HGO’s new composer-in-residence, Joel Thompson, on the power of musical storytelling
“ I believe that musical storytelling can be a site of liberation. There’s something about opera that requires community. It requires acknowledgement of something outside of ourselves.”
That’s how Houston Grand Opera’s first-ever full-time composer-in-residence started a recent conversation about his new role, which he assumed in August. Joel Thompson is a 33-year-old composer, born in the Bahamas to Jamaican parents, who moved to Houston in grade school and then to Atlanta where he stayed through his first degree at Emory University. He recently finished coursework for his doctorate at Yale University, which he did while writing his very first opera, The Snowy Day, with librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney. The opera, which premiered at HGO in December 2021, established Joel as one of the leading voices in the next generation of composers and led to his five-year appointment in Houston.
While composing his first opera, Joel says, he was gripped by the art form’s power. “The Snowy Day was revolutionary for me as an artist. It allowed me to be a part of telling a story through music. Musical storytelling is a part of Black phenomena in every genre, whether hip-hop or rap—it’s all about telling stories,” he says.
“Especially now, in this age of critical race theory, where a lot of the world is trying to say stop complaining, stop being too loud, there’s this musical space where none of that matters. Opera is supposed to be loud. It’s grand. It invites you to laugh, to cry, to be as melodramatic as you want to be. It’s the full range of human emotion, and the great power of music is supporting all of that storytelling.”
Joel’s way with words is inspiring; it’s also nothing compared to his way with words and music in harmony. As a full-time member of the company, Joel will spend the next five seasons developing four pieces, beginning with a song cycle for HGO Studio artists and culminating in another world premiere opera.
Joel sees limitless possibility in what he, in tandem with the Houston community, might create during his time in this city. “I’m hoping that my time here can be a part of our society starting to consider musical storytelling to be a center of our culture. We get to define what our culture is, what it is to be American, and we get to do it together,” he says.
“I can imagine a future world in which everyone, regardless of background, can see one another more clearly, because of the power of musical storytelling. If we see our diverse stories being told in this space, if we go in with the intention to make quality art that allows even the most marginalized among us to be seen, we can be a part of the evolution of this great experiment that is the American democracy. Because we have interacted with each other in a musical storytelling space, that changes the way we interact with each other outside of that space.”
And what better place to experiment with the power of musical storytelling than in Houston, the most diverse city in the country? Joel’s residency places him side by side with this community, making art that speaks to us and for us, inviting us to musical empathy with everyone around us.
“The art that we make in Houston can be a template for other major art and cultural hubs in the country to also contemplate the idea of America. We’re obviously undergoing growing pains in this country, in its adolescence, seemingly trying to devour each other because of differences of culture, ethnicity, and identity. We have to find ways to live with each other. If we can see each other clearly, and empathetically, in this musical storytelling space, we can figure out a lot of that noise,” he says.
We will not get there through words alone, Joel believes. “That’s the mystery of music. If we could articulate it, we would stop making music,” he says. “We’re still making music because it does something that language can’t do, regardless of which language we speak—something is communicated so that, when wielded intentionally and respectfully, the art of music is an invitation to empathy. I’m not saying music is something that can force the coldest heart to melt. But it can say, ‘I’m here. I’ve taken all my walls down. Come and see me, who I really am.’” ∎