The return of Houston Grand Opera’s live performances
There is a well known and quite moving tradition in the theater called the ghost light. The ghost is a bright light at center stage that is on whenever a theater is empty, which pre-pandemic meant mostly at night, from the end of a performance to the next working day. The ghost light has a pragmatic purpose, of course, for safety. During the pandemic, though, the ghost light has become a powerful symbol: it says “we will be back.” And here are the happiest four words I have written in 16 months: we will be back.
And here are the happiest four words I have written in 16 months: we will be back. The ghost lights of the world’s theaters have been glowing for too long, and too many artists have been severed from what they were born to do. Theaters exist for bringing people together, and that has been the one thing we have not been able to safely do in the wake of a public health catastrophe. HGO has certainly not been idle: to replace the nine productions the coronavirus forced us to cancel, we produced 25 releases for HGO Digital, the Sarah and Ernest Butler Performance Series, plus a few extras, and we are a proud company of all of them. We’ve also produced 50 Monday Night Opera programs, plus much else, all while coming to terms with the same harsh realities of the pandemic being faced all over the world. Our return to live performances feels like more than just an oasis in a desert; this is a homecoming that arrives at the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of the most profound existential crisis the live performing arts have ever faced.
It is no revelation to anyone that the past 16 months have been devastating to the arts, but it is important to remember that artists have been hit uniquely hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Artists and all of the many others in careers which support them largely had no safety net to protect their free-lancing lives. Artists plan their budgets for children, schools, mortgages, and all of life’s necessities with meticulous care based on what they can predict from their income. Solo artists like opera singers get paid only when they perform, composers when they compose, etc., and all of the many performers and
theatrical artisans of all kinds who comprise an arts company are dependent on the live performing arts not only for their livelihood but for their sense of purpose and humanity. Art is not just a profession—it is a passionate calling on many levels, a spiritual quest, and we long for the ghost light to be turned
off, the house lights lowered, and the real lights, those great theatrical lights that make actors come alive and create sunsets and rainstorms, to start their magic again. So, yes, it has been a long and difficult journey for the family of Houston Grand Opera, as it has been for everyone. Dear audience, we have missed you most of all. We have missed the live sound of singing and playing. We have missed the stage manager calling “half hour.” We have missed being together. We have missed costumes and make-up and ushers and dinners before the performance and celebratory drinks after. We have missed our colleagues. We have missed Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini. We have missed, surprisingly, applause. When it was first mentioned in the summer of 2020 that there might be no live performances in the United States until the autumn of 2021, we were breathless, unable to imagine such a long time away. Yet now, here we are.
There is so much to look forward to next season, so many artists to cherish, and so many things to bring us together: Carmen, The Snowy Day, Dialogues of the Carmelites, The Magic Flute, Turandot, Romeo and Juliet. Are there highlights? An opera season, for me and all of my HGO colleagues, consists entirely of highlights winnowed down from thousands of ideas over the years. But all parents have favored children, and I have mine: The Snowy Day is the most important opera of next season because it is the future of the art.
Its brilliant young composer, Joel Thompson, together with the librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney, have found a gentle and moving vision for the future of the art, in an opera that can’t help but make you feel better about life. Our cast for Dialogues of the Carmelites is a group of profound artists. Francis Poulenc’s searing and moving opera tells the true story of a group of Carmelite nuns during the French Revolution who refused to renounce their faith and were sent to the guillotine. Within this remarkable score we experience every crisis of faith and meaning that humans have faced for generations. This operatic drama has no equal in the repertoire. If you can only make one opera next year, make it this one. You’ll never forget it.
A brilliant young cast brings the insights of a new generation to Rob Ashford’s choreographic Carmen. Barrie Kosky, who directed our magnificent Saul production, directs Mozart’s glorious Magic Flute as you have never seen it before, as an Edward Gorey surrealist fantasy—and how we need Mozart’s magnificent journey from nature to culture, full of trials and whimsy. Robert Wilson’s painterly formalism will transform the fairytale of Turandot into a passionate meditation on otherness, far from the clichés of western portrayals of China. Romeo and Juliet will feature one of today's greatest tenors, Michael Spyres, someone whose vocal artistry harkens back to a golden age. He leads a thrilling cast, with the Guatemalan soprano Adriana González as his starcrossed Juliet.
I am in deep gratitude for the many operas I have conducted in Houston over many years here, and I look forward to leading The Snowy Day, Dialogues
of the Carmelites, and Romeo and Juliet next season. For the first time in our history, or the first time in the history of any company for that matter, every other opera next season will be conducted by a woman. HGO’s Principal Guest Conductor, Eun Sun Kim, will conduct Turandot, and her colleagues Lidiya Yankovskaya and Jane Glover join her on the podium next year. I look forward to a time when it is not newsworthy that half of a season’s podium time is privileged with women. HGO welcomes the richness of this moment with these brilliant maestri.
There is lots to look forward to, and I know I speak for every person involved in Houston Grand Opera when I express multiple layers of gratitude to many people: gratitude for you who will join us next season, gratitude that you have supported us through this terrible time, gratitude that we will all be together making music again, and gratitude that we will see each other soon.
Our fellow Texan, Dan Rather, born in Wharton 89 years ago, has eloquently articulated a lot of American life in his long career. Just a few short months before the invisible airborne contagion shaped like a crown reordered our world, he spoke a great truth about art. How could he have been so prescient? On September 8, 2019, Rather wrote:
“Somewhere, amid the darkness, a painter measures a blank canvas, a poet tests a line aloud, a songwriter brings a melody into tune. Art inspires, provokes thought, reflects beauty and pain. I seek it out even more in these times. And in so doing, I find hope in the human spirit.”
The ghost light needs a rest. We will see you at the Wortham!