High Notes

From Amarillo to Austin, the state’s opera companies are staging top-notch productions for longtime fans and newcomers alike. Aria ready?
La Cenerentola, Houston Grand Opera

This has been a grand season for grand opera. Several companies in Texas celebrated anniversaries by staging productions of old favorites, exploring less often performed pieces by the major operatic composers, and even premiering original work. Dallas Opera reached fifty and produced four operas never before seen there, including Puccini’s overlooked gem La Rondine. Austin Lyric hit twenty and presented the American premiere of Philip Glass’s Waiting for the Barbarians. The revived San Antonio Opera topped ten and marked the occasion with a couple of wonderful war horses La Traviata and The Pirates of Penzance and two special concerts by operatic superstars Frederica von Stade and Placido Domingo. Houston, in its fifty-second year, dazzled us with brand-new productions of several operas, including the stunning La Cenerentola and Aïda and an enchanting Hansel and Gretel.


And what about the sixty-year old Fort Worth Opera? The oldest opera company in Texas decided to go the festival route, so successfully pursued by Santa Fe Opera, mounting productions of Falstaff, Madama Butterfly, and the world premiere of Thomas Pasatieri’s Frau Margot. Of course, it takes a while for a festival to develop the kind of following that Santa Fe Opera commands. Diehard opera fans in Texas will still be heading off to New Mexico in July and August to see some of the region’s best performances under SFO’s open-air shell, with its magnificent views of dramatic sunset skies and cool green mountains.


If you haven’t been to the opera house lately, it ain’t your daddy’s stuffy, formal evening out anymore. Remember those bad old days when we got all dressed up, perhaps enjoyed the music until the grand diva stopped singing, then left bewildered because we had no idea what had happened? Today, more casual dress is encouraged; for a while the Dallas Opera even advertised a Jeans Night. Oh, and about that rude stereotype: The leading lady is most likely svelte and sexy these days, and projected supertitles let you know what’s going on.


Going to the opera doesn’t even have to bust the budget. All the major companies have tickets available at reasonable prices, and I have heard excellent opera productions performed by young singers in Amarillo, Garland, the Houston Heights, where tickets were available for a tenth of the price one might have to pay for a front orchestra seat at the Wortham Center in Houston. So what are you waiting for? From one opera lover to another, here is my overview of the past season—ranked according to my favorite companies—and a glimpse into the next.


1. Houston Grand Opera has built a national and international reputation for innovation and, especially, for premiering new operas, thanks largely to the vision and 33-year tenure of former general director David Gockley, who left in 2005 to take over the troubled San Francisco Opera. It can take years for new management to make its mark at a major company, and for me, the first sign was subtle that Anthony Freud, the London-born new general director and CEO, was on the right track. Almost hidden in the small type of the season ticket solicitation was the mention of a special promotion: For those who wished to introduce opera to children, a package of three operas in a selection of four could be purchased for the adult price plus a nominal fee for the youngster’s ticket.


The offerings were ideal for the purpose: Hansel and Gretel, La Cenerentola (Cinderella), Aïda, or The Cunning Little Vixen. In particular, the new production of Hansel and Gretel caught my eye. It was to be directed by master puppeteer Basil Twist, fresh from acclaimed puppet versions of opera produced in New York City. I jumped at the chance to introduce the operatic genre to a talented young relative from rural East Texas who was already interested in the theater.


So in December my grandniece, her mom, her grandmother, and I all piled into a van and watched one of the most enchanting productions I had seen in a long time. Although I immediately missed Engelbert Humperdinck’s swelling orchestration in the overture, that turned out to be an adult thing: My grandniece, of course, didn’t miss it, and I came to enjoy the clarity of HGO Studio head of music Kathleen Kelly’s new eight-piece chamber orchestra version. Then the curtain rose on little Hansel and Gretel, in a cottage dominated by a table that loomed over them, transforming the adult singers into children again.



Houston Grand Opera: Hansel and Gretel


Thanks to the magic of puppetry, a cat kept time with its tail (and later lapped up the spilt milk that caused mother to send the children out in the forest to gather strawberries for supper). Mama was big—about nine feet tall—and Dad was even bigger when he showed up a little tipsy and with plenty to eat. Meanwhile, out in the witch-haunted woods a kindly sandman puppet lulled the children to sleep, and fourteen diaphanous angels on strings hovered eerily over the nestled pair. Everyone, surely, knows the famous Grimm Brothers fairy tale.



Houston Grand Opera presents an Operacast: Meet Rosina, the Evil Witch (a look at HGO’s Hansel & Gretel)


Because opera is first of all sung, I have to say that every member of the HGO Studio’s young cast sang the clever English text beautifully and with such good diction that we didn’t need the supertitles, but the fifteen-foot tall puppet-and-singer apparatus that was the witch absolutely stole the show. Liam Bonner, the talented baritone on top, managed not only to sing but also to manipulate the witch’s long arms and act comically evil as three puppeteers tucked under an enormous skirt wheeled him about the enticing cookie-encrusted house. The witch convincingly menaced the gingerbread children and even gobbled one down in a way both funny and mildly horrifying. Of course, all the gingerbread kids came magically back to

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