Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Grand Opera Rolls Out the Blockbusters For a New Season to Look Forward To — Romantic Love Takes Centerstage

Bringing In the Young Stars For an Art Loving Bayou City

BY // 05.02.24

Houston Grand Opera’s new 2024-25 season is set to be a music and opera lover’s dream. Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Rossini’s Cinderella, Puccini’s La Bohème, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Mazzoli and Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves and Wagner’s Tannhäuser are all on the schedule.

This repertoire forms a glittering constellation of masterworks by the brightest lights of 19th century opera, 20th century American musical theater and 21st century new opera represented by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek. Yet, apart from greatness, another thread links these operas.

At a festive reveal on the Opera’s home stage in the stunning Wortham Center, HGO general director and CEO Khori Dastoor and artistic and music director Patrick Summers revealed the irresistible theme for the season — romantic love. Or as HGO headlines it: “Truly. Madly. Deeply.”

“Each of the six operas,” Dastoor says, “will explore what it means to fall in love with every last iota of your being. Only opera, through its magical merging of text and score, can conjure the profound pleasure and searing pain that accompany pure romantic love.”

Not only will the Houston Grand Opera season put the spotlight on stories of romantic love — it focuses on young love. “The boundless energy of youth runs through each of next year’s works,” Summers says.

On the composer side, Summer notes the presence of two “youngsters” in Rossini, who was 23 when he began his bubbly bonbon Cinderella; and Stephen Sondheim, a year older at 24, when he wrote the lyrics for West Side Story.

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With HGO’s lineup of approachable operatic masterpieces, next season could be an ideal time to try opera for the first time, or experience it again after an absence.

In a one-on-one interview in the Houston Grand Opera offices, Dastoor points out there has been a boom in new ticket buyers.

“The single ticket audience is growing and growing,” she says. “Part of it is Houston’s growth. Another factor is Houston as an art centered city.”

Navasard Hakobyan performs at the Houston Grand Opera 2024-25 Season Announcement Reception. (Photo by Daniel Ortiz)
Navasard Hakobyan performs at the Houston Grand Opera 2024-25 Season Announcement Reception. (Photo by Daniel Ortiz)

Although Dastoor notes that with her position comes the responsibility of ultimately selecting the operas for an upcoming season, she describes her relationship with Summers as “truly a partnership and shared vision.”

“Patrick is such an historian and scholar,” Dastoor says. “Using his understanding of history, he wants to fulfill the composer’s intention. To be certain the musical foundation has integrity. And to produce music at the very highest level, true to the score.”

However, she emphasizes, that does not mean avoiding new work that can be challenging.

“New operas advance the art form itself,” Dastoor tells PaperCity. “Without new works, the art form is a dead one. The best part of the job is (working with) people who are changing the game.”

Houston Grand Opera's<em> Il Trovatore</em> is set for October 18 through November 3.
Houston Grand Opera’s Il Trovatore is set for October 18 through November 3.

Il Trovatore Opens the Season

“We’re giving it everything we’ve got,” Summers promises. “You won’t be seeing your grandmother’s Il Trovatore.

We already know two exciting elements awaiting Houston audiences for this opener, set for October 18 through November 3, 2024.

First, it’s an original, new HGO-commissioned production placed in contemporary Europe by the influential and internationally respected opera director Stephen Wadsworth. Among his many accomplishments, Wadsworth is known as the librettist for Leonard Bernstein’s 1983 opera with music — A Quiet Place.

Second, Houston audiences who thrilled to the glistening soprano voice of Ailyn Pérez in this season’s Madame Butterfly will have the chance to hear her again when she returns as Leonore opposite Michael Spyres as Manrico.

Dastoor conisders Pérez a leader of the art form. “She’s there to spread joy,” Dastoor says. “An ambassador. She can cause a patron to fall in love with opera.”

Houston Grand Opera's <em>Cinderella</em> is set for October 25 through November 9.
Houston Grand Opera’s Cinderella is set for October 25 through November 9.

Cinderella Means Family Time

Rossini’s Cinderella, opening October 25 and running through November 9, is an utterly delightful work that kids can enjoy too. Among the features are a heroine renamed Angelina who finds love with a prince and a hilarious cadre of scene stealing (spoiler alert: human-sized) rats.

But it’s comedy with a message. “Forgiveness is the way,” Summers points out. “Angelina forgives them all.”

“Our kids deserve the best,” Dastoor says.

And Houston Grand Opera is determined to deliver. World renowned mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard will sing Angelina, joined by revered Rossini specialist, baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico.

Houston Grand Opera's<em> La Bohème,</em> will run from January 24, 20025 through February 14, 2025.
Houston Grand Opera’s La Bohème, will run from January 24, 20025 through February 14, 2025.

Puccini’s Beloved La Bohème

Set in Belle Époque Paris, Puccini’s gorgeous score and tender story are the essence of unabashed romance.

Bohème is best served,” Dastoor notes, “by artists discovering the work again through their own youth.”

