To say that the audience at Monday’s performance of Jake Heggie, Gene Scheer, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Intelligence, was moved by the story would be an understatement. From the moment the curtain rose, the energy was electric. As the story of Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Jane Bowser—two spies for the Union during the Civil War, one wealthy, the other an enslaved member of her household—unfolded, the audience alternately cheered, applauded, and gasped in shock at unexpected twists and turns.
This was High School Night for HGO’s 75th world premiere opera, Intelligence, at the Wortham Theater Center. Over 1,300 students from across Houston had come together at the theater for the performance, made possible by a generous donation from HGO supporter John Nau III, who underwrote all costs for the evening, including transportation, ticketing, and concessions for the students.
Kevin Gray, who teaches AP African American Studies at Waltrip High School, said that his students had been full of excitement ahead of coming to the opera, and that they’d had a lot of conversations about it in the classroom.
“My students asked why it was called Intelligence,” Gray shared. “I explained that on one hand it refers to military intelligence, but there was also the assumption that enslaved people weren’t intelligent, so it’s almost an act of defiance, to name the opera the very thing that people were actively denied.”
To be out for an evening at the opera with his students was, Gray confided, incredibly meaningful for him as an educator.
Another teacher, this one from KIPP Academy, asked her students to share their thoughts on Intelligence and sent them over to the HGO team after the show. Here’s just a taste of what they had to say:
“I absolutely LOVED this performance. For my first-ever opera, the experience was astounding, the visuals, the orchestra, the story (especially the plot twists), it was all very, very captivating, I was really invested in it, especially when I found out that Ms. Van Lew and Mary Jane were half-sisters and that Ms. Van Lew hid it from Mary Jane while also making her go on dangerous missions that could get her killed.”
“I was astonished when we got the big reveal that Lucinda was Mary Jane’s Mom… The amount of feeling and energy put into this show is just amazing.”
“Those dancers really did their thing. I admire whoever choreographed those moves, it brought a whole other meaning to the story. And those VOICES!”
After intermission, back in the theater for the opera’s thrilling Act Two, the students’ enthusiasm continued unabated. When the villain Travis Briggs, a Confederate Home Guard who’d been trying to sniff out the spy ring and menacing Mary Jane, met his end, the audience roared in celebration.
The mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, who plays Lucinda in the opera, captured the scene from the side of the stage and shared it on her social media. It was clear that as inspired as the students were by the artists on the stage, the artists were equally inspired by them.
“Can we have a student audience every night? That’s all I have to say,” Bridges said to the camera. “And go HGO for inviting schools from all over the city for free. No one paid a dime to come to this performance. I’m just blown away. This is what it’s all about.”