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Why do we need new operas?

A statement from HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers

A longtime subscriber to HGO spoke to me recently about operas she’d particularly enjoyed. She mentioned one frustration, though, “why do we need to do new operas at all? Aren’t there plenty of old ones we haven’t seen yet?”

I liked her direct question, and I also partly agreed with her: there are a lot of worthy older operas we’ve never produced. I asked what worried her about new operas. “Discordant music”, she replied. So, I assured her that Tarik O’Regan’s ebullient score for The Phoenix is tonal and tuneful, comic and clever. Rehearsals for The Phoenix have been a thrilling and challenging process of discovery for all of us, from absorbing John Caird’s literate and extremely funny multi-lingual libretto, to unlocking Tarik’s considerably demanding and propulsive rhythmic world.

What will you experience at The Phoenix? You will find something absolutely new, relevant, and current, but wrapped in familiarity: an immigrant’s story from the earliest decades of our country, and a glimpse into one of the most richly diverse lives in history.

Lorenzo Da Ponte, the poet who ignited Mozart’s boundless imagination, is the title character of The Phoenix, and few people so little-known had such a broad impact on their world. He was a child of the Enlightenment, born Jewish in Venice, baptized Catholic, and his life was a relentless spiritual quest that brought him to America a decade after Mozart’s death. In an era in which few people strayed far from where they were born, Da Ponte’s life stretched from Venice to Vienna to London to several places in America: New Jersey, Philadelphia, Susquehanna Valley, and finally New York City. Da Ponte was born before the United States existed, and at the very moment our liberating revolutions were being fought and our venerated founding documents being drafted, Mozart was composing to Da Ponte’s texts their three eternal operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni, which is also playing in this spring repertoire in a riveting new co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

What you will experience at The Phoenix is actually an opera-within-an-opera. In the plot of our opera, Da Ponte is writing an opera in the early 1830s called The Phoenix, through which the events of his life, and the many people with whom he interacted, including Mozart and Casanova, pursue his memory and find their way into his ‘new’ opera. The Phoenix is a ‘number’ opera in the manner of Mozart, meaning it comes in a form opera lovers will recognize, with recitatives, arias, ensembles, and a huge choral landscape. The exemplary Houston Grand Opera Chorus is especially memorable in this opera.

The distinguished American baritone Thomas Hampson and his real life son-in-law, Luca Pisaroni, together play Lorenzo da Ponte, old and young, and Luca also plays a son of Da Ponte, Enzo, one of his 9 children. The debuting French-Canadian mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb has the awesome task of bringing to life Da Ponte’s wife Nancy, the great operatic diva Maria Malibran, and the extraordinary Mozart himself, since we thought Mozart should be played by someone who would play his beloved Cherubino. Chad Shelton, always such a powerhouse on our stage, is especially so here in 6 different roles, and is joined by hilariously dueling high sopranos Lauren Snouffer and Elizabeth Sutphen, who play Da Ponte’s Italian nieces.

British-American composer Tarik O’Regan’s music draws on many influences: northern African music, Renaissance vocal music, even 1960s British rock bands, where he seems to have found some of his brain-stretching rhythms. His professional career began at Oxford University, which was when I first heard about him and started following him. Librettist and Director John Caird is a renowned English writer and director who has had enormous artistic impact at Houston Grand Opera, directing many productions with us: Tosca, La Boheme, Don Carlos, and writing and directing Brief Encounter with Andre Previn. His humorous and moving libretto for The Phoenix is like a great treasure map, loaded with historical details for the attentive.

Back to the engaging lady I was talking to: I wanted to fully answer her original question: why perform new operas when there so many great old ones? Opera has only ever been advanced by creations born in the ether of a composer’s imagination. Since the truest expression of love for anything is to create more of it, the most important work HGO does is the rejuvenation of the repertoire with works of our own time. Long in the future, what will be artistically remembered about our era will be the creations we leave behind, as well as the launching of the gifted army of artists needed to bring them to life. New operas best represent the core mission of why HGO exists at all.

-Patrick Summers

HGO Artistic and Music Director