Old Is New

Kassandra and The Leader Take On Real World Problems Through Opera

Opera in the Heights’s double bill tackles #MeToo, loss of identity, and climate change.

By Olivia Flores Alvarez February 22, 2020

Christopher Besch as Apollo and Penelope Shumate as Kassandra in Kassandra.


After Opera in the Heights brings history to the stage on the opening night of its New Works Festival, the company will turn its attention to two stories that date back even further in time. Kassandra, reimagines the titular Greek seer as a climate scientist no one will believe, while ​The Leader adapts Eugène Ionesco’s 1953 absurdist play about an enigmatic guru who has no head. ​

The two new chamber operas, which run this Sunday and next, are being produced with contemporary classical music collective Musiqa, and both of the composers, Anthony Brandt (Kassandra) and by Karim Al-Zand (The Leader), are Musiqa artistic board members and composition professors at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. The project was the brainchild of Al-Zand who approached Brandt with the idea of writing a pair of chamber operas.

Brandt, spent a year writing the ​Kassandra ​score, teaming up with New York playwright and librettist Neena Beber. The pair had previously worked together on an opera that modernized the Ulysses myth, and they decided to return to the format for this show.

“We were tossing around ideas,” says Brandt. “And Nina brought up the story of Apollo and Cassandra which is an early #MeToo-type story in Western culture.” 

In the myth, the god Apollo falls in love with Cassandra, a princess of Troy, and offers her the gift of second sight if she will be with him. Cassandra accepts, but then rebuffs the god’s advances after receiving the gift. Angered by rejection, Apollo curses the princess so that no one will believe her prophecies. In Brandt and Beber’s modernized version, Kassandra is a climate scientist and Apollo is the venture capitalist supporting her work. When she rejects his sexual advances, Apollo retaliates by destroying her career. Her reputation in shreds, Cassandra’s warnings about the dire impact of climate change—completely accurate and backed by scientific evidence—are then ignored. 

When it comes to the area of Cassandra’s scientific study, Brandt says he finds few issues more urgent than climate change, and the immediacy of this project provided him the perfect vehicle to tell it. 

“A couple of weeks ago, the President of the United States said that climate scientists were the heirs of past years’ failed fortune tellers,” he says. “The fact that somebody would stand up there and dismiss the research that’s being done, when so much is at stake, is incredible. When I read that line, I said, ‘​That’s the reason we wrote the opera.’” 

Brandt also says one of his goals was to write a great role for a woman. Soprano Penelope Shumate sings as Kassandra, and Brandt says she completely owns the part. Shumate, who frequently performs at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center and recently made her debut with London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, appears opposite bass-baritone Christopher Besch, a frequent performer with Bach Society Houston, among other local organizations.

Brandt also wanted to shine a light on the sexual harassment of women. Kassandra’s situation, he says, is one found all too often in the sciences. While researching for the opera, the composer discovered that the higher the level of education a woman has, the more likely she is to be sexually harassed at work.

“The statistics are appalling,” he says. “I found that to be staggering and I think that’s another part of this story that’s important to tell.” 

Thru Feb 29. From $34.50. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Blvd. 713-861-5303. More info and tickets at operaintheheights.org.

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