Houston Grand Opera (HGO), located in Houston, Texas, was founded in 1955 by German-born impresario Walter Herbert and Houstonians Elva Lobit, Edward Bing, and Charles Cockrell. HGO's inaugural season featured two performances of two operas, Salome (starring Brenda Lewis in the title role) and Madame Butterfly. David Gockley succeeded Walter Herbert as general director in 1972 and remained in the post until accepting the general directorship at San Francisco Opera in 2005. He began his tenure there in 2006.
Gockley was succeeded at Houston Grand Opera by Anthony Freud, previously the general director at Welsh National Opera. When Freud resigned his post at HGO in 2011 to take the general directorship of Lyric Opera of Chicago, he was succeeded by joint leaders Patrick Summers, who had been music director at HGO since 1998, and Perryn Leech, who joined the company in 2006 and became chief operating officer in 2010. Summers serves as artistic and music director and Leech serves as managing director. Oversight of the HGO Association is provided by a board of directors; a body of trustees also supports the organization.
The company now presents six to eight productions per season and has an operating budget of $24 million (2015-16 season). Houston Grand Opera performances are held in the Wortham Theater Center, a venue with two performance spaces: the Alice and George Brown Theater and the smaller Roy and Lillie Cullen Theater. Their combined capacity is more than 3,300.
Under Gockley's leadership, the company began regularly commissioning and producing new works--almost exclusively from American composers--and the company continues to do so. HGO has also staged seven American premieres.
The Houston Grand Opera Studio, co-founded by Gockley and composer Carlisle Floyd in 1977, was one of the earliest comprehensive young artist training programs in the United States. It provides advanced training and professional opportunities to outstanding young artists, many of whom have gone on to establish international careers.
Through its HGOco initiative, begun during the tenure of Anthony Freud, HGO partners with educational and community organizations to provide a variety of artistic experiences to the greater Houston area and the Gulf Coast region.
Houston Grand Opera is supported by an active auxiliary organization, the Houston Grand Opera Guild, established in October 1955.
The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, with more than 45 core members, plays all Houston Grand Opera performances. Patrick Summers (artistic and music director since 2011) has been the music director since 1998. No music director was appointed during the Walter Herbert years (1955-72) until 1971, when longtime assistant conductor and chorus master Charles Rosekrans was named. Later music directors/principal conductors include Chris Nance (1974-77), John DeMain (1977-94), and Vyekoslav ?utej (1994-97).
The Houston Grand Opera Chorus has been led since 1988 by Chorus Master Richard Bado, an alumnus of HGO's young artist training program, the Houston Grand Opera Studio.
Houston Grand Opera's young artist development program, the Houston Grand Opera Studio, was founded in 1977 by composer Carlisle Floyd and HGO's then-General Director David Gockley to help young artists make the transition between their academic training and professional careers. The HGO Studio primarily trains young singers and pianist/coaches but has also trained aspiring conductors in a residency program of up to three years. An annual competition, now called the Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers, was inaugurated in 1989 to help identify a pool of potential international artists for the Studio, which is currently directed by Brian Speck. Studio alumni include sopranos Ana María Martínez, Erie Mills, Albina Shagimuratova, Heidi Stober, Rachel Willis-Sorensen , and Tamara Wilson; mezzo-sopranos Jamie Barton , Joyce DiDonato, Denyce Graves, Susanne Mentzer, and Marietta Simpson ; tenors Bruce Ford , and Norman Reinhardt ; baritones Richard Paul Fink , and Scott Hendricks; bass-baritones Greer Grimsley , Ryan McKinny, and Eric Owens ; and bass Eric Halfvarson. Other alumni include HGO Chorus Master Richard Bado, composer/conductor David Hanlon l, former Lyric Opera of Kansas City Artistic Director Ward Holmquist, conductor/arranger/composer James Lowe , conductor/pianist Eric Melear, conductor Evan Rogister, and conductor/pianist Craig Terry.
The HGO Young Artists Vocal Academy, established in 2011 and administered by the HGO Studio, is a one-week intensive program for undergraduate vocal music students. Participants selected for the program receive training that includes daily voice lessons and coachings as well as classes in characterization, movement, diction, and score preparation.
HGOco (see below) offers training to high school seniors.
In 2007, HGO established HGOco, an initiative designed to create partnerships between the company and the community. HGOco's first project, the ongoing Song of Houston initiative, creates new works focused on people and groups in Houston--the most culturally diverse city in the United States, according to a report of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas.
For its first commissioned work in 2007, The Refuge, by Christopher Theofanidis and Leah Lax, HGOco identified seven statistically significant immigrant communities in Houston and the creators began interviewing residents of those communities. The libretto was created from the actual words of some of the residents, and the premiere included performances by members from these communities.
In 2009, HGOco received the Leading Lights Diversity Award in Arts and Culture from the National MultiCultural Institute (NCMI) for Song of Houston.
As of May 2016, HGOco has premiered 20 new works, including eight short chamber operas focusing on various Asian communities in Houston, which were commissioned and premiered during a four-year series titled East + West.Recent HGOco premieres include Gregory Spears and Royce Vavrek's O Columbia, realized through the collaboration of Houston-based NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers; and David Hanlon and Stephanie Fleischmann's After the Storm, about the impact that Hurricane Ike and the Great Storm of 1900 had upon Galveston and the Gulf Coast. Song cycles have also been created in cooperation with workers in the Houston Ship Channel, Houston's veterans community, and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
HGO has been commissioning and premiering new works since 1974. These include full-length operas for the main stage and chamber works with a community focus or for children/families.
