Feb. 29, 2024

Speaking to the Past, Looking to the Future

A conversation with HGO’s Composer-in-Residence Joel Thompson, who is set to debut a new song cycle at Giving Voice 2024
Joel Thomspon (Right) speaks with HGO's General Director and CEO Khori Dastoor (Left)

Giving Voice is currently sold out, but you can still join HGO and Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church for this inspiring event, which will be streaming on the HGO Facebook and YouTube pages.  


Joel Thompson is Houston Grand Opera’s first-ever full-time composer-in-residence. He joined the company two years ago, following the acclaimed world premiere of The Snowy Day—his first opera, commissioned by HGO and written with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney—in 2021.  


“This position was created for Joel because he is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation,” HGO General Director and CEO Khori Dastoor said at the time.  


Since joining HGO, Thompson has been putting that brilliant mind to work. As he did in 2023, he is playing a major role in the fifth annual Giving Voice concert, which will be held for the second year running at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in the Third Ward. This year’s event, set for March 8, 2024—International Women’s Day—honors the artistry and contributions of Black women in opera and the Houston community.  


A special highlight of the evening will be the world premiere of Thompson’s new song cycle, Dove Songs, based on poems by former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove and written for soprano and current Butler Studio artist Renée Richardson.  


When we sat down with the composer for this interview, he was in the middle of composing the piece. During our wide-ranging conversation, he had a lot to say about that process, Giving Voice, his people-first outlook, and what he hopes to accomplish during his five-year appointment at HGO.  


“People are always more important than music,” Thompson shared. “That’s very rare for a composer to say, I think, but I don’t want to create anything harmful. I don’t want to create anything that goes against the goals that I have for myself in my community. But I also have to take risks. I have to be bold and not be afraid of stepping on toes and just be an artist. That’s what I’ve set out to do—bold, risk-taking art that builds community and allows people to see themselves clearly.” 


During our chat, it became clear that Thompson’s forward-thinking vision for opera extends far beyond music on a page. We also learned he does a killer Michael McDonald impression. Read on for more… 


How did this collaboration with Renée come about?  

Part of my duties as composer-in-residence is doing a collaboration with a member of the Butler Studio, and I remember seeing Renée Richardson at the first Studio Showcase in my first year. She was in a scene from Pagliacci with Navasard [Hakobyan], and I thought they were fantastic. I saw the emotion that she was putting into her character and the amazing sound that was coming out of her mouth, and I was like, that’s the Butler Studio artist I want to collaborate with. I made my wishes known, and eventually, it got around to her, and she agreed. After talking for a bit, we set out to collaborate on four poems by Rita Dove.  


How did you both land on Rita Dove’s poetry as the source of inspiration for this project?  

She’s Haitian American. My family’s from Jamaica. I was born in the Bahamas. We have a Caribbean connection. So we started by looking at Haitian American poetry or Haitian poetry, African American poetry—even just art from the African diaspora. Eventually, we found that we got most in sync with the poetry of Rita Dove. Renée loves the emotional, love-and-death sort of stuff, and I do too. But with Rita Dove, there’s love, death, and there’s a little bit of light in between. We decided to set out to collaborate on four of her poems. We chose them, we sat with each of them for a little bit, and then we got to work. 

Rita Dove. Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University of Virginia Communications

Tell us more about the song cycle. 

The series consists of four poems: “Scarf,” the second one is “Heart to Heart,” the third one is “Exit,” and the last one is “Dawn Revisited.” We tackled “Scarf” first because it was the shortest, but it also is the one that is the most sensual. It says, “Whoever claims beauty lies in the eye of the beholder has forgotten the music silk makes settling across a bared neck.” Isn’t it fantastic? A wonderful opening line, with lots of alliteration and assonance. It’s talking about how the average person has forgotten that music exists in the everyday things. There’s a sort of sensuality that happens when you put a piece of silk across your neck, you know? That’s something that the poem elicits. The last line is equally as important. It says, "Skin never touched so gently except by a child or a lover.” It’s very sensual, yet somehow nostalgic. Renée and I imagined the singer sort of reminiscing while feeling silk across her neck and then wanting that touch, either maternally, as if from a child, or sensually, by a lover. To try and create music that aids in bringing that imagery to life was fun. There was so much musical potential in that poem. 


