Gathering Up the Years

Classic Arts Features   Gathering Up the Years
As the Houston Grand Opera celebrates its 50th anniversary, Carl Cunningham reminisces about the company's first half century.

Glancing through the pages of history, one is astounded to realize that our vibrant, often-revolutionary Houston Grand Opera is already 50 years old. The company was born during that remarkable post-World War II era when opera suddenly spread from its roots in New York and San Francisco, and seemed to sprout in prosperous, growing cities all across the nation.

Its existence here was brought about by three people: founder Elva Lobit, who provided at least some of the money, much of the enthusiasm, and hard, roll-up-your-sleeves work to get it started; Frankfurt-born director and conductor Walter Herbert, an émigré who sought a position here after learning his craft in Germany, Switzerland, Vienna, San Francisco, and New Orleans; and Edward Bing, a European-born Houston voice teacher who knew Herbert, forwarded a letter of interest to Lobit and became a stalwart charter board member of the new organization.

Sixteen people approved the charter on August 9, 1955, and the company was launched on $25,000 in underwriting that was advanced with the hope that HGO would meet its $40,000 budget through ticket sales. Instead, the company incurred a net loss of $11,000, but it succeeded on the stage of Houston's now-demolished Music Hall (currently the site of Hobby Center) with acclaimed performances of Richard Strauss's Salome and Puccini's Madame Butterfly in January 1956. A little known fact, according to HGO General Director David Gockley, is that Gus S. Wortham‹the legendary Houston businessman and philanthropist for whom the Wortham Theater Center is named‹wrote a letter of credit guaranteeing that first season.

Fiscal conflicts quickly threatened the new enterprise, according to historian Robert Giesberg. Herbert wanted to double the budget and present three operas, but he and the board became so embroiled in contractual and budgetary conflicts that the board temporarily ceased negotiations and sought a new director. Eventually, tempers cooled, Herbert accepted less money and returned to lead productions of La Cenerentola, Tosca, and La Traviata during the spring of 1957. Three productions, with two performances of each, continued to be the norm for the next five seasons, although they were soon spread between the late fall and spring seasons, instead of beginning in January.

Reportedly, the artistic quality varied. A 1958 production of Strauss's Elektra, starring Inge Borkh, with sets by Houston artist Jim Love, won general acclaim as one of the young company's finest productions. On the other hand, a 1959 production of Wagner's Die Walküre starring such luminaries as Jerome Hines, Margaret Harshaw, and Frances Yeend was damned as one of the company's most leaden offerings.

In the summer of 1960, at the end of that fifth season, Houston Grand Opera was nearly bankrupted by a financial crisis. Board president William W. Bland announced that the company would go out of business, voiding all its contracts for the 1960-61 season, if they couldn't raise $32,500 by the middle of August. The crisis had been building for more than a season, and it brought a double-edged commentary from the press: Houston, as the nation's sixth largest city and with a population exceeding a million people, most certainly should rescue and support an opera company; however, Houston Grand Opera absolutely had to improve the quality of its forthcoming productions in order to merit continued public support.

The company survived and that crisis marked a watershed in HGO's history. Thereafter, the artistic quality of its productions generally improved, notwithstanding certain lapses, and the board insisted more sternly than ever upon fiscal solvency.

A few facts and figures tell a story of struggle and personal sacrifice in establishing opera here. A brochure distributed for the second season, 1957-58, shows subscription prices for all three operas were only $35 for box seats and $6-$15 throughout the rest of the Music Hall. There were even a few subscriptions as low as $5 at the far edges of the balcony. Divided by three, most of the subscriptions were priced as low as $1.66-$5 per opera.

There are various figures for Walter Herbert's annual salary. In a 20th-anniversary commemorative article, Houston Chronicle Fine Arts Editor Ann Holmes stated that he was paid $5,000 to produce and conduct the initial Salome and Madame Butterfly productions. That included engaging all the singers, chorus, orchestra, stage director, sets, and costumes, auditioning local singers for supporting roles, rehearsing the production, and conducting two performances of each opera.

For the second season (1956-57), the board offered him a three-year contract at $15,000 per year, but after nearly being fired in the aforementioned budgetary dispute with the board, he accepted a lower salary, according to historian Giesberg. Balance sheets, most of them audited, show his budgeted annual salary at $12,000 for the 1960-61 season, then rising from $13,000 to $13,800 between the 1962-63 and 1964-65 seasons, the latest season for which his salary was itemized. Administrative staff positions were skeletal, if existent at all, and so were the salaries assigned to them.

