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Article Published: 02 Jan 2018

Hurricane Season

Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters reach the Wortham Center’s stage door
Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters reach the Wortham Center’s stage door (photo: Kirill Kuzmin)

Its facilities may be ravaged, but its season is intact. When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in late August, it flooded out the Wortham Theater Center, home of Houston Grand Opera. Aside from its impact on the company’s two theaters, the Brown and the Cullen, the storm damaged the company’s wig and costume shops, along with the Wortham’s parking garage, air handling units and elevators. Assessing the impact, the company realized that neither of its two theaters would be usable at any time during the 2017–2018 season.

But HGO wasn’t going to let its season disappear. In a mammoth effort, spearheaded by Managing Director Perryn Leech, it built a temporary theater within the George R. Brown Convention Center and named it, appropriately enough, HGO Resilience Theater. Its season-opening La traviata bowed on October 20 — right on time, and less than two months after Harvey hit. It was a festive evening, marked by the presence of Mayor Sylvester Turner, who passed up a Yankees-Astros playoff game to come and celebrate HGO’s recovery.

The project was familiar territory for Leech. As head of lighting at the Edinburgh International Festival, he worked on venue-relocation efforts when the Edinburgh Playhouse Theatre suffered fire damage in 1993. “I’d done this before; I knew what was achievable,” he said, in an October conversation. “One of the biggest challenges was getting other people to understand that.”

The makeshift theater required not only a stage and seats, but also backstage facilities like dressing rooms and warmup areas. The theater requires 2,000 amps of power to operate. “That’s three times as much power as the convention center uses for its conferences and trade shows — a 60-foot skyscraper pulls less,” Leech says. “And I know much more about portable toilets than I ever thought I would need to know.”

HGO has had to make concessions to the ad hoc nature of the Resilience Theater. The convention center was obviously not constructed as an opera venue, so the theater’s acoustics have required tweaking. “We could do with more reflective surfaces,” Leech says. “Concrete is concrete; it doesn’t hold the sound the way wood does. You lose warmth.” The full 19th-century orchestra of Traviata filled the space with sound. But the delicate orchestration of Giulio Cesare, the second of the season’s offerings, required “acoustic enhancement” to register with the requisite warmth.

The world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek’s The House Without a Christmas Tree at HGO’s Resilience Theater
The world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek’s The House Without a Christmas Tree at HGO’s Resilience Theater (photo: Marion Frizzell)

The storm hit at a time that would normally have been a peak period for ticket sales: While HGO usually has $1 million in box office revenue by its season-opening, the figure was just $300,000 in 2017. Leech guesses that it will take three years for ticket sales to reach their pre-Harvey level. An even greater challenge lies ahead: Although HGO will stay in the Resilience Theater through its January–February mountings of Elektra and The Barber of Seville, the convention center is booked solid with conferences for all of spring. As of press time, the company had still not identified a venue for its season-end productions of Norma and West Side Story.

The hurricane forced Opera in the Heights, Houston’s smaller opera company, to reschedule its planned opening production, Daughter of the Regiment, for next season. “We would have had to begin production the weekend after Harvey,” says Paige Myrick, the company’s executive director. “We deliberated over what to do, and decided to postpone it.” The company plans to rehire the entire cast for next season’s mounting: Myrick says that deferring the cast’s contracts was “the most heartbreaking aspect” of the decision. But Amy Owens, the production’s scheduled Marie, came to Houston to volunteer for relief efforts and sing at an Opera in the Heights concert benefiting the victims of the hurricane.

Harvey has delivered a significant financial battering to Houston’s companies: Leech estimates HGO’s losses, between physical damage, lost revenues and unexpected expenses, to total $12–15 million, little of it recoverable through insurance. The situation has made fundraising, always a central concern for administrators, more vital an issue than ever. Still, in a region where so many nonprofits have needed extra infusions of cash, opera may seem less urgent a cause than food, shelter and health care. “It’s a touchy situation — asking people to give when there are so many who’ve lost everything,” Myrick says. “It’s going to be a challenging arts season. But the arts provide a connection that is very nourishing for the soul. I hope that the community understands that.”

“It’s been a brutal couple of months,” Leech says. “But people need to get the arts back in their lives. That’s what we’re here for.”

This article was published in the Winter 2018 issue of Opera America Magazine.