Houston is an opera-lover’s city. For world premieres and big showstoppers like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, we have the prestigious Houston Grand Opera; for something with less pomp and more personality, we have Opera in the Heights. Between the two companies, I’ve seen some remarkable opera this year. But there’s even more opera in Houston than you might imagine. While they didn’t make my list this year, keep an eye (and an ear) on the Asia Society Texas Center, University of Houston Moores Opera Center, and Rice University Shepherd School of Music, all of which are producing unique and often adventurous work that other companies skip. And don’t forget the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Houston. That said, here are the top five operas I’m still reveling in:
The first installment of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, this opera blew everything else in 2014 out of the water. A co-production by Houston Grand Opera, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia, and Maggio Musicale, Florence, this was an astounding example of the Wagnerian Gesamtkünstwerk, or total work of art. Breathtaking acrobatics, 800-pound cranes, golden embryos, suspended water tanks, and a Segway merged contemporary biopolitical themes with mythic folklore of old. HGO gambled and won big here. And this is only the first of four! If you see any opera next year, make it the second installment of the Ring, Die Walküre.
I almost didn’t make it to this opera, but fortuitously caught the second-to-last performance. Seeing an opera later in the run means that the ensemble has had time to marinate and work out some kinks. And this production was a real gem. Great singing—the best, actually, I’ve heard from the small company—lightly seasoned with humor and gleeful acting against an aesthetically charming set. It was a true delight, and with such serious singing, no trifle either.
3. A Little Night Music, Houston Grand Opera
We always care what an opera looks like, but rarely does it radiate like Isaac Mizrahi’s design for Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at HGO. Bold azure blue, creamy ivory, hazy orange, and brilliant green and purple seemed to promise enchantment. And the singing was superb, too. Soprano Andrea Carroll has a voice made for the virginal role of Anne—sweet, bell-like, and memorably charming.
As with A Little Night Music, I’m still thinking about how this set brought the opera to life. Nothing was level; everything felt unstable, whether it was the stage jutting out at an angle or an enormous lantern swinging wildly. In an opera about psychological warfare, the topsy-turvy staging was appropriate, and quite frankly, really clever. Finally, Ailyn Pérez’s “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria”—fragile, ardent, and pure—set the bar very high for the rest of HGO’s season.
A bel canto opera can be hard on the ears. It’s an older tradition, and it usually calls for a soprano of steel. Opera in the Heights may play up its community, small-town-opera-in-a-big-city side, but it brought in some serious talent for one of the most iconic moments in opera—the so-called mad scene. Jessica Jones trilled and soared her way into a perfect storm of maniacal derangement. As far as absurd drama in opera goes, does it get much better than an unhinged Scottish soprano in a wedding dress on a killing spree? No it does not.