But in his determined commitment to build an audience and broaden the company's outreach, Herbert hired the talented young Charles Rosekrans to be his chorus master and assistant conductor in 1958. Summer productions on satellite stages, featuring Houston-area singers with piano accompaniment, were presented during the first five years. A powerful, hard-working volunteer Opera Guild was almost immediately formed under the initial presidency of Mrs. William Bland. Student matinee performances and an Opera-in-the-Schools program were quickly instituted, the latter becoming one of the largest such programs in the nation by the time Herbert retired from the company.

In adhering to the board's tightfisted financial policies, Herbert pinched pennies and maintained budget surpluses during six of his last eight seasons, even when costs grew to a then-hefty $640,000 during the 1971-72 season. But by 1965, after ten hard seasons of trying to build a major opera company on a modest budget, while dodging his share of brickbats from the press along the way, Herbert wanted better things. So, in January of that year, he accepted an invitation to become artistic director of the newly formed San Diego Opera, retaining artistic leadership here until his retirement from HGO in 1972.

The opening of Jones Hall in 1966 brought growth and heightened artistic ambitions on the part of the company. Each of the five productions was performed three times instead of two. Herbert inaugurated the 1966-67 season with a fairly impressive production of Verdi's Aida. Three future superstars soon made their Houston operatic debuts: Sherrill Milnes in Don Giovanni (1964), Beverly Sills in The Magic Flute (1966), and Plácido Domingo in Faust (1967). Twentieth-century opera suddenly appeared amid the standard repertoire, notably Hans Werner Henze's satire The Young Lord, plus more easily accessible works by Douglas Moore, Carl Orff, and Gian Carlo Menotti. Amid the standard repertoire, certain inspired performances rose well above the company's artistic norms: Verdi's Falstaff (1968) and Don Carlo (1969), Beethoven's Fidelio (1970), and Herbert's final production‹Wagner's Tannhäuser (1972).

When Herbert's baton came to rest after that production, he left Houston a healthy opera company with an established schedule, a substantial audience, a functioning board and staff, an impressive cadre of volunteer supporters, a large educational outreach program‹and a balanced budget with a $4,094 surplus in the bank. At his death three years later, he had established or revitalized four companies across the southern United States: in New Orleans, Houston, and San Diego, as well as Opera South, an African American company in Jackson, Mississippi. Bravo, Maestro Herbert!

Coming of Age

In 1972 Houston Grand Opera‹then in its teens‹was in for a dramatic growth spurt fueled by a dynamic general director whose own teenage years were not far behind him.

When 28-year-old David Gockley took the reins of Houston Grand Opera in 1972, the company began to grow so fast in so many directions that it often seemed on the verge of exploding. That kind of growth accounted for many of its achievements as well as its challenges throughout the 1970s.

Reared in rural Pennsylvania as the son of an athletic coach, Gockley was educated in business at Brown and Columbia universities, sang in the glee club, and was encouraged in music by conductor Erich Kunzel. Further studies at the New England Conservatory led to an apprenticeship with Santa Fe Opera, where his pleasant baritone voice proved too light for opera, but his administrative skill won him the position of house manager. He served briefly as assistant to Lincoln Center president John Mazzola until he was named business manager of Houston Grand Opera in 1970, as Walter Herbert gradually ceded control of the company.

Gockley's overriding urges were to attract masses of people, modernize and popularize the repertoire, theatricalize production values, and shed the traditional elitist image of opera in general. He quickly achieved striking success in 1972 with HGO's first free Spring Opera Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre, accented by a haunting production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah.

Fresh productions and novel repertoire cropped up throughout the decade, highlighted by HGO's joyous production of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha in 1975, the first fully professional staging of the opera. But the next decade saw a return to standard repertoire, less imaginative productions, and periodic suspension of the Spring Opera Festival series, as financial strains, a sagging economy, and newer, bolder adventures elsewhere consumed time, money, and human energy in the company's growing operatic empire.

A new English-language American Series of HGO's winter repertory, alternating with the original-language subscription series, became the most valuable of Gockley's early initiatives. Although the American Series was maintained under the severe artistic stress of constantly changing principal cast members, conductors, and languages, re-fitted costumes, and extremely limited rehearsal time, it was proudly done, bringing new audiences in contact with serious opera at reduced prices while promoting the careers of many young singers. It, too, however, was eventually abandoned.

