Into The Future
Getting to know Khori Dastoor, HGO’s new General Director and CEO, in a most Houston way
It’s a blazing hot Friday afternoon at Pinkerton’s Barbecue on Airline Drive. Out on the patio, smoke billows overhead, carrying with it delectable smells. The sounds of grackles, Spanish-language announcements from the bus station next door, and a rowdy group of co-workers celebrating with tequila shots fills the air.
At a picnic table near the back fence, sitting in front of a spread of brisket, ribs, and today’s special, Frito pie, is Houston Grand Opera’s new General Director and CEO, Khori Dastoor, having lunch, her mask tucked under a tray.
In her first address to HGO’s staff and artists this summer, she told her new team she was planning a quest to find the best barbecue in town, hence this pit stop at Pinkerton’s. She takes a bite of the Frito-based Texan dish. It’s new to her, but you would never know it. She fits right in here, her soft voice somehow perfectly clear through the noise as she warms to the subject of the universality of Carmen.
“Carmen is a perfect opera, and it also typifies the form,” she says. “And that’s because in a lot of operas, you see the same theme, which is an individual who just doesn’t fit into the environment, for whatever reason.”
Carmen is us, Dastoor reflects, but society is us too. When she dies, we’re all culpable. “The opera is about watching those tensions and watching the society cope with this individual who’s challenging everything. And oftentimes opera ends in death because that tension has to resolve. We need harmony again.”
The opera was one thing to Dastoor as a teenager; it’s another now that she’s a mother of daughters; one day, she knows, it will be something else. And her connection to Bizet’s masterpiece goes all the way back to 1875.
When she’s traveling, Dastoor explains, she and her children read a book called The Invisible Thread. “So, they know that there’s an invisible thread that connects me to them, and they send a whisper down the thread, and I send a whisper back,” she says. “And I feel that thread going back to the opening night of Carmen.”
She wonders aloud just how many human beings, over the course of history, have experienced Bizet’s score, whether there is some way to calculate it. “It continues to be the most successful single ticket draw of any opera we do,” she says, “and that’s why it’s going to be our first piece back, because it’s going to compel people to join us again after 18 months.”
When asked about evolving interpretations of the characters, Dastoor’s eyes flash. Her voice becomes emphatic. It’s as if she feels protective of this opera that means so much to her. “It’s not about someone needing to explain Carmen to me,” she says. “I know what I’m seeing. I know what I’m getting from it. Don’t explain to me what I’m supposed to hear. Try to cancel it. It’s not possible, because it’s there, it’s in our culture. So is that violence. So is that expression of oppression.”
During the conversation in the Houston heat, Dastoor has one foot in her new life in this city, and one in her soon-to-be-former life in San José, California, where she is wrapping up her duties as General Director and CEO of Opera San José through the end of the year. She and her family will be living in Houston full time as of January 2022.
“Houston,” Dastoor says, “is a city that typifies where we are right now as a country and as a culture. And HGO has shown a mitochondrial commitment to new work and commissioning the next generation of stories, American stories.”
So when HGO, searching for its next General Director, called, she knew it was her chance to take everything she’s learned over her multifaceted career and apply it on an international scale. “It’s the kind of call,” she says, “that you don’t let yourself imagine will come.”
While Dastoor’s path to assuming leadership of HGO is far from linear, there is a thread that extends all the way back to her childhood: her love of music.
“At a very young age when my friends and peers were finding a lot of community and belonging in team sports and in popular music, I was always super fascinated with classical music,” she remembers. She spent a lot of time by herself, absorbed in fairy tales and story ballets and painted books, practicing singing and teaching herself piano. “Figuring out how to express myself through my voice and through singing and through song has always been a part of me.”
It is, perhaps, no surprise that music was always a part of Dastoor’s family, too. Her parents both emigrated to the U.S., her father from India and mother from Indonesia via Holland, and they met in Ohio before driving to Southern California in a VW bus, settling in Pasadena, and starting a family. They were two hippies in love, but they came from different cultures and grew up speaking different languages.
“And one of the common things that they had was a shared love of music and classical music,” Dastoor remembers, adding: “The idea that opera is a Eurocentric art form or that Beethoven belongs to one culture more than another just isn’t my experience. It’s not my lived experience, because there are certain works of art that are just truly universal.”
Dastoor’s parents supported her interest in music, ferrying her to and from performances with the LA Children’s Chorus, while pushing her academically. She inherited from them a belief in hard work, education, putting in the hours to succeed, and striving for excellence.
When Dastoor decided to pursue a voice degree at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, it was a “conversation,” because her parents weren’t sure it was practical, but they continued to support her. “For me, the biggest gift they gave me was the privilege of being able to think about what brings joy and happiness to my life,” she says.
And so she had an inspiring, eye-opening experience in college, a period when she realized there were others out there who shared her passion, absorbed as much as she could from her peers and professors, and “attended performances every night of the week.” She remembers her college years as a “love affair with classical music” and a “spiritual awakening.”
Later she worked with LA Opera as a teaching artist with the Education Department and pursued her master’s and doctorate degrees in Opera Studies at UCLA. “It was just an incredible place to be as a graduate student,” she says. Philip Glass was on campus. She served as TA for Peter Sellars and for Bob Israel. She met then unknown composer Jake Heggie and wrote about his work. Then, when she was just shy of completing her doctorate, Irene Dalis of San José Opera hired her as a soprano with the company’s resident ensemble of principal artists, and a new era in her life began.
Dastoor brings with her to Houston Grand Opera a multitude of perspectives acquired over a fascinating and diverse career. When you put together her years spent as a soprano, her subsequent time spent at a foundation that assesses and funds arts initiatives, and her direct experience in arts administration, a picture begins to emerge, one of a leader able to approach her position from any number of angles.
