A Masterpiece Season

Classic Arts Features   A Masterpiece Season
Choosing a winning season doesn't just happen. Houston Grand Opera General Director David Gockley unveils the 2005 _06 season and the reasoning behind the choices.

People are always very curious about how a season of opera is put together at HGO. Many factors come into play, including the basic need to keep a balanced diversity in the repertory; the availability of key artists and the roles they are willing to sing; how recently we have done certain operas; the availability of successful productions of particular operas or of other companies who are willing to join us in producing a particular piece; marketing concerns; and, last but certainly not least, the almighty budget.

Times continue to be very tough for arts organizations. Economic uncertainty, a sputtering stock market, the fears of terrorism‹all contribute to this climate. This is where the real creativity of my job comes in: trying to offer Dom Perignon on a Freixenet budget. The trick is creating a critical mass of excitement for every production. Even with the hardships that we're experiencing, the money we have chosen to spend to bring in top-level singers has actually increased. Offering wonderful casts is the most efficient way to generate interest, both in the season as a whole and in a particular production.

Next season's opening opera, Boris Godunov, is a fascinating work, but it is not nearly as well known as Madame Butterfly, which opened this season. Having the great Samuel Ramey perform the title role in Boris Godunov creates the requisite critical mass. It also doesn't hurt that we already own a very effective production that we staged eight years ago.

The season's second opera, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, has done very well at HGO even with unknown casts. But since we again have a successful production in the warehouse, we can be lavish in the casting. The one we've assembled, headlined by Ana Maria Martinez in her first Countess Almaviva, will create real satisfaction under the baton of Patrick Summers.

The third spot in the season gave us fits. An expensive new co-production of an undisclosed opera had to be scrapped for budget reasons. One of our staff suggested Donizetti's Don Pasquale, an opera buffa that we last staged with Beverly Sills as Norina in her 1980 Houston farewell. It has the budgetary benefit of a small cast, chorus, and orchestra. Still, I was unconvinced until: 1) We found we could rent the absolutely charming, ingenious Jonathan Miller production from Florence, 2) we could get comic virtuoso John Del Carlo and the delightful young Jennifer Welch-Babidge, and 3) we realized we had an emerging star in our Opera Studio, tenor Norman Reinhardt, who could wow audiences as Ernesto. Critical mass had been attained.

The reason to schedule Puccini's lavishly melodic Manon Lescaut was obvious when we convinced Finnish superstar soprano Karita Mattila to return to Houston in the magnificent title role. It also helped that the Lyric Opera of Chicago was doing an expensive new production three months prior (also with Mattila), with a Gramma Fisher Foundation grant. This choice was easy.

Audra McDonald is one of the great performing and vocal talents of the present day, a four-time Tony Award winner for Carousel (1994), Master Class (1996), Ragtime (1998), and A Raisin in the Sun (2004). When Audra indicated to me through her manager that she wanted to do an opera, we started our search for the right vehicle. While risky, this idea of a one-woman show was attractive from a budget standpoint. Poulenc's La Voix Humaine was an early option, but not the full solution, since it lasts only 45 minutes. After an unsuccessful search for a preexisting companion piece, we settled on commissioning the composer-librettist Michael John LaChiusa to create one. It will be the talk of the town next March.

Carmen is a force of nature. People will see this masterpiece again and again, especially with the world's greatest portrayer of the title role, Béatrice Uria-Monzon, heading the cast in our eye-popping production‹again, critical mass.

This leaves The Coronation of Poppea, the season's final production. Poppea was staged here in the Cullen Theater four years ago. This time it will be very different. The stunning Susan Graham will take on the title role for the first time, and the production will feature a tenor and a baritone in the roles of Nerone and Ottone‹not countertenors as before. These roles will be filled by opera hunks William Burden and Nathan Gunn in a magnificent Graham Vick production, available to us courtesy of the Bologna Opera.

So here it is, a superb opera season that at the same time respects our budgetary constraints. I trust that because of the wonderful artists you'll hear during the 2005-06 season, your experience will be as rich as it would have been if we'd had endless resources.

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