Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Tale of Two Art Forms: Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet

Yesterday my husband and I had a great experience, or two great experiences, really, in an amazing juxtaposition. Over lunchtime, we attended a workshop by HGOco, which is “Houston Grand Opera’s unique initiative that connects HGO to the community through meaningful collaboration." A lot of what HGOco does consists of workshops, opera camps, student-only performances, etc., but they also commission works particularly relevant to the local community. Along those lines, in the fall of 2015, HGO will premiere O Columbia, a chamber opera telling the story of the exploring spirit in general and the Columbia shuttle tragedy in particular.

At yesterday’s workshop, we listened to a libretto reading given by professional actors for the material as it exists to date. The entire creative team was in attendance, including librettist Royce Vavrek, composer Gregory Spears, HGOco Music Advisor David Hanlon, and director Kevin Newbury. The purpose of the workshop was for the creative team to get feedback from several opera enthusiasts as well as current and former NASA employees, including at least one astronaut. This allows them to assess whether the piece is moving in the right direction before the work goes further, particularly the musical composition.

For us, it offered an extremely rare opportunity to see the early stages of the creative process in action. I didn't know that the libretto comes before the music, and now that I know, I still can’t imagine the complexities of having to write words that will be sung when you don’t yet know the melody (although of course they have been collaborating throughout the process, so they’re on the same page in that regard), or the difficulty of fitting the music around words while also carrying certain melodic themes throughout the entire work. We've had season tickets to the opera for a few years now, and I know that I will look at productions differently after having seen some of what goes into them.

Without going into further details, I have to say that if you live anywhere in Texas, when the time comes you should make every effort to get to Houston to see O Columbia. (Although you don't have to live in Texas -- there are lots of flights to Houston every day!) It’s going to be an amazing opera, one that’s incredibly personal to anyone even remotely affiliated with NASA or simply interested in human spaceflight. It will be even more personal to those of us who live in Houston, but it’s not limited to that. So remember: Fall 2015. This is going to be really special, and shouldn’t be missed.

By complete coincidence, yesterday evening we also attended a talk presented by the Houston Ballet. Every season, the company puts on three full-length ballets and three mixed repertoire performances. This year, all three full-lengths will be Shakespeare (how fun is that?!), so last night’s Ballet Talk was about interpreting Shakespeare through dance. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but it’s a fascinating topic, because Shakespeare is all about the language, none of which is available in dance. Houston Ballet will be performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew over the 2014-15 season, and now I can't wait to compare them to the plays. (Tangent: a fun coincidence is that the first opera I ever saw was HGO’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s really interesting to see the same story as both opera and ballet; I believe the only other story I’ve seen in both forms is Madame Butterfly.)

For this Ballet Talk, the panel of experts consisted of Artistic Director (and choreographer) Stanton Welch, Managing Director Emeritus and ballet historian Cecil C. Conner, Jr., and University of Houston-Clear Lake literature professor Dr. Elizabeth Klett. The talk began with some interesting literary context from Dr. Klett. For instance, who knew that the story was not original to Shakespeare, but came instead from what Dr. Klett said was a "frankly terrible" 1562 poem by Arthur Brooke titled "The Tragicall History of Romeus and Juliet"? Dr. Klett gave us lots of other interesting tidbits, and was followed by Mr. Conner's overview of various Shakespearean ballets over the years, accompanied by some lovely photographs of famous performances.

My favorite part of the talk, though, was when Stanton Welch spoke about the new Romeo and Juliet he’s creating that will premiere in the spring. He said that while you might expect the artistic process for a new production to begin with the choreography, it’s actually the opposite: you start with the sets (built with models down to opening doors and cloth backdrops) and the costumes and don’t get down to the characters and the choreography until much later. This production's scenery and costumes have been designed by Roberta Guidi di Bagno (go here for a great blog post by Laura Lynch, Houston Ballet Wardrobe Manager, on working with the designer and shopping for fabrics in Rome).

Another thing Mr. Welch discussed was his intention to reestablish many of the play’s minor characters that have been eliminated from most dance productions. Another part of the process is settling on intentions and motivation; he said that in watching several versions of the play, he’s noticed that Mercutio’s famous speech has been played as slightly mad, as humorous, as angry…. Which of those will ultimately fit the version he wants to tell, and how to portray that in dance?

As with the opera workshop, I felt we were getting a look at the creative process in action. Especially when re-creating one of the most performed stories in recent history, how do you keep all that in mind and manage to make it all come together in the end, into a work that has its own personality?

And to think all this time I've thought that simply writing a short story was difficult. It is difficult, to be fair, but I have to admit that I'm amazed at what goes in to these other, extremely complex forms of storytelling. I’m glad there are such talented people out there who are so devoted to these two art forms.

[Costume design sketch by Roberta Guidi di Bagno.]

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