Librettist Stephanie Fleischmann on the story behind HGO’s 74th world premiere.
“Is there a music that makes you think of home?”
Another City director Emily Wells, composer Jeremy Howard Beck, and I are sitting in a ground-floor meeting room at New Hope Housing, a permanent supportive housing facility in Houston, Texas, on a sweltering June afternoon, speaking with a handful of residents, all of whom have experienced homelessness in the not-so-distant past. The answers come fast and furious:
“Old-school jazz, that’s what I mostly raised up on.”
“I was sitting in my room the other night and I was praying, you know, and all of a sudden I heard the harp.”
“Rhythm and blues.”
“A little bit of everything.”
To prepare for the process of creating our new opera for HGO, Jeremy and I travel to Houston in 2019 for two weeklong research trips designed to take in the landscape of homelessness in the city. The goal: to process, distill, and shape what we’re absorbing into the stuff of opera. In response to these two trips, I will craft a libretto that will serve as the blueprint for the music Jeremy will compose.
Week one is spent getting the lay of the land—as Emily calls it, the 30,000-foot view—interviewing the guardians of a range of institutions serving Houston’s unhoused: Thao Costis, who helms Search, an organization that works to “engage, stabilize, educate, employ and house individuals and families facing homelessness”; Marc Eichenbaum, the impassioned, inspiring Special Assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives; Houston Public Library’s Hiawatha Henry, who has been known to fund a weekly lunch and movie program out of her own pocket in moments of budget shortfall; Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk and Sara Martinez at Coalition for the Homeless, a catalyst connecting partners and maximizing resources; and many more.
What Jeremy and I take away from these conversations, in addition to a prodigious wealth of passion, a palpable sense of being on the front lines, and an abundance of grace, is an understanding of the immense complexity of the problem, as well as the substantial strides that Houston’s Housing First System has made in combating homelessness. The city’s coordinated access system, The Way Home, has become a model for other cities struggling with the growing epidemic of homelessness in America.
The New York Times recently featured Houston’s developments in a front-page story, part of the Times’s “Headway” series, “exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress.” To date, homelessness in Houston has declined by 64 percent since 2011. Yet clearly obstacles remain. As long as poverty is woven through the fabric of American life, the specter of homelessness looms. Far too many folks dwell in a continual state of precarity—one mishap away from losing everything. As Marc Eichenbaum is quick to say: “The spigot of homelessness is always on.”
A few months later, Jeremy and I return to Houston. This visit promises to be boots-on-the-ground: We tour the Star of Hope, the men’s shelter downtown. We volunteer at the Beacon, a day center that offers laundry, showers, and lunch. We man the intake desk, participate in a clothing giveaway, work at the lunch counter. We meet the retired scientist responsible for setting up the laundry at the Beacon, who becomes the spark for the opera’s Miss Violet. A luminous two-hour conversation with an idealistic elderly gentleman inspires Manoj Mukherjee’s walking meditation through the streets of downtown Houston, the image with which we start and end the opera—a steady, continuous gesture that recurs periodically as the work unfolds, embodying the dilemma of the chronically homeless, and containing within it the extreme opposites of debilitating pain and hope.
A drifter sporting cowboy boots and a handlebar mustache makes it very clear he’s just passing through, and we begin to hear Hank Edwards’s song even before we’ve started writing. We interview a thoughtful young man who, the previous night, had slept out on the street for the first time. His story serves as inspiration for the character of Langston Rodriguez, whose journey into the depths of homelessness both frames the opera and lies at its core. We approach a woman who declines to speak with us. Later that afternoon, as Jeremy and I are taking a breather in Market Square Park, we spot her sitting on a bench, her pack beside her. The next day, there she is again. Our minds racing, we cannot let her go. She becomes our Cassandra, a returned veteran on the cusp of being housed. Cassandra’s story, like Langston’s, will grow into another chamber of the beating heart of the opera we’re in the process of uncovering.
At the Star of Hope’s Women and Family Development Center in Pearland, we meet Kenneth DeVon, a conservatory trained vocalist and one-time backup singer for Stevie Wonder, currently Director of Housing and Navigation Programs at the Salvation Army, who, after having lost a brother to homelessness, found him ten years later, via a random encounter—an experience through which he discovered his true calling, a life of work in the homelessness sector. Kenneth describes driving a van around the city’s encampments, “going where love has not yet arrived,” bringing water, food, supplies. “For a lot of my clients,” he says, “I am the only family they will ever have. I want them to know: I see you. I hear you…What they want to know is ‘Do you care?’”
