“Watch your step,” says Molly Dill, producing director for Houston Grand Opera, as we turn a corner and step over a bundle of wires. She is leading a backstage tour of the company’s new, improvised home at the George R. Brown Convention Center where preparations are underway for opening night of Verdi’s La Traviata this Friday, October 20.
Nobody at HGO necessarily wants to be starting from scratch here in Exhibit Hall A3—a place that's hosted more gun shows than Italian operas—but it’s where the company has taken refuge after Harvey rendered the Wortham Center out of commission; that built-for-opera venue will remain shuttered through at least May 15, 2018, with storm-related losses estimated as high as $15 million.
Fortunately, those losses largely excluded costumes and sets, which were moved to higher floors. HGO resolutely decided to proceed in a different venue. “No one has ever questioned why we’re doing this and why we didn’t just cancel the season,” says Managing Director Perryn Leech.
Ever since, HGO has fanned out across the city: The chorus rehearsed at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in the Heights; the costume shop has relocated to an off-site warehouse near UH; and the opera’s administrative offices moved into the erstwhile Super Bowl headquarters downtown. After considering about a dozen different venues across the city, the company decided to carve out this space within the convention center where Houston First, the organization which oversees both the Wortham Center and the GRB, could work to accommodate the new residents. Around 17 conventions that planned to use the hall were relocated or rescheduled.
“We were particularly moved that we were able to bring our opera house into the George R. Brown, which was itself a refuge for so many Houstonians throughout the storm,” says Patrick Summers, HGO’s artistic and music director. “That’s a very meaningful connection.”
The so-called “Resilience Theater” materialized from a blank slate, which, just two weeks ago, was an empty concrete rectangle about two football fields large. Since then, five dozen people have worked 15-hour days to erect nearly a mile of trusses to support lights and other equipment. Black curtains hang to subdivide the space, two large plastic shells surround the front and rear of the theater to improve acoustics, and portable restrooms strategically sit near the exits. About 1,500 blue, plastic stadium seats rise above another 200 floor seats.
All this to say, it’s not the august environment of the Wortham (it’s actually reminiscent of a basketball arena), but front row seats reside within spitting distance of the performers. “No audience member will have ever been as close to a cast of La Traviata as they will in this theater,” says Summers. The acoustics, he adds, are better than expected: "It's starting to sound really good in here."
As reporters ventured through the backstage labyrinth, each “room” was cordoned off with those ubiquitous curtains. “Normal dressing rooms have walls,” Dill deadpans, holding back the curtain to show us the rows of folding tables strewn with makeup and props inside the women's chorus dressing room. Set pieces line the walkways, including mannequins for Julius Caesar costumes and the entire raised deck that serves as the stage for La Traviata.
A new space naturally means new challenges. For La Traviata, the orchestra will reside behind the stage rather than in a pit, separating the conductor from the stage performers. There are also no walls, which means the usually chatty backstage must remain silent. None of the infrastructure for flying scenes is available in the theater. Even things as mundane as controlling the air conditioning present logistical challenges (despite a stern text message to the facility, Leech was unable to do anything about the "bloody freezing" theater).
Toward the end of the tour, orchestra members began to trickle into the theater for an imminent rehearsal, which underscored how, against all expectations, there will soon be an opera premiere in this convention hall. "They thought we were mad," Leech says about Houston First when he initially suggested GRB as a venue.
But now, after he explains everything they've done to the hall, and after he lists off all the restaurants and bars and Discovery Green conveniently located just steps from the convention center, it doesn't sound quite so crazy. It is, as they put it, an "unconventional" place for opera, but still a wholly adequate one for La Traviata, Julius Caesar, and The House Without A Christmas Tree, which runs through December. And, if things go as planned, their residency may extend into next year as the Wortham continues its rehabilitation—Summers was already pondering the logistics for January's Elektra, which calls for the largest orchestra in all opera.