Unsung Heroes: Dennis Whittaker
By: HGO Managing Director Perryn Leech
Dennis Whittaker has been the principal bassist for the Houston Grand Opera orchestra for over 20 years and has even earned a reputation as the “opera bass player” in the international bass community. I talked to him about his journey as both an educator and an artist, and what he loves most about his work in Houston.
PL: Let’s just start with where you grew up.
DW: I grew up in Kansas City. My mother was a secretary at a trucking company and bank and my father was a photojournalist for the Kansas City Star—but he was also a bit of a Renaissance man. He played guitar and I grew up listening to him make up songs on the spot. I have one younger brother who played drums for a while, but he became more involved in speech and debate teams as well as computers.
PL: At what age did you start playing instruments?
DW: I started playing violin in fifth grade and played for two years in my middle school orchestra. I stunk at it, but I loved it. In seventh grade, my teacher said, “you have square hands, Dennis. You would be a great bass player.” We didn't have a bass player and I was last chair violin. So, I figured out later that he was just feeding me a line to motivate me to play the bass. But somehow, the notes fit under my fingers right away and my ears were tuned better for bass. I also played in jazz band. We had a very active public education system in Kansas City, at that time. All of the school ensembles—jazz band, orchestras, show choir, etc.—performed in the community regularly.
PL: And what about high school? Were you thinking then that you were headed for a career as an instrumentalist?
DW: Looking back on it, I think that I was very much living in the moment. What gave me pleasure was the next concert, the next show, the next jazz band, the next rehearsal. I wanted to go somewhere where I could play. I wanted to major in music, but I didn't know if I wanted to do performance or education. My high school orchestra teacher wanted me to go to Juilliard and I wanted to go to Baylor. I wanted to leave Kansas City, not because I hated Kansas City, I just wanted to go explore. I ended up at Baylor. I went in as a performance major, and then my freshman year I changed to music education because that was where the jobs were.
PL: So you were then focused on music education. When did a career in performing come back into focus?
DW: In 1986 I won a competition by a bass player named Gary Karr, the founding member of the International Society of Bassists. Gary Karr also had a foundation that sponsored a competition in which you could win a bass. When I won this competition in 1986, I not only won a professional quality instrument to play on, but I also realized that I had a voice that could compete on the national level.
So, after finishing my degree in Music Education at Baylor, I went to Northwestern in Chicago. I finished graduate school in 1990 and then I went back to Waco to teach at a public school. After two years in Waco, I got a job teaching in the Houston area. I taught in Pasadena for one year and then in Kingwood for several years.
PL: What eventually pulled you away from teaching?
DW: I got a job playing jazz at a cute Brazilian cafe. And with that, I got my chops back and I got back in good playing condition. I practiced and took lessons to get everything back up to a competitive level. The final catalyst was that a good friend of mine lost a child unexpectedly while I was deciding whether I should stay teaching or pursue my playing. And when you realize that your life's not really in your own hands anyway—why not go chase your dreams? So, I did.
PL: How did you start playing with HGO and how did that progress into today?
DW: In 1996, three things happened. I won the principal job for the Houston Grand Opera, I won a substitute position with the Houston Symphony, and I secured the bass teacher job at the University of Houston. It was hard because at that time there was no promise of a career. I feel like I won the lottery at the opera because I went from playing two productions per season, to six each season over the course of my tenure. At University of Houston, I grew the bass studio from one to sixteen students. Eventually this led me to build up an income that was comparable to what I was making before—but it was very scary.
PL: What is the biggest difference between playing with the symphony and playing with the opera?
DW: As a performer, the opera experience is much more multi-dimensional than the symphony experience. On stage, the musical energy comes from the director. In the pit, the energy comes from the conductor, but there are so many variables that can change the energy during the performance—singers, orchestral soloists, the chorus, the acting. As a bass player, I feel like my job is to help keep the time going, even if any unexpected energy shifts occur. I communicate often with the music director to unify our strategy to make that happen.
PL: And when other conductors come in, do they have a different view?
DW: Yes, very much. Even doing La bohème. We've done La bohème maybe ten times in my time here. But with different conductors, it’s never the same opera twice.
PL: Do you still play jazz?
DW: I do, but not professionally. I am still in the freelance pool, so I do play some non-classical gigs. I played with The Who for instance and I will be playing with The Eagles. I still have friends that I play jazz and wedding receptions with.
PL: And what about your work at University of Houston—how has your earlier career as an educator and your performance career influenced your teaching there? Your own career path is a good example that there is no definitive path!
DW: There is no career path. When people say, “I want to do what you do.” I respond, “okay. Well, get married young, go teach for six years, witness some horrific things with your students, take a risk for three years and make no income, make an exciting life outside of music, and so on.” I mean, there's all these things that make life richer and put things in perspective for a community and for people. At UH, I've been trying to mold my teaching model into more of a mentorship and I’m talking to students about the cost-benefit analysis of being working artists. In Houston for instance, there are fourteen living wage, salaried positions for bass players–and I have two of them.
PL: Is there a show that you’ve worked on at HGO that you’re particularly proud of?
DW: The Passenger. I loved going to New York and taking The Passenger there. The story is still something that I can't listen to casually. I have to really have a good glass of scotch when I listen to that. And then A Coffin in Egypt performed in Wharton just for that audience connection to see those people looking at the opera—their own story—for the first time. Saul was spectacular. The Britten operas are still a treasure to me because it was a small orchestra and I got to play the one bass part. Billy Budd—there were two performances of Billy Budd that were absolutely mind-blowing for me musically. And then Hansel and Gretel because I got to meet Maurice Sendak. So those are the ones that stand out—I guess there are more than just one!
PL: You have been a valued member of the HGO family for quite some time. What has changed in your time here and what has stayed the same?
DW: I think what impresses me right now is how significant HGO seems to represent in our community. I think that the company is still setting the standard for opera companies across the world. We're still doing world premieres, but we're also still very focused on local stories. And to me, that's always been the part of this company that gives me the most pleasure—is knowing that the company that I yield my artistic energies towards is using it in a very productive, very forward-thinking way.