In self-deprecating fashion, Dastoor describes her performance career as “not particularly remarkable, but incredibly educational.” For years she lived out of a suitcase, working in a lot of different styles, languages, and countries. She interacted with patrons, donors, supporters, and audience members in America and sang on stages all over the world. She observed how in Europe, opera is “a part of life in a different way, like breathing in and out.” And she soon found herself pondering what she thought was successful, and what was less so.
“Ultimately, I felt like I had something to say there, not just with my voice, but on the producing side, on the side of determining which teams were going to be making creative decisions.”
Then Dastoor’s life changed again. She got married, and she took a position as a grants administrator with the Packard Humanities Institute, a Silicon Valley non-profit dedicated to archaeology, music, film preservation, and historical archives. “I was able to contribute to partnerships with the most important cultural institutions in the world,” she says, institutions like the Mozarteum in Salzburg and the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, “and observe excellence at a level that just blew my mind.”
Dastoor learned how to evaluate institutional strength, how decisions get made around partnerships between institutions and grantees, and how to support project teams on the ground. And perhaps most important, she “learned a tremendous amount about kind of the special sauce needed to make a project successful.”
From PHI President David W. Packard, she learned that sauce’s main ingredient, which is that, “at the end of the day, most successful things are driven by an authentic and visionary leader who just won’t accept no for an answer.” She also learned to keep an eye on what matters. “The art is what’s important. We’re not going to make compromises when it comes to the art.”
While she was with PHI, Dastoor remained involved with Opera San José. In 2013 she was named Artistic Advisor to OSJ under founder Irene Dalis, and in 2015, she became Director of Artistic Planning under General Director Larry Hancock. After major successes including the American premiere of Alma Deutcher’s Cinderella and a celebrated new production of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, Dastoor was named the company’s new General Director in 2019, succeeding Hancock after his retirement.
Dastoor’s time in the role has been shorter than expected, but transformational nonetheless. Almost right off the bat, she had to confront the challenges of COVID, launching the nation’s first relief fund for artists and musicians while establishing a new digital media studio that has partnered with dozens of companies across the country and increased the company’s patron base. “It opened my eyes around what an opera company can be 365 days a year, despite a pandemic, despite not being able to perform. We were still serving our mission.”
Sitting at the picnic table at Pinkerton’s, Dastoor seems to reflect on what, exactly, has brought her to this place. “My life has been about opera,” she muses, “from being a children’s chorus participant to this new chapter in Houston.”
She thinks back to how she felt when she decided to stop singing, how she wondered how hard it would be, not having opera as part of her professional life. “Ultimately, I never had to answer the question, because it just stayed in my life in a creative way,” she says.
“And I found myself so much more fulfilled supporting artists, funding projects, identifying talent, being able to say yes to things, being able to make things happen, being able to choose what was really going to happen, and being in the driver’s seat in a way that I never had been.”
Now Dastoor is in the driver’s seat at HGO, charged with no less a task than steering one of the most important arts organizations in America, located in one of the country’s largest and most diverse cities, into the future.
“I feel, still, like I’m pinching myself for having earned the confidence of this board,” Dastoor says. “There’s no other institution in the world where I feel like I could have the impact I want to have. My ambition is to create new American stories for the stage and for online consumption, to really align this institution’s brand with the brand of American opera for the next century, and for patrons who are going to be consuming it 50 years from now.”
It’s only right, then, that she does so here in Houston. After all, this is a place where the future already has arrived, one that other cities will look like in a few decades. And while HGO is facing the same challenges as every other company in the industry—how to build audiences in a world with so many options, for an art form that requires an investment of time and energy to appreciate and enjoy—in important ways, the company is uniquely situated to address those challenges, and to lead the way.
“The opportunity is tremendous, and the potential is limitless,” says Dastoor. “Houston Grand Opera’s commitment to new work, to innovation, and to driving reform forward—that’s what’s compelling to me about the job. And Houston, I think, is better poised to tackle it than any other company in the country.”
Onstage and online, Dastoor wants HGO to perform universal stories—beloved operas like Carmen alongside new American works—that help us connect to one another while living in a world that can feel increasingly fractured. “What are our values? What makes us a nation?” she asks. “We consume different media and encounter different realities, so finding that societal connective tissue that will continue to bring us together becomes pretty important.
“You could argue that there’s a smaller marketplace for classical arts and culture, but I think there’s more need than ever before,” she continues. “If HGO can start with a mandate to serve people that live in a city that represents so many different walks of life and so many different worldviews, that’s an affirmation of our shared humanity.”
Letting the people who live here shape the path ahead: that is what Dastoor believes will determine HGO’s future. “And other companies won’t be doing that because that’s not their mandate, but it is Houston Grand Opera’s mandate, and it always has been,” she says. “And I think that Houston audiences know that that’s why HGO exists, and that they’re going to see us grappling with the messiness of that.”
As for Dastoor herself, she is excited to be making Houston her home, with all the grappling and all the messiness that entails. As lunch wraps up and she prepares to head out to her next meeting, she shares that she feels grateful—that her girls will grow up in a place that values the arts, that the community has been so welcoming, that Houstonians have stuck by HGO during this period of disruption. “This company has been able to continue to create excellent world-class programming, despite a hurricane, despite a pandemic, despite everything,” she says, “so I know the capacity is truly limitless.”
Of course, Dastoor is also deeply grateful that live grand opera is coming back. Like so many others who love this art form, she has missed it with her entire being. “I need—we need—to be in connection with one another. And if you look at the operatic canon, that’s what the stories are about.”