Young Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz will sing the role of Mimi that brought her unfettered praise in the Royal Opera production earlier this year. Writing in Opera Now, Frank Muzzu praises Veliz’s presence and charm: “And then, there is her voice, a sumptuous lyric soprano. . . rich in colours, balanced of phrase and with beautifully judged portamenti.”

Although Karen Kamensek will be at the podium for the HGO performances, Véliz spent time with Summers at the Aspen Festival in 2022, where she won the inaugural Renée Fleming Artist award. Afterward, Véliz told Opera Now she had the opportunity to work with Summers, “especially on the role of Mimi.”

The final performance of La Bohème falls on Valentine’s Day. Its run goes from January 24, 2005 through February 14, 2025.

“It will be a perfect Valentine’s date night,” Dastoor says. Who would argue with that?

Houston Grand Opera's <em>West Side Story,</em> will show January 31, 2005 through February 15, 2025.
Houston Grand Opera’s West Side Story, will show January 31, 2005 through February 15, 2025.

A Romantic and Appealing West Side Story

“When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong,” wrote librettist Steven Sondheim for Bernstein’s masterpiece that opened on Broadway in 1957. This opera could still make a great Valentine’s celebration if you tuck the tickets into bouquet of roses, with West Side Story set to run January 31, 2025 through February 15, 2025.

Some people wonder about a Broadway musical in an opera house. Does a musical become an opera? Summers’ answer?

“The venue creates what it is,” he says. “West Side Story is an opera when we do it.”

Houston audiences loved the 2018 co-production by HGO, Glimmerglass and Lyric Opera of Chicago, directed by the legendary Francesca Zambello. Unfortunately, Hurricane Harvey displaced that production from the flooded Wortham Center. Now audiences will have the chance to experience Zambello’s full vision.

Houston Grand Opera's <em>Breaking the Waves,</em> is set for April 19, 2025 through May 4, 2025.
Houston Grand Opera’s Breaking the Waves, is set for April 19, 2025 through May 4, 2025.

Breaking the Waves Changes the Game

Mazzoli and Vavrek’s adaptation of von Triers’ award-winning 1996 film of the same name is likely to gain substantial media attention. Its frank sexual content, set against a backdrop of Calvinist fundamentalism in 1970s Scotland, is a subject matter audiences may be more familiar with in movies and popular music than on the opera stage.

“It’s an important piece of art,” says Summers, who will conduct the opera set for April 19, 2025 through May 4, 2025. “Musically, Mazzoli has transformed the difficult subject matter into lyrical music. The story — a religious erotic journey of two people — is a difficult subject for any medium.”

Dastoor’s enthusiasm for and admiration of Breaking the Waves is palpable.

“It’s exciting any time a new work expresses genius,” Dastoor says. “It can come once in one hundred years. Opera is not always beautiful. It can challenge our sense of duty and morality, shine a light on aspects of humanity that are difficult. But Breaking the Waves is not breaking away from the HGO ethos.”

The ethos Dastoor refers to is Houston Grand Opera’s history of producing and commissioning new works, primarily from American composers, which began in 1972 under the of tenure artistic director David Gockley.

New opera, Dastoor says, “tells our own stories and allows us to interact with who we are. Breaking the Waves is a spiritual and mystical journey that shocks us all.”

Houston Grand Opera's <em>Tannhäuser</em> is set for April 25, 2025 through May 11, 2025.
Houston Grand Opera’s Tannhäuser is set for April 25, 2025 through May 11, 2025.

Wagner’s Tannhäuser Closes Things

Demonstrating her versatility, Zambello will be back in the director’s chair for Tannhäuser, running April 25, 2025 through May 11, 2025. Houston audiences will be the first to see the HGO’s co-production with Washington National Opera, where Zambello is artistic director. Houston Grand Opera’s leaders promise it will be “strikingly beautiful,” which seems only right considering the this opera’s strikingly beautiful and dramatic score.

Summers notes that Tannhäuser is less dense than this season’s nevertheless hugely successful Parsifal. However, fans who love the grand themes and overarching drama of Wagner’s operas will not be disappointed as the hero knight Tannhäuser struggles between the forces of lust and love. After spending a year engaging in carnal delights with Venus on her magic mountain in the sky, can he find happiness reuniting with Elizabeth, his spiritual love, back home in Germany?

Navigating this thorny terrain will be renowned Wagnerian tenor Russell Thomas in the title role. New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe describes Thomas’ voice as “gorgeously burnished power.” Summers says Thomas’ audition for the role is one of the greatest auditions he’s ever heard.

Maestro Erik Nielsen, acclaimed director of the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, will lead the star-studded cast in what Summers promises to be a “choral spectacle.”

Houston Grand Opera Sets a High Bar

Dastoor seems delighted with what she calls the “beautiful diversity” she and Summers created in assembling a 2024-25 season with broad appeal and world class artists.

“We’re courting a global audience,” she says. ”We have a grand opera house of 2,000 seats. I want to fill it with a select group of artists with a large voice who can carry a performance and be heard above the orchestra.

“I’m drawn to artists who are unique in their sound. When I close my eyes and hear them, it could be nobody else.”

For more information on Houston Grand Opera’s new 2024-25 season, go here.

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