Litmus Test

By Brittany Duncan, HGOco Programs Director

For me the most exciting part of producing new opera is watching how what was just an idea morphs into a fully formed work of art.  When we first started talking with composer David Hanlon about this project more than two years ago, he had a general idea of what he wanted to create—an opera focused on Galveston and hurricanes.  But now I can look at the finished opera, After the Storm, and remember the specific interviews and research that inspired particular words, phrases, and moments in Stephanie Fleischmann’s libretto.

During the process of developing this opera, we spent a lot of time speaking with people in Galveston who were there during Hurricane Ike and whose families were there for the Great Storm of 1900. When people are generous enough to share their experiences and pieces of their lives with you for the purpose of creating art, you really feel an obligation and a sense of responsibility to them.  You want to be respectful, but you also want the artists to have the freedom to create.  Sometimes it’s not about being 100% factual—they need artistic license—but rather about honoring the spirit of what people have shared.

The scariest moments of the process have been when we’ve presented pieces of the work to the people who inspired them, because it is a litmus test of whether what has been created is true. We did a libretto reading in Galveston last spring, and it was the first time anyone outside the creative team had heard the text of the opera.  At the end there was a moment of silence, and then the first comment was, “You nailed it. That’s what it feels like to be in a hurricane.”  I let out a sigh of relief and I know everyone else did too.  That’s when I knew it would be okay.

One of the things I noticed early on in the process is that every time I mentioned this opera to anyone, they would want to share their own hurricane-related experiences. Everyone in this area has a storm story! As a result, we started looking for a way to give people a forum come together around those stories, which led to the open mic event Storm Songs & Stories in early May at Rudyard’s Pub.  Pat Jasper, who directs the Houston Art Alliance’s Folklife + Traditional Arts program, was the perfect partner since she had led projects collecting stories around Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  We were thrilled to have singer songwriters, Houston’s poet laureate, even some HGO staff members telling their own stories and poems. 

Every creative team works in a different way, and takes a different path to figure out how to collaborate most effectively.  My role changes with each team, which keeps things interesting.  This team—composer/conductor David Hanlon, librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, and director Matthew Ozawa—has been intense in the best way.  During the libretto workshop Stephanie was up until all hours, adjusting and creating new material based on what happened in the workshop each day.  Last week (two weeks into the rehearsal process), David reworked the end of one scene in order to sharpen the dramatic impact. And Matthew has done amazing work conjuring the world of this opera in a spare and poetic visual language. All three of them are perfectionists in a wonderful way, not afraid to question each other and get into it, safe in the knowledge that they all have the best interests of the work at heart.

It is fitting that the final performance of After the Storm will take place in Galveston.  The opera house itself is a survivor of the Great Storm and all those since, and many of the audience members will have had experiences very similar to those depicted in the opera, so the feeling in the theater should be pretty powerful.  On the other hand, while on one level this is a very local story, it’s become very clear through this process that the experience of living through a crisis is something that everyone can relate to. You don’t need to be a storm survivor to feel its impact.