Houston Grand Opera unveils ambitious “Human Spirit” initiative

Tue May 23, 2017 at 1:09 pm
By Steven Brown

Patrick Summers

Houston Grand Opera will “highlight the universal spiritual themes raised in opera” through a six-year initiative that will range from commissioned operas to collaborations with social-services groups.

The multidisciplinary program, “Seeking the Human Spirit,” will focus on a human or philosophical theme each season, viewing it through three works — one of them a world premiere. The 2017-18 theme will be sacrifice, embodied by Verdi’s La Traviata, Bellini’s Norma and Ricky Ian Gordon’s The House Without a Christmas Tree, which will premiere in December. Organizations ranging from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston to The Women’s Home — a center for women dealing with substance abuse and other challenges — will offer programs expanding on the theme or the operas’ portrayal of it.

“Opera takes the human spirit in this grand cathartic way and sings it back to you,” said HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers in a statement. “I wanted us to explore a set of pieces that have some vein of spirituality as their artistic core, and invite partners here in the Houston Community to help us ignite a set of conversations about what art is for that will be meaningful to audiences and to the broader community.”

In 2018-19, the program will explore the topic of transformation, as evoked in Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Daniel Catán’s  Florencia en el Amazonas and Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix. O’Regan’s new work will depict Mozart’s collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte after his move to the United States. Baritone Thomas Hampson will portray da Ponte in his later years; bass Luca Pisaroni, the younger da Ponte. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, an alumnus of the HGO Studio training program, will present another view of the theme by performing her recital program “In War and Peace: Harmony Through Music.”

In the following seasons, “Seeking the Human Spirit” will bring works including Handel’s Saul, Donizetti’s La Favorite, Richard Strauss’ Salome and Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Adam Guettel, composer-lyricist of the Broadway hit The Light in the Piazza, will create an operatic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.

“At a time when conflict and division are all around us, two things that unite all people are spirituality and music,” said HGO managing director Perryn Leech. As “the most ambitious and inclusive initiative in our 62-year history,” he added, Seeking the Human Spirit will “invite Houstonians to discover the powerful experiences that great opera can provide. We are proud to break new ground in this city by collaborating with partner organizations who are doing vital artistic and community work and creating meaningful connections for new and nontraditional audiences as well as opera lovers.”

At Houston Methodist hospital, HGO performers will work with the psychiatric department and other units to offer arts experiences as therapeutic tools. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will offer gallery tours drawing parallels between works on display and the featured operas. The Jung Center, Houston will offer lectures exploring the operas’ psychological underpinnings.

The Rothko Chapel will present panel discussions on topics such as how the arts can address social issues. Sacred Sites Quest, which introduces high school students to sacred space in and beyond Houston, will include HGO performance in its itinerary. And at The Women’s Home, participants in the Courage to Search spiritual-exploration course will attend two productions each season and discuss their meanings.

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