a developer, she learns about herself and how her ancestors’ lives still matter in her own today.
The second commission, still unnamed, is about women involved in rodeo. One of them is a barrel racer and the other is the head of a company that sponsors her. Graham says it looks at women in this usually male-dominated sport and explores how these two people on different sides of the rodeo business need each other and work together.
“The Song of Houston is a wonderful way for us to demonstrate opera in its greatest form,” says Graham. “These are really important and personal pieces, and they show that opera is living and can touch us.”