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Weaving a Universal Song from Specific Stories
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Opera America Magazine4/1/2009

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In November 2007, Houston Grand Opera presented the world premiere of The Refuge, a large-scale oratorio in which community performers joined the Houston Grand Opera chorus, orchestra, children’s chorus and members of the HGO Studio in a musical portrait of Houston’s rich cultural diversity. The project was not only a continuation of the company’s commitment to creating new work for the stage; it marked the beginning of a new effort to establish Houston Grand Opera as a vital cultural resource for the people of Houston. HGOco is the name given to a diversified menu of community programs, ranging from teacher workshops to a high school voice studio. Within HGOco, Song of Houston is a series of collaborative artistic projects — beginning with The Refuge — designed to explore the stories of Houston and the people who live and work there.

Shirin Herman, who handles refugee services for the Houston Independent School District, began working with HGOco during the development process for The Refuge. “They were collecting refugee stories, and I told them about this family from the Congo.” Herman accompanied Leah Lax, the librettist, on a visit to the family. “It was a very difficult conversation. Recounting that kind of horrendous story is depressing. Then we were leaving and I asked the kids what they wanted to be, and one said a singer, so I asked if they could sing for us.” The performance was so impressive that the family was invited to be a part of the production.

The Refuge tells the stories of different ethnic communities in Houston. While cultural diversity is a subject on the minds of many arts organizations, HGOco Manager Sue Elliott is careful to point out that Song of Houston has an even broader agenda. “I think it is really important that we look at all of the different kinds of stories we can tell. For us to limit it to ethnic exploration is in itself a kind of tokenism.” So, for example, HGOco plans to present a work in partnership with Emergency Services to commemorate the 10th anniversary of September11. “We want to artistically celebrate the wonderful work the people of Emergency Services do every day in Houston.”

“No project happens without a lot of research and one-on-one contact,” says Sandra Bernhard, director of HGOco. “We meet with people to learn what is happening. What is the story? Who are the important people? We are invested in hearing the story and then telling the story.”

Elliott spends a much of her time speaking with a wide range of Houstonians, from representatives of underserved communities to academics. “I have to know a lot before I begin these conversations. We are asking people to share their personal stories. So if I am speaking to a member of the Taiwanese community, I would lose a lot of credibility if I didn’t know anything about their political history and, in this instance, Chiang Kai-shek. I need to do my homework before I expect anyone to trust me.”

This season, Song of Houston is exploring the development of the blues through several parallel projects. Graduate students in creative writing at University of Houston worked with senior citizens in Houston’s Third Ward, a historic African-American community, to help the seniors write lyrics. The lyrics are being set by composers from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. HGOco also hired a writer and composer to interview community builders from the African-American community. The material gathered by this creative team will form the basis of musical portraits that will be performed in concert, along with the songs written by the composition students and seniors.

For the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, HGOco will create songs and song cycles that talk about state-sponsored prejudice of all kinds, such as segregation and apartheid. “I like the idea of songs and song cycles, partially because they are more portable. We can take them into hundreds of venues around the city,” says Elliott.

Performances outside the opera house are key feature of Song of Houston. Herman, who notes that there was some initial skepticism about the opera company’s motivation for reaching out, says that the community performances helped demonstrate the company’s “genuineness and sincerity. Before The Refuge was complete, there were performances at an African restaurant, in homes, in party halls. This led to a general feeling that they genuinely wanted to hear and then tell our stories, that is not just a commercial endeavor.”

“Our investment in HGOco has almost nothing to do with generating future ticket income — though, naturally, we try to interest everyone we encounter in coming to our performances,” says General Director and CEO Anthony Freud. “If we try to justify our investment in HGOco in that way, we will fail. There are more cost-efficient ways to generate new ticket buyers. This investment has to do with redefining why we exist. To be relevant to our multi-cultural city, we must do more than put on great performances in our opera house. We must take our company out of the opera house into the community. But we are not simply arriving in a Pakistani or a Vietnamese community, for example, saying we think you should like opera. We have to think about the way we can use our art form to build bridges. The essence of opera is the telling of stories through words and music. That is utterly universal.”

HGOco staff have learned that it is important not to make assumptions as they plan projects. The company is currently developing a Mariachi piece, working with members of the local Mexican and Mexican-American community. As with other projects, they wanted to go beyond the opera house and present performances in venues familiar to those communities. “When we asked them where they went to see concerts, they all said, ‘The Wortham Center, the Toyota Center,’” says Elliott. “I was working really hard to find alternate venues, but we feel it will be appropriate to premiere this project in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham.”

Leonard Foglia will write the book, design and direct the project, working in collaboration José “Pepe” Martínez, music director of the famed Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán. While the 113-year-old Mariachi band is firmly rooted in tradition, the tradition is an evolving one, according to Elliott. “When Pepe took over as music director, he introduced the idea of individual solos, like those in a jazz concert.” The piece will employ a traditional 13-piece Mariachi band, which will be integrated into the action onstage. “In Mexico, mariachi music accompanies every important event, from birth to courtship, from a wedding to a funeral. We don’t have the equivalent in the U.S., a kind of music that is part of your whole life.”

As HGOco began working with Foglia to develop the piece, they sought out stories from the Mexicans and Mexican- Americans living in Houston. “We have three women in our costume shop from Guadalajara, and Lenny wanted to spend time with them. They talked about the difficulty of living in two worlds and not belonging to either.”

While Foglia will create the overall narrative structure, Martínez will write both music and lyrics. “It seems like the logical thing,” says Foglia. “I think the essential voice of the piece has to be Mexican. Mariachi music has to be sung in Spanish. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some English at some point, but I wanted two-thirds — if not more — of actual voice of piece to be authentically Mexican. My job is to create a story that is specific to the Mexican-American experience, but also universal. That is hopefully what all drama does — by getting specific, you are universal. My family came
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