Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Grand Opera Ups the Wonder and the Extra — Where All First-Time Opera Fans Are Welcome, Even the Instagram Crowd

Everything You Need to Know About HGO's 2022 to 23 Season With Khori Dastoor

BY // 03.08.22

“I’ve been grappling a lot with the word grand and what that means in today’s world. What is a grand opera?” Houston Grand Opera’s new general director and CEO Khori Dastoor posed that question to herself even before arriving in Houston. It reverberates through the entirety of the just-revealed 2022 to 2023 Houston Opera season lineup.

PaperCity talked with Dastoor after the season unveiling, set in HGO’s Costume Shop. Houston Grand Opera artistic and music director Patrick Summers and Dastoor’s decision to layout such an exciting season amid the opulent dresses, impressive armor, spectacular wigs and at least one pair of glorious black wings being built for this current season was certainly not a haphazard one.

What does Grand mean for Dastoor?

“For me it’s this,” she explains, making a gesture to all the behind the scenes artistry it takes to produce a Houston Grand Opera opera. “It’s having the privilege of a scene shop dedicated to sewing by hand the costume that people are going to wear. The labor and resources to make something that special on that grand of a scale.

“We have to lean into what we offer the community, which is the opportunity to see something extra, something that’s an occasion. Every performance has to feel like an event.”

Houston Grand Opera Eyes a Season of Grandeur

The new season filled with beloved classics will likely feel eventful with a capital E for HGO subscribers and supporters from the opening production of Verdi’s La traviata to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in the 2023 new year and Puccini’s Tosca in the spring.

Each production contains that grand philosophy and a unique enticement for opera lovers to return to live, in-person performances.

For La traviata that something extra might be that opera mega star Angel Blue will make her HGO debut as the doomed courtesan Violetta. Dastoor calls Blue’s pairing with celebrated composer-conductor Matthew Aucoin a “dynamic duo.” “Because La traviata is so musically based in the world of the conductor-composer, we really wanted to engage a great composer who is also a great conductor,” Summers adds.

HGO – La Traviata – 2017 – Photographer Lynn Lane-133 (3000×2000)
The new season revival of Verdi’s La traviata will star Grammy Award-winning soprano Angel Blue. (Photo by Lynn Lane)

Extra will likely become an apt description for the first 2023 production, as Summers calls the Tony Award-winning director Michael Grandage’s Figaro, the “Austin Powers Marriage of Figaro.” He also reminds us that Grandage created the production specifically for the Houston Grand Opera.

Those who follow the continuing rise of many of HGO’s Studio Alumni will likely want to put on their best finery for Tosca and Tamara Wilson’s return home for the role of Floria Tosca. Summers notes that Wilson got her start at HGO studio and now stands as one of the most recognizable voices in opera.

Bold is HGO’s motto for the season, but go bold or they’ll stay home might also have become the unspoken strategy behind the lineup, as some of the lesser produced selections prove HGO ready to give subscribers those special events while also beguiling new and younger audiences into opera fandom.

For the holidays, HGO will bring back the already beloved El Milagro del Recuerdo (The Miracle of Remembering) the commissioned mariachi opera they world premiered in 2019 to great acclaim.

Paired with Figaro in January comes Jules Massenet’s psychological drama Werther, a piece HGO has not offered since the 1970s. Calling the psychological drama within the opera “chilling,” Dastoor says “One of the biggest events maybe of our season is the starring duo in this piece, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and Tenor Matthew Polenzani.”

Perhaps in the same psychological vein comes the Francisco Negrin directed Richard Strauss’ Salome.

It is an Oscar Wilde take on the Biblical story of the death of John the Baptist.

“In Francisco Negrin’s production he sets the production inside Salome’s mind, set like a grand nightmare,” Summers notes. After several attempts, and COVID cancellations to bring Negrin to Houston Grand Opera, Summers says “This finally will bring his real theatrical genius to HGO.”

The biggest surprise in the season and the production Dastoor says she’s most excited about is Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, an opera that has not had a full professional production anywhere in the world for more than a hundred years. Dastoor calls Smyth an “extraordinary composer” but one even many opera aficionados may not know well. She recounts The Wreckers as an “epic story” about isolated community on the coast of Cornwall that depicts “what happens when one human being stands up for what’s right.”

Clearly as excited about The Wreckers as Dastoor, Summers describes “If Wagner and Edward Elgar wrote an opera together, it would be The Wreckers.”

Throughout the evening, Dastoor called the 2022 to 23 season a “powerhouse season for women” with the Louisa Muller directed Wreckers a prime example.

Artful Opera Programming

When we spoke after the presentation, I asked how much input Dastoor had in this new season, when sometimes productions are scheduled years in advance. She explains that coming in during the first season back after darken stages across the globe — at a time when Houston Grand Opera had cancelled nine productions — made for interesting programming times but also for opportunities.

“I think more than is usual I had a lot of flexibility in choosing what would come back when and how we would handle things that needed more time to develop,” Dastoor says. The Houston Grand Opera’s new leader also notes that there had been some world premieres in the pipeline that had been disrupted and needed more time to develop.

While Tosa and Traviata were in place and ready, Dastoor still had the chance to shape some of the season. “It was an important me for an overall arching narrative to make sense,” she tells PaperCity.

Women would help set that narrative — and sense of connection.

“What we needed is to really focus the season around the idea that opera is about women and has been driven by women,” Dastoor says. “The female performers who embody those characters that die at the end of the mark have left their mark in history. (This season) gives us the opportunity to also shine a light on composers, on conductors, on female directors, on the people who aren’t as visible to the audience as the divas on the stage.”

Driving that narrative meant going very quick and bold.

The Wreckers is being designed and produced in record time,” Dastoor says. “We’ve never done a new production so quickly. That’s everyone coming together to say this is so important and we don’t want to miss this moment and this opportunity to tell this story so we’re creating a new production in less than a year.”

HGO’s new CEO, Khori Dastoor, announced the 22-23 season in the HGO Costume Shop to celebrate opera’s behind the scenes grandeur.

During our discussion on the nature of grand and opera’s importance in such a diverse city like Houston, I mention that I’ve noticed some decidedly bold behavior from audience members this season especially during the visually as well as audibly stunning Carmen and Magic Flute productions.

When I describe spotting a few younger audience members pulling out their phones to record Carmen — perhaps to share on Instagram or TikTok, as if they were at a Harry Styles concert — Dastoor laughs. While filming is still a definite no-no in the Wortham, Houston Grand Opera’s bold, new CEO doesn’t even try to feign disproval.

“I’m so happy about that,” she smiles. “I got hate mail about people clapping in the middle of arias. I say: That’s the best. That means someone is there for the first time.” ”

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