HGO has commissioned composers such as Mark Adamo, John Adams, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Catán, Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Tod Machover, André Previn, and Christopher Theofanidis to create full-length operas. Some of the most frequently performed works that originated as HGO commissions are John Adams's Nixon in China (1987), Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas (1996), Mark Adamo's Little Women (1998), Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree (2000), Jake Heggie's Three Decembers (premiered in 2008 as Last Acts), and Rachel Portman's The Little Prince (2003). In 2010 HGO commissioned and premiered the world's first "mariachi opera", composed by the late José "Pepe" Martínez, the longtime music director of the ensemble Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, with a libretto by Leonard Foglia. This work, titled Cruzar la Cara de la Luna/To Cross the Face of the Moon, has been performed at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and several opera companies in the United States.
The relationship between HGO and composer Carlisle Floyd is the longest ongoing relationship of any composer with a performing organization: HGO has commissioned five works from Floyd, including Bilby's Doll (1976), Willie Stark (1981), The Passion of Jonathan Wade (new version, 1991), Cold Sassy Tree (2000), and Prince of Players (2016). Floyd lived in Houston for some 20 years after relocating in 1976 from Tallahassee, Florida, to accept the M.D. Anderson Professorship at the University of Houston School of Music (now the Moores School of Music). In 1977, he cofounded the Houston Grand Opera Studio, HGO's young artist training program, which was initially a joint program between HGO and the University of Houston, and was an active participant in training Studio artists.
HGO has commissioned and premiered 14 chamber operas created for children/families. These chamber works are staged and are approximately 45 minutes long. Children/family operas were commissioned and premiered by HGO's Education and Outreach Department until 2007, when that department was supplanted by the broader HGOco initiative.
HGO has presented seven American premieres. Among them, the most significant are the first staged version of Handel's Rinaldo in 1975 (a concert version had been given in 1972 by the Handel Society of New York), starring Marilyn Horne in the title role and Samuel Ramey as Argante; Rossini's La donna del lago in a new critical edition in 1981, and more recently, Weinberg's The Passenger, a long-suppressed Holocaust opera composed in 1968 and performed by HGO in 2014. Besides presenting the American premiere in Houston, HGO was also invited to bring the production to the Park Avenue Armory as part of the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival.
In addition to presenting world and American premieres, HGO has played a role in bringing certain works to the attention of the opera world. HGO presented a "triumphant" and "groundbreaking" production of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess in 1976 that restored portions of the work that had been cut for previous productions (including some made by George Gershwin himself for the New York premiere in 1935), thus allowing the public to experience the Gershwins' original vision and making it clear that the work was indeed an opera. After the Houston premiere, the production, featuring Donnie Ray Albert as Porgy and Clamma Dale as Bess and conducted by John DeMain, toured to Broadway and won a 1977 Tony Award for Most Innovative Production of a Revival The complete recording won the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording.
Scott Joplin's Treemonisha, which comprises a variety of musical styles even though it is often called a "ragtime opera," received its first fully staged performances at Houston Grand Opera in 1976 with a score HGO commissioned from ragtime expert Gunther Schuller. Treemonisha also toured to Broadway and was recorded.
HGO is one of the first opera companies in the United States (and possibly the first) to offer descriptive services for patrons with vision loss. It has offered descriptive services since the 1987-88 season, the inaugural season in the Wortham Theater Center. The service is offered free of charge and by request for any performance with 48 hours notice.
In 1989, HGO became the first performing arts organization in Houston and the second major U.S opera company to establish its own archives and resources center. The archives/resource center is named for the late Genevieve P. Demme, a longtime trustee and historian of Houston Grand Opera Association. Unfortunately the archives are not available online. A request must be sent by email to make an "appointment" to see them.
On November 10, 1995, Houston Grand Opera became the first performing arts company in the United States to simulcast a live performance to an audience in another location. (The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, was the only other company at the time to have staged a similar event.) The performance of Rossini's La Cenerentola featuring mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli in her American debut that was taking place inside the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater was projected in real time onto a large screen mounted on the outside of the theater building. The event was free to the public. The audience was seated on the Ray C. Fish Plaza outside the theater, which prompted HGO to call the event a Plazacast. HGO held free public Plazacasts each year through the 2004-05 season (HGO's 50th season). In April 2005, the company simulcast both a performance of Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and its 50th anniversary gala concert.
In May 1998, Houston Grand Opera unveiled its Multimedia Modular Stage, a large steel structure with moving lights, projection screens for live-feed video and still images, and a big sound system. It was designed for large outdoor venues but could be adapted for other locations. HGO used it several times for outdoor performances in Houston and on tour, and once for an indoor production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music in 1999. Its last use in Houston was the night of June 8, 2001, in a production of Carmen at Houston's Miller Outdoor Theatre. That night, Tropical Storm Allison struck Houston, where the storm's worst flooding occurred. The two remaining performances in Houston were canceled, although the production went on tour as scheduled on June 15 and 16 to the Mann Center in Philadelphia. The effects of the storm, along with the impact of 9/11 and the collapse of Enron just months afterward, led to the retirement of the Multimedia Modular Stage, which was costly to assemble and disassemble.
In the fall of 2000, HGO devised and implemented a system of plasma and projection screens mounted in the Grand Tier and Balcony sections of the larger of the two halls in the Wortham Theater Center. This system--designed to provide close-up views of the action on stage and improve sightlines in the unusually steep Grand Tier and Balcony areas--was called OperaVision and received mixed appraisals from opera patrons. OperaVision was discontinued at the end of the 2004-05 season.