Houston Theater District's Open House and Our Theater Awards Issue

Photo by Marie Noelle Robert
For entry level opera-goers: Sweeney Todd
Besides the ballet, the theater companies and the symphony, this year's 21st Annual Theater District Open House will feature food trucks in Jones Plaza, tango lessons from the Society for the Performing Arts and has expanded to include Bayou City Music Center and Bayou Place (known rather more for their rock music than classical works).

And even though Alley Theatre has moved to a temporary home at the University of Houston where its first show of the season The Old Friends opens Wednesday, its personnel will still be on hand to show visitors through its production rooms to plumb the mysteries of costumes and wigs and rehearsal halls.

Perryn Leech, acting board chair of the Houston Downtown Alliance and Houston Grand Opera's managing director, says this year as always gives visitors an up-close-and personal (and free!) look at the Houston arts scene with the added benefit of being able to sign up for discounted subscriptions. "There are good bargains to be had," he says.

Tying in to all the occasion, the Houston Press this week presents its annual Houston Press Arts Guide as well as the third year of our Houston Theater Awards, in which we draw attention to what we believe were the outstanding theatrical performances in our city during the 2013-14 season.

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HGO's Carmen Is the Ultimate in Gypsy Love

Categories: Opera

Photo by Lynn Lane
An opera that plays like a Broadway show -- and that's a good thing
The set-up:
If there's one opera in the rep that lends itself to a Broadway makeover, it's Georges Bizet's evergreen and surprisingly modern tale of bad girl Carmen and her wayward love life. In its original 1875 form, the piece had spoken dialogue between the music passages, what the French called an opera-comique, what we now call a musical.

After a lukewarm Paris premiere - a few of the reviews were downright vicious, some were OK, not one was a rave - and Bizet's early death only four months later, the opera, supplemented with musical recitatives instead of dialogue, made a big splash in Vienna. The wise Austrians turned the tide for this archetypal wild lady of Spain. The work has made a splash ever since. Although there is no critical edition of the score and the opera's been tinkered with even before Vienna, what the Parisians reviled for its coarseness and bad taste has now joined the pantheon of opera masterpieces.

The execution:
Even when sung through, as is this Houston Grand Opera co-production with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago, Carmen's still like a Broadway show. A very great one.

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Start Humming the Torreador Song; Carmen is Coming Back to HGO

Categories: Opera

Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
As far as tenor Brandon Jovanovich is concerned, Bizet's Carmen might be better entitled Don Jose's Girlfriend. "Really the arc of the piece is his transformation from good boy to murderer," Jovanovich says, although allowing that the Gypsy seductress would probably not agree to the retitling.

Jovanovich, last seen at Houston Grand Opera singing the title role in Verdi's Don Carlos, says he's been all over the world singing the four-act Carmen and this will be his 16th different production.

"He's one of my favorite characters. Usually I play a lot of tenor stuff - you're a lover or the love interest. So when I get a chance to play a murderer, by gosh it's OK," he says laughing.

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Das Rheingold a Stunning Spectacle of Music, Voices and Stagecraft at HGO

Categories: Opera

Photo by Lynn Lane
Iain Paterson as Wotan and Jamie Barton as Fricka in Das Rheingold
The set-up:
Well, it's finally arrived! The "it" in question is, of course, Richard Wagner's monumental operatic myth, The Ring of the Nibelung.

The four-part epic, staged by Houston Grand Opera over a span of four years - one opera per season - is a mammoth undertaking: gigantic orchestra, strenuous and career-making roles, and massive scenic effects. The Ring cycle is unlike anything ever created before its complete premiere in 1876. While the 16-hour drama (more-or-less 16 hours, usually more) had no measurable effect on the world of theater, Wagner's aural magic forever changed the course of music. It changed its very sound.

The execution:
The saga, a hybrid of Norse, Icelandic, and German folk legends, opens with a two-and-a-half hour prologue, Das Rheingold, in which all later dramatic and musical themes to be expounded are introduced. The tale begins, no less, with the creation of the world. Wagner never thought small.

Check out our interview with bass-baritone Iain Paterson.

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Das Rheingold Offers Wagner's Genius Without Intermission

Categories: Opera

Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Das Rheingold complete with water tanks meaning at least they can keep watching while they pee

He's a god, in fact the ruler of the gods, but he's only got one eye (he gave the other one up to gain wisdom in a trade that occurred before this opera starts). In Das Rheingold, he's a rash young man, still far from what Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson describes as "the old man raging against the dying of the light" that he'll become by the fourth part of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Paterson is here singing the Wotan role in the first-ever Houston Grand Opera production of this classic work (and one that continues in the next three seasons after this).

The story, filled with fantastic sights, is far from simple but on the most basic level: there's an evil dwarf who takes the Rhinemaidens' gold after they've made fun of him and told him it can be used to make a ring that will control the world.

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Lucia di Lammermoor: Complete With a Glorious Mad Scene & Stunning Coloratura

Categories: Opera

Photo by Shannon Langman
Jessica Jones as Lucia and Anthony Webb as Edgar in Ruby Cast production of Lucia di Lammermoor
The set-up:
The heavens opened up Friday night during Opera in the Heights' galloping performance of Gaetano Donizetti's operatic masterpiece Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), appropriate for this Gothic romance full of ghosts, family dysfunction, vengeance, and omens foretelling disaster. But there was already lightning on stage. Full of dazzling radiance, soprano Jessica E. Jones lit up the intimate space as virginal Lucia driven mad by unrequited love. She supplied her own thunder and sparks to Donizetti's vocal fireworks.