Texas Opera Theater, a satellite touring company founded in 1974, had mixed artistic values. Intended to bring opera to schools, small communities, and unexpected operatic venues such as churches and nightclubs, the troupe began with chamber operas requiring minimum numbers of singers and instrumentalists, including several works outside the standard repertoire. But as the years went on and TOT ventured far beyond the Texas borders to claim the title of the largest touring opera company in the United States, it often turned to scaled-down productions of box-office favorites. Eventually, it became semi-independent with its own board and funding responsibilities, but a total loss of funding from its major donor, the State of Texas, in the recession of the late 1980s brought an end to its activities.

The establishment of Houston Opera Studio (now called Houston Grand Opera Studio) in 1977 proved to be of far greater value to the main company, its audiences, and ultimately to its original co-sponsor, the University of Houston. Jointly founded and directed by Gockley and composer Carlisle Floyd, Houston Opera Studio auditioned and polished off the training of a covey of promising young opera singers, launching numerous professional careers, in part by giving them supporting roles in HGO's mainstage productions.

A strong populist vein in Gockley's operatic philosophy led him to broaden Houston Grand Opera's repertoire to include Broadway musicals and operetta under the general designation of "musical theater." This led to the acclaimed 1976 production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (celebrating the nation's bicentennial), followed by a national tour to Broadway; engagements at the Kennedy Center and on Broadway for Treemonisha; and national tours of Hello, Dolly! in 1977-78 and Show Boat in 1982-83, the latter of which would be revived in 1989 with a performance opening the new opera house in Cairo, Egypt. Porgy's popularity, too, would remain long-lived, with an additional national tour in 1986-87 and an international one in 1995-96, this time all the way to Tokyo, Milan, and Paris.

Houston Grand Opera also traveled far and wide via the airwaves and recordings. National broadcasts, sponsored by Tenneco, Inc., were carried on FM stations from 1979 to 1983. Treemonisha and Carlisle Floyd's Willie Stark were featured on PBS's Great Performances telecasts. Treemonisha was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and Porgy and Bess by RCA in a recording that won a Grammy Award.

In his desire to embrace the newest ventures in the field of musical theater, Gockley also began a series of world or American premieres that became one of the most salient features of Houston Grand Opera's artistic profile. It began with the world premiere of young Thomas Pasatieri's adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull, and world premieres of two operas by Floyd, Bilby's Doll in 1976 and Willie Stark in 1981. The most heavily publicized of these ventures were the 1983 world premiere of Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place, tracing the personal tragedies of a dysfunctional family in modern America, and the 1984 American premiere of Philip Glass's Akhnaten, an operatic foray into the life of an ancient Egyptian ruler.

As Jones Hall's four principal tenants‹opera, symphony, ballet, and touring attractions under the Society for the Performing Arts' banner‹became ever more tightly squeezed for performance and rehearsal time, the push for a new opera house became the most significant initiative in those HGO years. It was first mentioned publicly not by Gockley but by Ann Holmes of the Houston Chronicle in a 1973 article. After much urging from Gockley‹up front and behind the scenes‹a Lyric Theatre Foundation was formed under philanthropist Harris Masterson's guidance and some $45 million was raised, with massive grants from the Wortham, Brown, Cullen, and Shell Oil foundations in the early 1980s. When that partially funded effort threatened to founder in the oil-price recession during the middle of the decade, corporate executive Robert Cizik rescued it with some astute financing and a firm hand on the helm of persuasion.

Amid all this growth in so many different directions, what can one say of Houston Grand Opera's presentation of memorable performances of the standard repertoire? In his urgent quest to make opera in Houston a powerful dramatic experience, Gockley often minimized the fact that a great operatic experience emanates from a powerful musical interpretation in the orchestra pit, rising up and inspiring seasoned singers to deliver comparable vocal-dramatic interpretations.

In many cases, a single great opera star was surrounded by younger, often pleasant but less experienced supporting casts and conductor. Despite the fact that productions were well-rehearsed, conditions were hardly conducive to achieving the highest quality, since many of those rehearsals had to take place in satellite locations, notably an isolated warehouse many blocks away from the Jones Hall stage.

There were many impressive occasions, of course, when the artistic beauty and passion of an exciting production roused the blood and provided a truly satisfying operatic catharsis. Among many others, a healthy list must include Floyd's Of Mice and Men (1973); HGO's 20th-anniversary Rosenkavalier in 1975; a 1976 Barber of Seville conducted by Charles Mackerras and marking the HGO debuts of Maria Ewing and Hermann Prey; two very different Traviata productions (Sarah Caldwell's in 1974, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's in 1979); Rossini's Tancredi starring Marilyn Horne and Joan Carden (1977); Janácek's Jen°ufa (1978); the Maurice Sendak-Frank Corsaro Magic Flute (1980); Berg's Wozzeck conducted by Lawrence Foster (1982); and Britten's Peter Grimes (1977) and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (1982), both featuring riveting performances from Jon Vickers.

