The company's young artist training program, HGO Studio, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and next season's programming reflects the program's strength. Most prominently, soprano Tamara Wilson, who graduates from the Studio this spring, returns in the fall to take the female lead, Amelia, in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera to open the season. Current Studio members Rebeka Camm and Albina Shagimuratova, who took key roles in this season's Hansel and Gretel, will sing Pamina and the Queen of the Night, respectively, in next season's Die Zauberfl‹te. And a number of HGO Studio alumni will return to the company, including (among others) Daniel Belcher, Nikolai Didenko, Joshua Hopkins, and HGO favorite Ana Mar‹a Mart‹nez.
The remarkable contralto Ewa Podles makes her Houston Grand Opera debut next season, as Ulrica in Ballo and the Marquise de Berkenfeld in Donizetti's La Fille du regiment. Also making their first appearances with the company will be coloratura soprano Lyubov Petrova, tenor Barry Banks, veteran bass Gwynne Howell, and tenor Andrew Kennedy (in his first opera performances in the U.S.).
The season opens on October 19, with Un ballo in maschera. In addition to Wilson and Podles, the production stars tenor Ram‹n Vargas as Riccardo and baritone Carlo Guelfi as Renato. Houston Grand Opera music director Patrick Summers conducts the company's orchestra and chorus in this revival of Olivier Tambosi's staging for five performances through Nov. 2.
Running in repertory with Ballo will be La Fille du regiment, which opens on October 26 and runs for five performances through Nov. 9. Starring alongside Podles will be Laura Claycomb as Marie (the titular daughter), with Banks as her true love, Tonio (the one who sings the all the high Cs). Riccardo Frizza conducts. Emilio Sagi's production, which comes from the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, sets the action in a U.S. Army regiment from around the time of World War II.
On November 10, HGO presents the world premiere performance of Song of Houston, an oratorio by composer Christopher Theofanidis with a libretto by poet Leah Lax. The company describes the new work as "a large-scale community oratorio which tells the stories of people from Houston's African, Central American, Indian, Russian Jewish, Mexican, Pakistani and Vietnamese immigrant communities." Performers from those communities will join with the HGO Chorus, Children's Chorus and Orchestra, along with soloists from the HGO Studio, all under Summers's baton. Songs of Houston will be the first large-scale event offered under the aegis of HGOCo, a new initiative that aims (according to a statement) "to provide opportunities for observation, enjoyment and participation in the creation of art for the entire Houston community."
Following a break for the holidays (and Houston Ballet's annual Nutcrackers), HGO returns to the Wortham Theater Center with a pair of Mozart works.
Die Entf‹hrung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Seraglio"), Mozart's rescue-the-fair-maidens-from-the-dastardly-Turkish-harem opera, gets a production by James Robinson which sets the action on the fabled Orient Express. (The rescue plan, according to the company's marketing blurb, "goes off the rails.") Soprano Pamela Armstrong and tenor Paul Groves portray the lovers Konstanze and Belmonte, while HGO Studio alumni Heidi Stober and Nicholas Phan play the servant couple, Blonde and Pedrillo; bass Andrea Silvestrelli takes the role of Osmin, with Richard Spuler in the speaking role of Pasha Selim. William Lacey conducts the HGO Orchestra and chorus in five performances from Jan. 18 to Feb. 2.
The other Mozart work will be Die Zauberfl‹te, in a revival of Peter Hall's staging conducted by Steven Sloane. (No stage director for this run has yet been announced.) Singing opposite Camm's Pamina will be tenor Eric Cutler as Tamino. Patrick Carfizzi sings Papageno, with Raymond Aceto as Sarastro, and Shagimuratova sings her first Queens of the Night anywhere. The work receives seven performances from Jan. 25 through Feb. 9.
Leap Day — February 29, 2008 — brings the world premiere of Jake Heggie's Last Acts, a "musical play in three parts" commissioned by HGO, with lyrics by Gene Scheer after a play by Terrence McNally. Frederica von Stade — who has written that "Jake Heggie is my Mozart" — stars as an actress named Madeline; her grown children, Beatrice and Charlie, will be played by soprano Kristin Clayton and baritone Keith Phares, both making their company debuts. This chamber opera, with a small instrumental ensemble headed by Summers and the composer himself on piano, gets eight performances through March 15.
Summers returns to the podium for Puccini's La Bohme, in James Robinson's staging shared between HGO, New York City Opera and Glimmerglass Opera. Ana Mar‹a Mart‹nez stars as MimÐ, with Garrett Sorenson as her Rodolfo; Joshua Hopkins takes the role of Marcello, with Shagimuratova (still a member of the HGO Studio, remember) singing Musetta. The evergreen romance gets nine performances from April 11 through May 3; for the last two dates, May 1 and 3, Cynthia Clayton takes over the role of MimÐ and Brian Mulligan sings Marcello.
The season ends with Britten's Billy Budd, which begins HGO's multi-year cycle of the great English composer's operas. Daniel Belcher, another HGO Studio alumnus, takes the title role, alongside tenor Andrew Kennedy (in his American opera debut) as Captain Vere and bass Philip Ens (in his Houston debut) as Claggart. The staging, by Neil Armfield, is a co-production with Welsh National Opera (where Freud was chief executive before coming to HGO last year) and Opera Australia; when it ran at WNO, London's Guardian wrote that it was "under no circumstances to be missed." Summers conducts the five performances from April 25 through May 4.
More information on Houston Grand Opera's productions, this season and next, is available at www.houstongrandopera.org.