Opera Femmina

by Carleen Graham, director of HGOCo


HGOco’s history of creating new chamber operas continues with three unique works that tell important stories about women: Marian’s Song tells the story of the legendary vocal artist Marian Anderson, Turn and Burn explores the lives of female rodeo athletes and rodeo culture in modern-day Houston, and Katie: The Strongest of the Strong takes us back to when P.T. Barnum’s circus was all the rage and Katie Sandwina found celebrity as a strongwoman before promoting women’s rights.



Marian's Song Image

Marian Anderson. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian.


Composed by Damien Sneed (HGOco 2018–19 Music Director and Composer-In-Residence) to a libretto by Houston’s poet laureate emeritus, Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, the chamber opera tells the story of Marian Anderson through the eyes of modern-day college student Nevaeh. The opera combines classical music with an array of musical styles, as well as with spoken word.

A libretto workshop was held in March where the composer, librettist, local actors, and stage director, Dennis Whitehead Darling, dug into the libretto draft created by Mouton. Actors read the libretto and the creative team discussed strategies about dramatic arc, narrative, and structure that would best suit it to a musical setting. The spoken word element adds dimension—it is the only means by which Nevaeh communicates—while the character of Marian only sings. Librettist Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton says, “Like opera, spoken word has always been about telling a compelling story. The power of embracing the raw and visceral wordplay within a more classically celebrated art form, is that it opens the doors for people who have found no place in either world to connect in a way they never imagined. In doing so, we level generational and socio-economic barriers and prove that art has the power to connect us on a human level that we can feel at our core.” Two other actor/singers will round out the cast (playing multiple roles) that will also include a small chorus. A music workshop will take place in late November prior to the premiere in March 2020.

“My compositional goal is to set the libretto in a manner that incorporates opera’s traditional texture within a modern musical sound environment,” says composer Damien Sneed. “The challenge comes in making sure that Marian Anderson’s artistic legacy is musically represented and preserved with the highest level of excellence while giving it a strong appeal for younger audience members. I am using elements of romantic opera, avant-garde classical, jazz, gospel, and the African American spiritual for my musical palette.”

 Mouton and HGOco Education Manager Alisa Magallón are also working to create an interdisciplinary curriculum that will be available in the form of in-school residencies. Marian Anderson was an important pre-civil rights figure, and the curriculum, combining social studies, history, music, and creative writing, will focus on Anderson and contemporaries who forged the path to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Marian’s Song will premiere in the Cullen Theater with performances on March 5 and 6, 2020, including an education matinee on March 6 at 10 a.m. For more information, visit HGO.org/marian.



Rodeo opera Turn and Burn will premiere in Houston in March of 2021. Composer Nell Shaw Cohen, librettist Megan Cohen, and stage director Leslie Swackhammer are the creative team behind this HGOco Song of Houston chamber opera, which held a libretto workshop late last November. Composer Nell Shaw Cohen is now hard at work composing the opera so it can be ready for its next workshop in December of this year. 

Turn and Burn tells parallel stories of a barrel racer and a young Hispanic businesswoman whose lives intersect at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. When professional setbacks threaten to derail their careers, the two form a friendship, finding newfound strength to help each other rise again. The music will reflect both classical, traditional country, and western music. It will utilize a string quartet, drums, and acoustic steel string and electric guitars.



Katie Sandwina “the Lady Hercules”

Katie Sandwina “the Lady Hercules”


Composer Faye Chiao and librettist Anton Dudley’s work tells the story of real-life strongwoman and suffragette Katie Sandwina. The 45-minute, student and family-friendly opera was recently workshopped in May and will continue development until its premiere in fall of 2020.

Katie: The Strongest of the Strong is unique in that it will feature a cast of five female singers (mezzo to high soprano). The story is told through the eyes of Marina, a reporter from the past who is inspired by Katie’s mental and physical strength. Three “Barbelles” (Beryl, Bebe, and Bernice) round out the cast by portraying a number of colorful characters. This girl-power opera is sure to be a hit for all ages.







Seeking the Human Spirit continues this fall when a new course for life-long learners, inspired by HGO’s Transforming the Mind & Spirit: An Exploration of Creativity event from this past May, will provide participants with opportunities to discover and cultivate a variety of creative practices while collectively producing an original work based on the Seeking the Human Spirit 2019–20 theme of Identity.

The seven-week course will include singing, creative writing and song composition, improvisatory acting, and expressive movement led by guest teaching artists who will be shepherding participants through a variety of creative processes throughout the course.

This course also includes access to final dress rehearsals of HGO’s mainstage fall repertoire—Verdi’s Rigoletto and Handel’s Saul—plus one backstage tour. A final presentation of the created work, presented prior to the final dress rehearsal of Saul, will complete this creative learning adventure. No previous experience is required, only the willingness to explore and think outside of the box.

HGOco Education Manager Alisa Magallón will be the primary instructor of the course and says, “It’s important to acknowledge the artist that lives inside each and every one of us. While most of us are able to identify art that we respond to positively, it sometimes is much more challenging to acknowledge that we are all capable of making meaningful art. For empty nesters, persons in retirement, or ones who have a flexible schedule, art making while being part of an engaging social group can greatly add to one's quality of life. This course rounds out an inclusive offering of programs designed to invite all ages to create art and music with Houston Grand Opera.”

The new course, priced at $300, consists of eight sessions running from September 10 through October 23. To register, visit HGO.org/creativeidentity.