Kenneth tells us the story of a solitary man who lived in a tent hidden behind a thicket of underbrush for 15 years, for whom the transition to being housed felt insurmountable. As our ideas for the opera develop, Cassandra ruminates over this story as a way of processing her own ambivalence at the prospect of being housed.
In the early mornings and the evenings, we venture out on field-recording excursions. With his rig, Jeremy captures sounds of the city streets that are so much part of daily life here that Houstonians may not even notice them. He will later incorporate these sounds into the sonic fabric of the score, which in his own words, “sets out to sonically portray the beauty of these lives we continually look past by creating music out of similarly overlooked or unexpected materials: an interlocking, interdependent network of rhythms, a world that sings. Vernacular musical languages, danceable grooves, and tuneful songs share equal footing with microtonal counterpoint, chorale harmony, and tightly constructed symphonic development.” He will layer and interweave the field recordings made on these visits with swinging street band sounds, junk percussion, and truly operatic heights of emotion.
On one of our last days in Houston, we accompany a pair of Search Navigators on their rounds, as they traverse the city, looking for clients on street corners and in encampments. The Navigators’ job is to help the unhoused navigate the often labyrinthine bureaucracy that is the forerunner to having a place to call home. Via the Navigators’ intimate acquaintance with the map of homelessness in Houston, we begin to visualize two cities coexisting separately, one layered atop the other, the character of the Navigator serving as a bridge between the two worlds. As we sit in on a gathering organized by Brigid’s Hope, a program that supports previously incarcerated, formerly homeless women, the idea of testimonial, of affirmation, as a structure begins to unfold.
Almost everyone we approach opens up to us, telling us their story with a stunning generosity and self awareness. And so we listen. (For a small sample of the powerful words we hear, see right.)
Often the rhythms of speech are so indelible we know instantaneously that they will become music—we have deployed excerpts of certain interviews (with permission) word for word in the opera. The text spoken and sung by the character of Bruce, a mainstay of the recovery group, is almost entirely extracted from a collage of testimonials, chunks of which are direct transcription. At other moments, the eloquence with which an individual articulates their understanding of how they came to be where they are, how the system serves as a net that holds them or doesn’t, resonates like the sounding of a bell. And we know that a new idea, another thematic layer, has found its way into the opera. Of course, we can’t use it all. None of the quotes at right ended up in the opera. And yet everything we see and hear undergirds what we are making.
Soon enough we understand that perhaps the biggest challenge the opera poses is this: How do we put a city, this city, on stage? For the experience of losing a home and gaining housing is not just one story. The face of homelessness is as diverse and innumerable as there are humans on this planet. We know we won’t do it justice by zeroing in on a single narrative arc. So we begin to weave this multiplicity into almost a fugue-like structure, a dramatic work consisting of interlacing threads, their juxtaposition full of tension, forward momentum, inevitability. We consider the question: Through whose eyes will we experience the stories we’ve chosen to tell? We look for ways to guide our audience in and through an often chaotic and devastating world. We seek moments of joy and nodes of connection amidst the pain. We make it our goal to conjure an experience of both cities, so that at least for the duration of the opera, via the eyes, ears, and hearts of the viewer, a divided metropolis becomes one.
Full up with data, overflowing with the pragmatics of the day-to-day struggles of the unhoused, flush with the gift of the stories with which we’ve been entrusted, the process of honing begins. This will involve countless (and as of the writing of this article, still evolving) drafts of the libretto, both before and after the libretto workshop; return visits to Houston in the midst of a pandemic for piano/vocal and orchestration workshops; a presentation at the 2022 Opera America conference in Minneapolis; and ongoing, epic restructuring and revising in response to the workshops—an almost five-year-long process involving an intricate and more in-depth back and forth between composer and librettist than any I’ve thus far encountered in my career as a librettist.
But for now, we are at the start of it all, nearing the end of the second of our two weeklong research trips in 2019, excruciatingly aware of how brief our immersion into “the other city” has been, and the fact that we are privileged to be able to go home at the end of the week—not yet cognizant of how deeply embedded these experiences engaging with this community will prove to be as we carry them with us over the next half decade. Brainstorming, we reach for an image, envisioning a space that can provide some sort of respite from the clamor of the city. After all, poetic thinking, metaphor, is a galvanizing language of opera. On a hunch, we spend an evening at the Live Oak Quaker Meeting House Skyspace. We are thinking about the sky, imagining what it’s like to live without a roof over one’s head. The Skyspace is that perfect paradox: a place of reflection whose roof opens to the sky. We look up. And the good work begins.