And toward the end of this growth period, one new production pointed like a beacon toward a mature, tasteful artistic future once Houston Grand Opera moved into its new home at Wortham Theater Center. In January 1986, Thomas Allen joined a brilliant cast to sing the title role in a glorious production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, staged by Göran Jarvefelt on a very tasteful 18th-century setting designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle. It was the beginning of HGO's celebrated Mozart trilogy that continued with Cosí fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro on the new opera stage two years later.

When all was sung and done, the bottom line had also grown quite a bit. For the 1972-73 season, Gockley started out with a budget of $710,000. When the curtain came down on the 1986-87 season, it was $10 million!

In Full Bloom

Never having had a home of its own, Houston Grand Opera eagerly awaited the completion of the Gus S. Wortham Theater Center. Moving into the new building opened up new possibilities and propelled the company to a new maturity.

The opening of the 1987-88 season in its brand-new home was a proud, impressive moment in the company's history, one that attracted broad international attention and put the company's artistic profile in bold relief.

A stately new production of Verdi's Aida, starring Mirella Freni, Plácido Domingo, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, inaugurated the season October 15 in the center's larger Brown Theater, just as a new Aida production had inaugurated the company's Jones Hall era 21 years earlier. It was followed in quick succession by a new production of Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio, updated to a Hollywood film-studio setting, playing alongside Aida across the way in the center's smaller Cullen Theater. When both productions were up and running, HGO unveiled the world premiere of John Adams's Nixon in China October 22 in the Brown Theater, an event that attracted massive international coverage.

With those three productions, the company acknowledged the public's desire for superstar performers in standard repertoire, while insisting that HGO would remain committed to staging world premieres invoking the newest trends in musical composition and radically modernized productions of some traditional operas. Along with that, the production of Nixon in China underlined the company's ever more persistent outreach to people who would not normally be enticed into an opera house.

The Mozart-Da Ponte cycle, which had begun so suavely with the 1986 Don Giovanni in Jones Hall, continued with the company's first Cosí fan tutte in January 1988 at Wortham Center, featuring the debuts of Finnish soprano Karita Mattila and Swedish tenor Gösta Winbergh, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Newly appointed Houston Symphony Music Director Christoph Eschenbach took over the series the following October with a gloriously performed Marriage of Figaro, featuring the debut of soprano Renée Fleming. In the meantime, Julius Rudel rounded out the inaugural Wortham Center season with a memorable Tannhäuser, featuring Eva Marton against a resplendent Houston Grand Opera Chorus and Günther Schneider-Siemssen's impressive settings.

More than anyone, Eschenbach elicited a higher standard from the entire company, repeatedly demonstrating the seminal importance of an inspired orchestral performance as the basis for similar inspiration in the vocal-dramatic action onstage. He went on to repeat the entire three-opera Mozart-Da Ponte cycle during a 1991 Mozart bicentennial festival, then proceeded to apply his talent through the end of the millennium to musically riveting performances of the Wagner-Strauss repertoire.

As the years approached the 21st-century mark, HGO began to explore less familiar masterpieces from the 19th- and 20th-century international repertoire. Particularly memorable productions include Dvorák's Rusalka (1991), Kurt Weill's Street Scene (1994), Janácek's Katya Kabanova (2000) and Jen°ufa (2004), Floyd's Susannah (1996) and Of Mice and Men (2002), Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (2002), Handel's Ariodante (2002) and Julius Caesar (2003), Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (1989), Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann (1992), Verdi's Attila (1995), Nabucco (2000), and Don Carlo (2001)‹and finally, a glorious production of Mozart's Idomeneo, King of Crete (2005).

Opera's musical, visual, and dramatic goal of enchanting the listener or bringing a message that speaks deeply to the human condition was more rarely achieved in the world premieres. It happened in the wonderment of Chou En-Lai's closing aria (sung by Sanford Sylvan) in Nixon in China (1987); in the gripping opening chorus and intermittent segments (notably the late Debria Brown's portrayal of Nicey) in Floyd's revised post-Civil War epic, The Passion of Jonathan Wade (1991); in the piteous frozen-landscape finale of Philip Glass's threatened-environment opera, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1988); and throughout the heart of Meredith Monk's childhood dream fantasy, ATLAS: an opera in three parts (1991).