The second poem is called “Heart to Heart,” and in it, Rita Dove is describing all of the cultural associations that we have with the concept of a heart. I just finished setting the vocal line yesterday, was working on the piano part in the office today. I want to make sure I don’t mess up the words because they are fantastic. When we first started, I wanted this one to be just mushy gushy, super emotional, lots of falling fifths all over the place. Sometimes you have poems that have a climax about 50 percent of the way through, and then it’s then all denouement all the way to the end. But this one is building to a terminal climax, it’s right there at the end. So when I asked Renée what her sweet spot was, I said, okay, we’re going to put it here. It’s all yours now, right at that sweet spot. I think we crafted it as this giant highway all the way to this terminal point that just feels ecstatic, at least that’s the hope. We haven’t tested it out yet but yeah, I’ve had fun setting this one.  


The third poem is the most cryptic of the four. It’s called “Exit.” The opening line is, “Just when hope withers, the visa is granted.” It’s exploring immigration, in a way, but it’s also exploring womanhood. The most cryptic line, the one that I’m struggling with today, is “This suitcase, the saddest object in the world.” How do I set that to music? It’s talking about the sadness, the inherent sadness of travel, picking everything up that you have and leaving. Yet, the poem opens with that line of the visa being granted. It's a very bittersweet poem, but at the very end there’s this sudden shift—a twist. It’s describing the sky, “blushing, just as you did when your mother told you all it took to be a woman in this life.” We’re talking about traveling, and then, suddenly, you’re comparing the sky turning pink and blushing after you had this imagery of grayness and sadness, and it’s attached to your mother teaching you about womanhood. Is there something attached to the speaker’s femininity that is a part of the sadness that is leaving everything behind? Is she leaving for love? Is she leaving to escape an abusive situation? All of that is wrapped up in those final lines. How do you craft something that makes that twist work, musically? That’s the challenge I’m having today. 


The last poem is called “Dawn Revisited,” which—well, I have no idea how I’m going to close it yet. But it urges you to imagine waking up one day with a second chance. One of my favorite lines talks about, “the prodigal smell of biscuits,” which I love. It’s almost encouraging you to get out of bed and go and start a new day. The last two lines go—“Come on, shake a leg! You’ll never know who’s down there, frying those eggs, if you don’t get up and see.” While some of the others do lean towards love and depression and all of that, which is opera’s bread and butter, “Dawn Revisited” is ultimately an uplifting poem. What I’m struggling with most right now is the line, “Come on, shake a leg.” Like, how do you set that to music? I don’t know yet.  


So, that’s the trajectory of the whole thing. Renée and I sat down and analyzed all of the poetry and tried to figure out the many dimensions that are buried within all of them. We’ll be testing them out in the coming weeks, and then we premiere them in March. 


What has working with Renée been like? 

She’s fantastic. She’s so open, willing to try things, willing to take risks—and she just has a big heart. She’s doing so much. You know, it’s tough being in the Butler Studio. You’re on call all the time. You’re working on your Italian, you’re working on your French, all of that stuff. I remember when we were doing the meat of our work in November, we were both having car trouble at the same time. (laughs) But even though there’s life outside of opera that’s influencing our ability to be as creative as we want to be, it was always a joy to come to our practice rooms and figure out how we were going to tackle these poems. There was one point where we were in the practice room—we were looking at “Dawn Revisited,” and we’re like, what if it was like this Michael McDonald, Doobie Brothers thing, or this gospel breakdown—because the tone of the piece is so encouraging. Like, the first three songs are all operatic and brooding, and the last one’s this gospel thing that we’re familiar with from our church backgrounds. So I started jamming, and we started improvising—I did my Michael McDonald impression, and she died laughing.  We could take a break from all the heaviness of the poetry and just have fun every now and then. It was great collaborating with her.  

Renée Richardson at Giving Voice 2023

This is your second year as composer-in-residence. What has this experience meant for you?   

It’s been a dream. I feel like I’m relatively late to the composition world. My Opus 1 was published in 2015–2016, and I was a choral conductor before that and a pianist before that. So to fully be living as a composer and adopting it as the center of my musical identity has been great. HGO has been providing me the room to experiment, to see what that will be like when I’m no longer in residence. I know that community engagement will be an essential part of my craft moving forward, so they’ve set up opportunities for me to interact with the community. I did a Coffee with the Composer event in December at Emancipation Park Conservancy in Third Ward, and we’ll do more of those. I’m interacting with the community and having a dialogue—asking questions and letting people into my process, trying to demystify composition, encouraging people to share stories, and showing the role that music can play in storytelling and holding stories. That sort of community engagement is the thing that I’m really excited about. I mean, I’m also really excited about the chance to write a full-length opera for the stage, don’t get me wrong. But beyond that, I’m always curious and fascinated about the role that music can play in building community and what being an ethical, conscientious artist in 2024 means—especially when attached to an art form that has a lot of baggage when it comes to representations of race, gender, and sexuality.  