The execution:

Lithe, with a full mane of auburn curls, Jones looked splendid in Dena Scheh's Restoration gowns and equally fetching in Lucia's bridal negligee, now spotted with the blood of her husband, whom she has just stabbed after her arranged marriage. You see, Lucia, heroine of Sir Walter Scott's 1819 "The Bride of Lammermoor." from which Donizetti's opera is loosely adapted, is the prototypical romantic heroine, buffeted by fate and the opportunistic maneuvering of her brother Enrico.

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Cold Sassy Tree Brings Carlisle Floyd Back to UH

Categories: Education, Opera


Fourteen years ago, famed composer and librettist Carlisle Floyd premiered his then-latest opera Cold Sassy Tree at the Houston Grand Opera.

This week, it is returning to Houston, this time at the University of Houston's Moores Opera Center. All that Director Buck Ross needed, as it turns out, "was a very good couple of basses and a very strong tenor and soprano," Floyd said.

The opera, based on a 1984 book by Olive Ann Burns, tells the story of a couple in an arranged marriage WHEN that eventually becomes a true marriage between an older man and a younger woman.

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Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera in the Heights: Love, Hate and Madness

Categories: Opera

Courtesy of Opera in the Heights
Soprano Amanda Kingston (above) shares the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor with close friend Jessica E. Jones
Lucia, the character at the center of Donizetti's tragedy Lucia di Lammermoor, is wonderful mixture of intense love, savage hate and, in the end, a dramatic descent into madness. (No, that's actually not a spoiler -- look at the poster for the Opera in the Heights production below. It shows Lucia covered in blood. Does she look sane?)

Illustration by Robin Kachantones
Lucia di Lammermoor
Working with maestro Enrique Carreón-Robledo, sopranos Jessica E. Jones and Amanda Kingston share the juicy title role. And it's an exhausting one, requiring the singer to go from a young, innocent woman in love to a vengeful murderer about to lose her mind. Lucia is in love with Edgardo (Anthony Webb and Wesley Morgan), but her brother Enrico (Octavio Moreno) is determined to marry her off to a wealthy but hideous Arturo (George Williams). Enrico tricks Lucia into marrying Arturo, but when she finds out she's been deceived, she loses her grip on reality.

See our 100 Creatives profile of Jessica E. Jones.

"There's a real Romeo & Juliet feel to her love with Edgardo," Jones tells us. "On one level she knows it's never going to be possible for them to be together but she wants it so much that not being with him is just torment for her. I'm thrilled to be singing [her]; it's something that I always wanted to perform. It's a wonderful role. Well, not wonderful in terms of what happens to her, but wonderful in the range she goes through. There's lots to find in her."

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HGO Presents World Premiere of A Coffin in Egypt

Categories: Opera

Photo by Lynn Lane
Houston Grand Opera presents the world premiere of A Coffin in Egypt.

The Setup:
Houston Grand Opera presents the world premiere of A Coffin in Egypt, librettist and director Leonard Foglia's and composer Ricky Ian Gordon's adaptation of the Horton Foote play of the same name. Frederica von Stade stars in this largely one-woman show as the indomitable Myrtle Bledsoe, a woman in her nineties who is reflecting on her misspent life in Egypt, Texas. This gorgeous character study doesn't just translate well from play to libretto; it succeeds on every level and the result stands proudly on its own.

The Execution:

On paper, the work of playwright Horton Foote might seem like an unlikely transfer to the grand scale of the opera. Even when Foote is working across multiple generations, his plays have a distinct sense of the intimate, of the miniature suddenly magnified for the audience. There is also the matter of his preferred locations, the rustic and heat-baked environs of rural Texas, which are not exactly the usual backdrops of operatic happenings. But this is probably the greatest achievement of Leonard Foglia's libretto, that Myrtle's life not only remains preciously personal, but becomes a wellspring of universal understanding.

Check out our interview with composter Ricky Ian Gordon.

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Sondheim's A Little Night Music Employs Magical Music in a Company of Fools

Categories: Opera, Stage

Photo by Lynn Lane
Oh what fools these mortals be

The set-up:
Has any classic Stephen Sondheim musical ever looked quite so ravishing as this Houston Grand Opera production of A Little Night Music, borrowed from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis?

Sondheim's multiple Tony-winner, awarded best Book (Hugh Wheeler), Score, and Musical, freely adapted from Ingmar Bergman's period movie romance Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), now takes place entirely within some enchanted woods like one of Shakespeare's beloved magic forests, where lost people, disjointed in love, discover themselves and their rightful partners. Famed couturier Isaac Mizrahi, tripling as director, set, and costume designer, overlays the bittersweet, wry story with an autumnal sheen. Vines twine up the legs of a piano, twigs sprout from bedposts, nature is ever-present. Magic's in the air.

The execution:
Sondheim's misguided couples need all the help they can get. After 11 months, there's been no wedding night between middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Chad Shelton) and his child bride Anne (Andrea Carroll). Needless to say he's anxious and frustrated.

Check out our interview with Elizabeth Futral.

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