Twenty years ago—on February 5, 1999, to be exact—HGO opened a new production of La traviata. The stars onstage were Patricia Racette and Ramón Vargas, but the star in the orchestra pit was 35-year-old Patrick Summers.
He was just months into his tenure as HGO’s music director, and he was making his company debut. It was unusual—perhaps even unprecedented—that HGO named him as music director before he had ever conducted here. But Patrick Summers seemed tailor made for HGO. He had just made a highly acclaimed Metropolitan Opera debut and conducted several performances in the world premiere of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at San Francisco Opera, the company where he began his career.He had just been named principal guest conductor of San Francisco Opera.
When he came to Houston, Patrick was given the mission of raising the musical values of HGO. No one could have guessed how well he would succeed and where he would take the company in the 20 years to come.
The Maestro’s signature accomplishment has no doubt been his work with the HGO Orchestra. He came to Houston at a time when HGO and the Houston Symphony, which had played most of the Opera’s performances throughout the company’s history, were mutually ending their partnership. Beginning in the 2001–02 season, the HGO Orchestra would play all performances going forward.
Patrick knew it would take approximately a decade of working together for the group to become a cohesive opera orchestra, capable of playing the entire spectrum of the repertoire. The musicians worked hard, and sure enough, within one decade, the HGO Orchestra had won high praise for such performances as Handel’s Julius Caesar (“the orchestra plays like silk,” Houston Press), Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree (“a vigorous, sensitive performance,” San Francisco Chronicle)and Wagner’s Lohengrin (“triumphant,” CultureVulture).The ultimate test came in 2014–17 with Wagner’s Ring cycle: “…even among this stellar cast and fascinating production, the take-away was the magnificently paced conducting of Musical Director Patrick Summers. He had a wonderful orchestra to work with” (TheaterJones review of Götterdämmerung).
Raising the company’s musical values also included raising the level of singing. Patrick has demonstrated an uncanny way of knowing what kinds of roles particular singers are suited for—even roles they never thought they would sing. It was Patrick, according to HGO Director of Artistic Operations and Chorus Master Richard Bado, who pointed Studio alumna Tamara Wilson toward the dramatic Verdi soprano repertoire and gave her the opportunity to sing the challenging role of Amelia in Verdi’s A Masked Ball only months after she finished her Studio training. Her schedule is now filled with the great leading Verdi soprano roles, such as Amelia and Aida. Bado says it was also Patrick who recognized that Christine Goerke should be singing Wagner and hired her to sing Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin (2009). Now she is acclaimed world-wide as a Wagner-Strauss soprano, and HGO has been fortunate to see her as Brünnhilde in the Ring and most recently as the title role in Strauss’s Elektra, among others.Goerke said she thought he was “bananas” when he asked her to sing the mezzo role of Eboli in Don Carlos, “but it fit me perfectly. He was right.” Ana María Martínez thought he was “out of his mind” when he asked her to sing Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly. Now it’s one of her signature roles. The list goes on.
In 2011, Patrick added “artistic director” to his title, and since that time, he has been able to realize his vision to an even greater extent. HGO’s ground-breaking six-year initiative Seeking the Human Spirit was his conception, and he lays out much of the thinking behind it in his recently published book, The Spirit of This Place. He has introduced the company to repertoire and artists we may never have known. He increases HGO’s visibility through appearances as a guest conductor with opera companies around the world, and he is well known as a sensitive collaborator on new works. Some of his most prized recognition includes the 2015 San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor, and an honorary doctoral degree from his alma mater, Indiana University, where he began studying while still in his mid-teens.
In an interview for Opera Cues, when Summers had been with the company for only five years, he was asked what stood out to him as significant personal triumphs. He had this to say:
“When I came to Houston, I was at a career crossroads—I was going to either take a European orchestra or stay in the United States. I think to make a difference in an American company is the overriding reward, given the dire state of the art in the United States. I do hope that in this country, we will recognize what artistic expression means to a body of people. It’s the art we create that is going to define who we are when we’re not here.”
We are glad that when he stood at that crossroads, he chose HGO.
Thank you, Patrick! We look forward to many more years ahead.
From His Colleagues
“It’s hard to believe that it’s already Patrick’s 20 year anniversary at HGO! His arrival marked a new era for the company. The musical standards and expectations were raised—exactly what HGO needed at that point in our history. He has been a terrifically supportive boss and colleague.”
—Richard Bado, Director of Artistic Operations and Chorus Master
“HGO has so much to be grateful to David Gockley for. It was his vision that set the foundations for where we stand today, and one of his most significant moments came when he decided to appoint Patrick as music director and give him the resources to build an HGO Orchestra. That decision is the backbone of our artistic rise through the last 20 years. In hindsight, that may have been the defining moment in HGO’s history. Under Patrick's baton, the orchestra has evolved into one of the finest ensembles of any opera company.
Over the past seven years that he and I have jointly led HGO, we have all witnessed the breadth of Patrick's musical influences.
Thank you, Patrick, for an amazing 20 years, and here’s to the future and the continuing journey!”
—Perryn Leech, Managing Director
“When Patrick joined HGO two decades ago, he brought great artistry and technique. As he grew with the orchestra, both became truly world class. Thanks for the great ride, my friend. Here’s to the future.”
—Denise Tarrant, HGO Orchestra Concertmaster
(1) A landmark for Patrick and the HGO Orchestra—playing Lohengrin in 2009. Photo by Tim Tull.
(2) Patrick was named artistic and music director, and Perryn Leech as managing director, in the spring of 2011 upon the departure of Anthony Freud, general director. Photo by Eric Melear.
(3) Patrick welcomes composer André Previn to the stage for a curtain call on opening night of Brief Encounter, May 9, 2009. Photo by Eric Melear.
(4) New Music Week, February 17–21, 2003, was another milestone for Patrick and the Orchestra: Composers Daniel Catán, Jake Heggie, and Mark Adamo came to HGO to workshop scenes from their operas Salsipuedes, The End of the Affair, and Lysistrata, all of which were premiered at HGO within the following two seasons.