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Lone Star Opera
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Opera America Magazine4/1/2009

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A certain tall-hatted swagger is often associated with residents of the Lone Star State — and why not? Texans have much to be proud of. Their home state is one of the top producers of oil, beef and cotton, as well as a leading player in the space and technology industries. Texas is also home to eight professional company members of OPERA America — only New York and California have more.

But don’t conflate pride with prickliness. While there is no shortage of swag bearing the confrontational slogan —“Don’t Mess with Texas”— created for a 1986 anti-litter campaign, “Texas” is derived from a Native American word meaning “Hello, friend.” The state began welcoming assorted traveling opera troupes in the 1860s; the Metropolitan Opera first visited in 1901, bringing performances of Lohengrin to Houston and San Antonio, followed by 1905 performances of Parsifal in Dallas and Houston. The Met went on to present just over 200 performances across the state, 176 of which were in Dallas. In the 1970s and 1980s, Houston Grand Opera’s Texas Opera Theatre, a national touring company, logged performances in more than 80 Texas cities, from Abilene to Waco.

Today’s Texan companies are a diverse lot, with annual budgets ranging from just under half a million dollars to $24 million. Their total attendance for the 2006-2007 season was more than 185,000. In addition to the professional companies featured in this article, the thriving opera ecology in Texas also includes a handful of associate producing members: The Living Opera (Garland), Opera Vista (Houston) and Sugar Land Opera; opera programs at Baylor University (Waco), Houston Baptist University, Rice University (Houston), Southern Methodist University (Dallas), Southwestern University (Georgetown), Texas Christian University (Fort Worth), Texas State University (San Marcos) and University of Houston; and the firms of Schuler Shook and Tessitura Network, both with offices in Dallas.

Just as each Texan city has its own unique character, so does each opera company. When Mila Gibson launched Amarillo Opera just over 20 years ago, people told her she wouldn’t be able to find five people interested in attending. “The local PBS station was getting started at about the same time we did, so people didn’t even have the experience of opera on TV,” she says. “I booked Houston Grand Opera’s touring company in 1982, and we started doing some lectures and showing videos. After six years of that, Amarillo Opera started performing in a 247-seat house at a community college.”

When that venue closed for remodeling, the company moved to the 2,400-seat Civic Center, which was less than ideal. Gibson, along with other arts leaders, began to agitate for the creation of a new performing arts center. “The mother of a long-time friend came to an opera at our old venue, and there was a hockey game going on next door. We had to mic the singers to be heard. She said, ‘What is going on?’ I said, ‘That’s why I haven’t shut up all these years.’ She stepped up and initiated a private fund drive to build the building.”

The Globe-News Center, which houses a 1,250-seat auditorium with splendid acoustics, opened in 2006. The building has become a focal point for the city and has served as a catalyst for downtown development, according to Gibson. “The Texas Panhandle, which includes Amarillo, is such a different animal than any other part of the state. It’s very rural. It’s closer to state capitols in five other states than to Austin. Because it is so remote, there is a tremendous sense of community, a sense of pride and a willingness to support.”

Gibson will retire at the end of this season. “Founders can stay too long. It is the Amarillo Opera, not the Mila Gibson Opera. I wanted to leave at a good time. We have a strong board. We have a pretty full staff, and I’ve been training them to do some of the things I used to do.” Gibson is not only leaving the company, she is moving away from Amarillo. “I think it is the most fair thing for the company and the next director. It can be hard for people in the community to let go of leaders, whether of the symphony or the ballet, or even the successful football coach or preacher. I think it’s better if the founder just gets out of town.”

All across the country, opera companies are revisiting season plans, looking for works they hope will draw crowds to the box office. In many cases, that means “top 10” repertoire — but not at Austin Lyric Opera. “Every time we do the old chestnuts, they sell less,” says General Director Kevin Patterson, who just announced a three-opera season that includes two company premieres: Chabrier’s L’Etoile and Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. “The motto here is ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ People are moving here from New York, Boston, Washington and Seattle to be part of the high-tech and biotech industry. Forty-six percent of the population is between the ages of 18-44 — and that’s not counting the students of University of Texas at Austin. They are not your typical conservative lot.”

While Austin is a vibrant city, Patterson says the company still faces significant fundraising challenges. “Younger people are not conditioned to be philanthropic. Even though there is a concentration of youth and wealth, that doesn’t translate into people giving significant amounts of money,” says Patterson. “We are a mid-sized city, but we are 72nd in the nation in philanthropy. We don’t have big foundations or corporations. With the exception of IBM, we have no Fortune 500 companies.”

Austin Lyric Opera works hard to be seen as a vital and vibrant part of the community. The company welcomes 12,000 students each week at The Armstrong Community Music Center, which is part of the opera company. “The philosophy is that music education should be open to all, regardless of race, sex, belief or ability to pay. We offer all music, not just opera. There are group classes for children as young as six weeks. Our oldest student is 84 years old. There are private and group lessons, a pretty intensive curriculum, and we integrate as much opera as we can. We rehearse in the same building, so there is opportunity for our artists to interact with the students at the school. We are the community’s opera company.”

The Dallas Opera,which celebrated its 50th season last year, will move into the new Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House in fall 2009. “The new house is extraordinary,” says Director of Artistic Administration Jonathan Pell. “It is going to change everything about the company. In the Music Hall, where we have performed for over 50 years, we have 3,420 seats. The new house has 2,200. To put it into perspective, the back wall of the new theater is the same distance from the stage as the front of the balcony in Music Hall. The pit is also substantially larger. It can accommodate 110 players, and it is all open, as opposed to being under the stage, so the sound will be cleaner, clearer and crisper.”

The company will also be able to perform in rotating repertory for the first time. Pell expects the new schedule to attract more people from out of town. Initially, the company will stage two productions at one time, but as the company gains experience with a repertory production format, there is the potential to do more.

The 2009-2010 will see the world premiere of Moby-Dick, a new opera by Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer. “We felt it was very important to celebrate the new house with a new opera commissioned for the occasion,” says Pell. However, Moby-Dick will not be the first production to grace the stage of the Winspear Opera House: “We wanted to get in and become familia
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