Life among the embarrassment of riches that is Houston's arts community can seem like an endless banquet, a cornucopia. But there's a danger in knowing that the banquet will always be replenished: we can come to take it for granted.
In 2005-06, one of Houston's premier arts organizations underwent a transference of leadership for the first time in more than 30 years as Anthony Freud began his tenure as general director and CEO of Houston Grand Opera. About to conclude his first full season at HGO, Freud now looks forward to 2007-08.
An articulate and cordial British gentleman in his 40s, Freud is already making his artistic presence felt in the current HGO season. For instance, the recent Basil Twist production of Hansel and Gretel was his project, and, as the head of Welsh National Opera, he was instrumental in putting together the co-production of La Cenerentola seen at HGO this past winter. In opera, season components are sometimes planned out a good five years in advance, so although Freud was not able to program next season in its entirety, his artistic guidance is evident in his commitment to shine the spotlight on the company's greatest artistic assets‹assets that have long ensured a high performance standard at HGO, and which could all too easily be taken for granted.
Two of those assets are the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and the HGO Chorus. Without going into specifics, Freud alludes to projects beyond 2007-08 that will showcase both. "The two great artistic pillars of HGO are the chorus and orchestra," he says, "but it seems to me that, in the HGO Studio and in the relationships we build with our Studio artists, which continue in the years that follow their time there, we have a third great artistic pillar."
Performing arts seasons are notoriously difficult to qualify in terms of an overriding theme, but the upcoming season clearly highlights the Studio, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2007-08. Current and former Studio artists hold principal roles in nearly every production next season, including current Studio soprano Albina Shagimuratova as both the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute and Musetta in La bohème; Studio soprano Rebekah Camm as Pamina in The Magic Flute; and Studio alumni Ana Marìa Martìnez (Mimí in La bohème), Heidi Stober (Blonde in The Abduction from the Seraglio), Nikolai Didenko (Sam in A Masked Ball and Colline in La bohème), Daniel Belcher (the title role in Billy Budd), Nicholas Phan (Pedrillo in The Abduction from the Sergalio), Chen-Ye Yuan (Speaker of the Temple in The Magic Flute), Joshua Hopkins (Marcello in La bohème), Christopher Feigum (Schaunard in La bohème), and Joshua Winograde (Lieutenant Ratcliffe in Billy Budd). Even former Studio head and current HGO Artistic Administrator Diane Zola returns to her thespian roots to take on the non-singing role of The Duchess of Krakenthorp in the Donizetti comedy The Daughter of the Regiment.
Perhaps the most auspicious and eye-opening Studio assignment next year goes to soprano Tamara Wilson. In her first year as a Studio alumna, she will sing the First Lady in The Magic Flute, but first, she tackles the daunting assignment of Amelia in Verdi's A Masked Ball in October 2007 opposite the Riccardo of Ramón Vargas and the Ulrica of Polish contralto sensation Ewa Podles.
Freud elaborates on this uncommon bit of casting: "To be honest, we had a range of choices for Amelia, and the decision to cast Tamara was taken with great care and great caution because I realize it's unusual for a Verdi role of that weight to be cast with a singer as young as Tamara. But it was something we considered‹and by 'we' I mean Patrick Summers, Diane Zola, [Studio Director] Hector Vásquez, [Studio Music Director] Kathy Kelly, and me‹very carefully in discussion with Tammy. We didn't go for her because it was the quickest option. We went for her because we really believe in that piece of casting as something that is going to be extraordinarily exciting. If we did not have a Studio it's unlikely that a company like HGO would hear a singer of Tammy's age in audition and come to the conclusion that Amelia is a role that she should be offered at this stage. But we've known Tammy for two years. We've worked with her extensively, carefully, so we know her strengths, her qualities, and we believe in her 150 percent."
Lest anyone think that this commitment to spotlight HGO's artistic pillars is to last only as long as the 2007-08 season, think again. Freud pledges long-term commitment to showcasing Studio artists. "As a newcomer to Houston," he says, "I'm very excited by the fact that we're lucky enough to have an audience that seems more excited by observing one of their artists growing and developing in new directions, than they may be by encountering visiting international stars. I find that artistically very satisfying and very exciting because it gives us the opportunity to develop exceptional young talent in a way that we can be confident will be supported by our audiences."
Not only is HGO looking to its own strengths for inspiration in 2007-08, it's also casting its gaze out toward another endlessly rich resource that, again, can be easily taken for granted: Houston's diverse ethnic composition. HGO has commissioned a musical work‹The Refuge‹to draw attention to this resource.
"We've engaged a composer, Christopher Theofanidis, and a poet, Leah Lax," explains Freud. "We're asking them to go into six ethnic communities, talking literally to hundreds of people, looking for extraordinary stories of individual journeys that brought people to Houston. In each of the six communities we're doing parallel schools projects, quite diverse: one's a poetry project, one's a painting project, one's a photography project in partnership with National Geographic. Parallel to that, we are looking in each of the communities for individuals and groups of performers who are interested purely on an amateur basis in collaborating with us on this project. And the idea is that each of the six stories becomes a ten-minute-or-so movement of the big piece. We give the first performance of each movement in its own community. Then on November 10, hundreds of participants from across the six communities will come to the Wortham and join forces with the Houston Grand Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by HGO Music Director Patrick Summers. By then the composer will have composed a climactic seventh movement that will seek to encompass the combination of the individual journeys, and what we'll give is the premiere of a giant song of Houston…a portrait in words and music of our city."
Freud is equally committed to breaking away from the old "If We Perform It, They Will Come" model, and taking performances out to audiences in their own communities more frequently. To that end, he's formed HGOCo, a new initiative that Sandra Bernhard (no, not the mouthy comedienne‹the renowned opera stage director) was recently appointed to head up. "HGOCo is an initiative that tries to really stretch and maximize the impact of the resource of a full-scale opera company on a city as diverse, as growing, as vibrant as Houston," explains Freud.
This is just a taste of things to come, as we rediscover Houston Grand Opera through the fresh eyes of its new general director.
Eric Skelly's work has appeared in Opera Cues, Attenzione, Curtain Call, and Time Out New York.