After the deluge: How Houston Grand Opera converted a convention center into an opera house

Wed Oct 18, 2017 at 1:23 pm
By Steven Brown

Houston Grand Opera rehearses for its production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar” at the “Resilience Theater” of the George R. Brown Convention Center. Photo: HGO

A few steps from the platform where her production of Verdi’s La Traviata will unfold, stage director Arin Arbus peeked behind a curtain and cried out.

“Oh, they finally did it! This is new! It wasn’t there last night.”

Folding tables decked out with small makeup mirrors wouldn’t usually cause such excitement.  Yet behind the curtain and racks of costumes, the Houston Grand Opera Chorus finally had “dressing rooms” where the singers could don the production’s lavish hoopskirts and tailcoats. 

Mere days before those dressing tables so delighted Arbus, there had been no curtain, no platform, no theater, nothing. Just 124,000 square feet of emptiness called Exhibit Hall A3 in Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

Working 15-hour days, HGO staff, stagehands and technicians are turning the sprawling space into a 1,700-seat theater that will showcase the company’s first three productions of  2017-18–and maybe do so for its entire season. When Giuseppe Verdi’s Parisian tragedy opens the season Friday night, just 13 days after the move-in began, the HGO Resilience Theater will earn its name.

Less than two months ago, Hurricane Harvey unleashed more than 40 inches of rain upon Houston. The downpour flooded swathes of the city, including the downtown theater district that contains HGO’s home, the Wortham Theater Center.

The water washed through Wortham’s lobby and larger theater, and 12 feet of it settled in the basement. Among other ancillary damage, the flooding ruined the main hall’s stage and destroyed  much of the building’s mechanical and electrical equipment. The result: The Wortham Center is out of commission through mid-May 2018 at the least.

“We were in constant crisis mode from the moment the storm started,” artistic director Patrick Summers said Monday during a media tour of the almost-completed setup. Yet despite Harvey’s dire effects, Summers says “there was never a discussion” of canceling the season.

“We are a performing arts group, and we perform. The city also needs the arts as part of its healing process. We were never going to deny the city that.”

HGO had to find someplace to go–and fast. Wortham contained not only the company’s mainstage theater, but its rehearsal studios, administrative offices and costume and wig shops. The two fall productions, La Traviata and Handel’s Julius Caesar, were scheduled to begin rehearsing in little more than a month.

“We were already brainstorming while the rain was still coming down,” Summers said. HGO leaders looked at 10 to 12 potential venues around Houston, addes managing director Perryn Leech. All had limitations, from seating capacity to stage size to available time slots. So the company went to Houston First, the city of Houston department that owns Wortham, and asked about setting up shop in another of its venues: the convention center.

“They thought we were mad,” Leech said. But Leech, whose background is in opera’s production side, had experience. When he was director of lighting at the Edinburgh International Festival in the 1990s, a fire struck one of the city’s theaters shortly before one year’s festival. Leech helped create an ad hoc theater went into “a huge sports hall” that serves the Commonwealth Games.

“When people (in Houston) said, ‘How are we going to do this?’ I said, ‘Trust me. It’ll work,’” Leech recalled.

Dealing with emergencies and limitations is an age-old theatrical tradition, stage director Arbus said.

“It’s about being confronted with problems that you don’t know how to solve. And then, as a team, you figure out a way forward,” she said. “There’s something sort of liberating about being in a situation where everybody is aware that you don’t know how to proceed, and you’re going to figure it out. I think not knowing answers is a good place to start–as opposed to being sure. Because when you don’t know, then you have the opportunity to discover something.”

The convention center shifted 17 autumn events scheduled for Hall A3 into other areas. Beginning October 7, 16-wheel trucks brought in 24 loads of equipment, including nearly a mile of metal trusses for hanging lights, curtains and other fixtures. Sixty people racked up more than 5,600 hours of work installing it all.

By Monday, HGO Resilience Theater was essentially complete. Expanses of floor-to-ceiling draperies, most of them black, partitioned Hall A3 into lobbies, a donor lounge and the theater proper. Within the theater, a bleacher-style bank of 1,500 seats faced the stage, whose proscenium was formed by still more black drapes. About 200 more seats rested on the hall’s floor, with the front row barely 20 feet from the proscenium. Even in the bleacher seats, Leech said, no viewer would be farther than 100 feet from the stage.

Backstage, curtains formed dressing rooms for the principals and chorus. The prop crew had a work area, and banks of lighting controls, monitors and other electronic equipment rested just offstage to the audience’s right.