I understand that education is a major focus of your community engagement efforts. Why is that?  

I just think an essential part of keeping progress continuing is us also prioritizing the role that education can play in creating that more equitable future. Just having students in high school, elementary school, go to a concert and see, ah, it doesn’t matter the color of your skin or your ethnic background. This music, although in dialogue with a Western European art tradition, has a space for you. That also means lifting up other people of other marginalized identities within that space. When you’re going to a classroom and playing music of so many different identities that it’s just like—you can’t leave thinking that it’s just dead white men wearing wigs, you know, which is what most people think of classical music. I myself had a rather circuitous journey to this point. Even though I always had a passion for it, I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like me as composers when I was growing up, so I never thought that it could even be a possibility. I still remember the first time I saw Alvin Singleton’s “PraiseMaker,” at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I saw him come out, and he bowed, and he had hair like me. He was the first composer whose work I’d heard live—played by a symphony orchestra—that looked like me. And I was like, oh wow, I can do this. So, that’s one of the things that I’d like to be a part of before I leave. I’ve been in collegiate and high school classrooms, but I’d like to do more—while also writing the music. (laughs) I’m asking a lot of myself, I’m realizing, but it’s all important. 


How have you balanced your community outreach efforts with your artistry as a composer? 

I feel a sense of urgency, you know? I mean, I hate to point to the political dimensions of our current moment, but there are people who don’t want their children to learn about Ruby Bridges because they feel that it would make them feel bad about themselves. But Ruby Bridges was able to withstand insults being thrown at her as she tried to desegregate a school in New Orleans. If she can handle it, our children can handle it, too. So Black artists in this space feel an onus to make sure that we uphold stories that are being silenced. If we’re banning books about MLK and Ruby Bridges and we’re teaching in Florida that slavery was a good thing for Black people, then we need to hold stories that show that it was not a good thing for Black people, that Ruby Bridges has the biggest courage of a 6-year-old ever in the history of the world. But we need to hold these stories while also creating ones that allow us to look forward to a future that’s not rooted in constant trauma and brutality. I think one of the most radical things for an oppressed people is to imagine oneself in the future. We can use art as a space to document our internal and external realities while also using this space as a leaping pad for imagination, for what a more equitable version of the future will be like for the next generation. I’m exploring that not only in the operatic space, but in my instrumental music, my chamber music. To create art that keeps that imagination, that dream, alive is one of my focuses now.   


Why did you choose music as your avenue for inciting change? 

I think musical storytelling is very powerful. Musical storytelling is transformational. And I want to use that power to transform my community, myself, and the society around me. I feel like the reason that we are banning certain books is because we recognize the power inherent in these stories. Anyone who has experienced this storytelling in an operatic or musical theater context, knows the power that music can lend to those stories. Why not use that power to incite change? The place where Black people have historically found the most freedom has been in our art, in our storytelling, in our music making, in our film making, in our visual arts. That’s what I want my future to be.  

Joel Thomspon, fourth from left, take his bows at Giving Voice 2023.

How does Giving Voice play into your lens of community outreach and hopes for the future, and what has your experience been? 

Last year’s Giving Voice was my first time attending or seeing Giving Voice, and it was amazing to rub shoulders with giants—who were themselves paying tribute to the giants whose shoulders they stood upon. Larry Brownlee, standing on the shoulders of George Shirley, was great to witness last year. He premiered one of my songs that I wrote for his last album at the last Giving Voice, so it was a momentous occasion for me. I felt the same way about getting a chance to work with the historically Black colleges in the area—Prairie View A&M and TSU. They sang a choral song of mine about uniting and drawing together. The feeling was surreal in the best way. It was just great to see Black excellence being lifted up, especially in such a historic site as the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Having their choir be a part of the proceedings along with the HGO Chorus, and seeing seats packed with such a diverse audience present—you couldn’t have left that space feeling that there wasn’t a broader, more diverse audience for opera than what you normally see. And doing it with intention, reaching out to people who normally wouldn’t go to the opera and the spirit in which you do it—all of that was brought to bear last year.  


I’m expecting to see that again this year. I’m really glad that we’re lifting up Black women this time around, and Rita Dove and Renée Richardson—our piece working along with that theme. So, yeah, I’m excited about this year and for the idea of what Giving Voice will be moving forward. It will be that place where we get to dream of a more equitable future. And hopefully, audiences for our regular season operas will be just as diverse as the audience that we see at Giving Voice. It will be incremental change, I’m sure, but I’m hoping that Giving Voice will play a role in diversifying HGO’s regular season audiences in the years to come.  

about the author
Amber Francis
Amber Francis is Communications Coordinator at Houston Grand Opera.