Slip The Surly Bonds of Earth

HGO composer Gregory Spears talks his latest piece O Columbia, a tale of discovery and wonderment.

By Sydney Boyd September 15, 2015

O columbia rehearsal  vavrek  spears  newbury  and myers   photo by lynn lane szo9ux

Rehearsal for O Columbia with (left to right) libretto Royce Vavrek, composer Gregory Spears, stage director Kevin Newbury, and conductor Timothy Myers

Image: Lynn Lane

For composer Gregory Spears, a piece of music has to ask a question. O Columbia—a chamber opera based on interviews with NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers, among other things—asks how humanity copes with two competing sides of discovery: risk and wonder.

A world premiere, Houston Grand Opera’s O Columbia plays back-to-back shows at Revention Music Center—formerly Bayou Music Center—on Wednesday, Sep. 23 and Thursday, Sep. 24. With music by Spears and libretto by Royce Vavrek, the opera moves along an aggressive timeline from British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh’s voyage to the New World to far in the future, pausing on other discoveries along the way.

“It was sort of a paradox this piece gets at,” Spears says of the idea of discovery in the opera. “One of them is so childlike and so idealist, and the other one is so heartbreaking.”

Discovery is not a new theme for Spears. Paul’s Case, the first opera Spears wrote and premiered in 2009, is based on a short story by Willa Cather, and like parts of O Columbia, the story delves into a young man’s earnest discoveries about the world and results in troubled realizations. But because O Columbia is based in part on real events, Spears felt a deep sense of responsibility while composing the music.

“To adapt a piece of literature is a completely different experience than talking to people who actually lived through something,” says Spears. “For me as a composer that’s very inspiring in a different way, and actually in a scary way.”

The opera draws partially from interviews Spears did with NASA employees who were there the day the Space Shuttle Columbia—from which the opera gets its name—did not make it home. He notes the visceral intensity of hearing someone who knew people in the shuttle narrate the event.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to tell stories that are so fresh,” Spears says. “I don’t write words, I write music—to put into music that sensation and to give that sense back to the audience.”

This kind of intense experience, for Spears, is where opera’s future lies. “So much of our world is mediated by these little Apple speakers, and opera is becoming more and more irreplaceable,” Spears says. “The rarest of new experiences are the oldest ones in a way.”

O Columbia. Sep. 23 & 24. 8. $20. Revention Music Center, 520 Texas Ave. 713-230-1600. houstongrandopera.org