There is no pit, of course. So a platform at the rear of the stage awaited the orchestra. A curved white cyclorama wrapped around the stage’s rear, where it could only to add atmosphere when illuminated, but to help project the orchestra’s sound. Speaking of acoustics: Back out in the seated area, plastic panels high on each side of the audience and behind it would help “contain the sound” amid the capacious exhibit hall, Leech said.

As the company planned and installed all the equipment and seating, its staff moved into offices last used by the organizing committee of Super Bowl 2017. The chorus rehearsed in a church in another part of Houston. The costume and wig staffs set up shop in HGO’s storage warehouse in yet another part of town. And the convention center let the company use a couple of its other spaces for the operas’ first rehearsals.

“Neither I nor anyone in the cast had even a moment’s hesitation about performing in this new theater,” said countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who will play Julius Caesar. “In times of crisis, art and beauty have the power to heal, and we are all excited to go on with the show. What’s more, opera can and should be heard in unconventional spaces–that has increasingly become a part of this art form’s narrative today.”

The theater’s setup created new opportunities for stage director James Robinson, whose Julius Caesar production premiered in Wortham in 2003. Robinson transplanted the opera to 1930s Hollywood, where a movie studio is filming an Egyptian epic.

“Jim Robinson was…thrilled that we were going to be in (a theater) that actually resembles a Hollywood studio,” Summers said. “He took this idea and ran with it. He wanted to be able to see all the things that we usually mask, including the orchestra.” Lights will be in full view. The audience will see furnishings pushed onto and off the stage. “You will actually see the artificiality of the theater,” Summers said.

Unlike a permanent theater, this one has no fly space above the stage for hoisting scenery into and out of view. Robinson’s original Caesar scenery employed canvas drops to conjure up a sunset and other settings, said Molly Dill, HGO’s producing director. Because they can’t be flown here, Robinson has had them cut up for use in other ways: During Monday’s media tour, a portion of the sunset scene flanked the orchestra at the stage’s rear.

Arbus set her La Traviata, a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Canadian Opera Company, in its traditional 19th-century period. As in the other theaters, it will play out on a raised, inclined platform. But the walls that originally surrounded the platforms, helping create the Parisian elegance, are too tall for the Resilience Theater. So they’re gone. So are some visual elements that need to fly in and out, such as multicolored lanterns that helped create a festive party-scene atmosphere.

But with no orchestra pit in the way, Arbus will bring the chorus forward to break through the imaginary fourth wall between stage and audience, she says. And with the viewers so close to the singers, she expects La Traviata to gain an immediacy that it doesn’t enjoy in regular theaters.

“I’m very excited to see what this will be,” Arbus said. “I have faith…that, as long as you have an amazing score and singers who can breathe life into it–which these can–that’s what you need.”

Performing in unconventional settings does bring challenges, Summers acknowledged. Because the conductor and orchestra will be behind the stage action, the cast and conductor will rely on closed-circuit video monitors to see one another. That can make coordination tricky, especially in ensembles.

“But it’s not impossible,” Summers said. When San Francisco Opera had to spend a season away from War Memorial Opera House because of post-earthquake repairs, he recalled, it staged Wagner’s massive Lohengrin in a convention center setup akin to this one.

HGO’s contract for Hall A3 runs through January. So the Resilience Theater also will showcase the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s The House Without a Christmas Tree, which opens November 30. The company hopes to stay put for the rest of the season, Leech said, but that isn’t settled.

Looking toward the later operas, Summers said the intricate ensembles of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which opens January 26, would present a particular challenge. But he predicted that the concurrent staging of Richard Strauss’ Elektra, featuring a cast headed by soprano powerhouse Christine Goerke, would pack a wallop.

“If the Elektra scenery is pretty far downstage, and you’re that close to that intense a cast, that will be an experience with that opera that you’ll never be able to have anywhere else in the world,” Summers said. “So that’s worth it.”

As the season progresses, HGO’s leaders will face yet another offstage challenge–a financial one. Because of the hurricane’s upheaval, the company may end up losing $10 million to $15 million, Leech said. Setting up the Resilience Theater alone cost most than $500,000. The theater has about 500 fewer seats than HGO’s usual home, so the company will inevitably take a hit at the box office. Going back into Wortham, whenever that happens, will bring more expenses.

“This is a time when we have to go back to our donors and say, ‘This is not mismanagement. This is a natural disaster, and we really need your help,’” Leech said. “So there’s a lot of work to do.”

La Traviata opens Friday and runs through November 11. Julius Caesar opens October 27 and runs through November 10. Ricky Ian Gordon’s The House Without a Christmas Tree opens November 30 and runs through December 17. Performances are in the HGO Resilience Theater in the George R. Brown Convention Center. houstongrandopera.org713-228-6737.

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