In HGO's commissioning projects, values of accessibility and outreach, cultural and social and political relevance, fashionable trends in music, and occasionally, daring or sensational subject matter were often salient. During this 50th anniversary season, HGO staged three world premieres, bringing the total to 33 new operas, including seven by its educational affiliate, Opera to Go! That record has made HGO a world leader in the endeavor, garnering it a reputation as America's most welcoming company to aspiring opera composers. Two of the commissions were Spanish-language operas from Mexican composer Daniel Catán, in a special outreach to Houston's Hispanic community.

Some of the premieres have met with striking public success. Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas (1996), Mark Adamo's Little Women (1998), and Rachel Portman's The Little Prince (2003) proved particularly popular. All three were revived by HGO soon after their premieres and have received numerous stagings from other companies; HGO released recordings of both Florencia and Little Women, and the latter was also telecast nationally on Great Performances. The Little Prince was recorded by the BBC, whose filmic treatment of the opera was shot in September 2004 and subsequently telecast in the U.K. and the U.S.

In a move to bring its mainstage productions closer to those who could not sit in the front rows, HGO instituted OperaVision, the use of six stadium-style video screens for audiences in the Brown Theater's balcony and Grand Tier in 2001. Earlier, in November 1995, a huge outdoor screen was installed over the Wortham Center entrance to bring a free, live annual outdoor Plazacast of one of the company's sold-out productions to a mass audience on the plaza fronting the theater complex. Superstar mezzo Cecilia Bartoli inaugurated the series in the title role of Rossini's La Cenerentola. And in 1998 the company unveiled its Multimedia Modular Stage, a portable, multi-tiered structure‹complete with its own lighting, projection and video equipment‹for use in large indoor-outdoor venues and touring opportunities.

By the end of its 50th anniversary season, HGO has become a major player in the world of electronic media, with 11 audio recordings of its productions, two video recordings, six PBS television productions, and radio broadcasts of its Wortham Center seasons extending to Europe, Asia, and Australia, as well as locally and nationally. It has also won two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a Tony Award, and a Grand Prix du Disque.

With Tannhäuser in 2001, HGO's association with the Houston Symphony ended and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra‹which had been playing for some productions since the late 1980s‹assumed all of the pit responsibilities. Patrick Summers, appointed music director in 1998, has gradually nurtured the new orchestra into lustrous full bloom. Richard Bado, a 21-year staff member and now head of the music staff, has brought similar luster to the HGO Chorus over the past 17 years.

The work of several now-departed staff members was of great significance during HGO's Wortham Center years. Gockley's firm, forward-looking leadership has been saluted throughout this article and his departure at the end of this 50th anniversary season will leave a large void to be filled. Among many others who gave their total energy to the cause of the company, John DeMain, HGO's ever-alert music director, labored mightily over 17 years (1977-94) learning, preparing, and conducting a huge list of operas, including difficult premieres. He took company productions on national and international tours, and resurrected, revised, and revived numerous light operas for HGO.

Dolores Johnson, HGO's cheerful, resourceful managing director, burned the midnight oil night after night for 12 years (1984-96) to keep the company's huge network of operations calmly on track and within budgetary guidelines. General Manager Jim Ireland spent 21 years (1980-2001) supervising and energizing all aspects of producing the operas onstage and heading union negotiations. Scott Heumann, artistic administrator and dramaturg from 1983 until his death in 1993, supervised the selection of artists and repertoire and instituted the company's Surtitles, translating dozens of librettos into English. HGO credits Gayletha Nichols (1990-2000) for a decade of accomplishment with Houston Grand Opera Studio. After beginning as a volunteer in the 1950s, Ava Jean Mears joined the staff in the '60s and became the public relations director in 1980. Through hours of hard work, she built the good will among the national and international press that gave HGO its worldwide reputation during its crucial decade of growth (1979-89). Then she co-founded and administered the company's voluminous historical archive with longtime HGO board member Genevieve Demme, making HGO one of very few opera companies to have such a collection.

Last but most certainly not least, Mrs. Demme, Catherine Merchant, and Katharine Calhoun are longtime members of the board (Mrs. Calhoun is a charter member, Miss Merchant joined in 1959, and Mrs. Demme in 1961) who can celebrate the fulfillment of their half-century labors as a fully mature Houston Grand Opera concludes its 50th anniversary this spring.

Carl Cunningham is a critic and program annotator. This article was previously published as a three-part series in Opera Cues.

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