Beauty and Heartbreak at the Opera

A mesmerizing performance by the cast of Madame Butterfly tonight. Tonight was High School night and I've never heard more uproarious applause. The curtain came down and the crowd was left in the dark, but as soon at the curtain rose again to show Cynthia Clayton Vasquez as "Butterfly," the hall filled with the wild screams of High School girls. That sound could only be rivaled with the appearance of Edward Cullen at a sweet sixteen birthday party. While he may not have been Edward Cullen, or take his shirt off, Sorrow, played by Akira Bunge, nearly stole the show! "He" was the heart-throb of the night!! No doubt the girls swooned with continuous "awww's" at Sorrow's every entrance. The ending suicide of Butterfly left few dry eyes and the students came out chattering about the cruelty of Pinkerton. Many said they were waiting for a Disney ending. My comment to them: "It's not an opera until someone dies!" Perhaps a bit morbid and skewed, but it makes for a good punchline!

The stage tonight was alight with color. The stage stair-stepped up to the back with a golden red pathway curving around. The costumes are a wash with golds and earthe colors, contrasted by bright reds for Butterfly. The silks shown brilliantly under the lights of the opera house. It was a vibrant yet perfectly simple staging - perfectly Japanese. Read more...

High School Night at the Opera is here

Paul Abdullah here continuing our HGO highschool night at the opera live blog during our first intermission.  The curtain just closed on an impressive first act, starring many HGO Studio members and UH's Cynthia Clayton as Cio-Cio San.  Check out all the student reactions we are posting at the HGOco Facebook page (seach for HGOco on facebook and click "like" to see all the posts). Read more...

We are the music makers...

[Ed: Misha Penton is a teaching artist who spent the fall 2009 semester working at Grady Middle School as part of a program sponsored by the Department of Education.  Here's a blog entry she originally posted on her blog.]

Since I have been in the schools as a teaching artist for HGOco - Houston Grand Opera’s education and community programs department - I’ve stumbled upon some surprising (to me) insights.  I hadn’t expected this teaching experience to be revelatory - I didn’t know what to expect - but it has become an insightful adventure in many ways.

There are several students who are fearless and it is exciting to hear their creative writing explorations come to life when they read before the class.  Others are too shy to read aloud their work, but will come up to me afterwards and say, “What do you think of this?”  And it is amazing work, as well.  But it isn’t about what I think, or what their parents think, or what their teachers think.  It is about what THEY think of the possibility and value of their own ideas.  The arts can teach children that their ideas are valid, that they do not need permission to be expressive, and that ideas can change their perspective.  That’s how we change the world.

I am surprised by the presence of students’ exceptionally loud, Inner Critic.  I know middle school is an age full of awkwardness and inhibition, but there is an underpinning of judgement and fear - of not doing something “right.”  This did not happen overnight, and it’s poison to Imagination and Creativity and toxic to Possibility.  We can teach children without (silently and insidiously) instilling a fear of failure - fear of doing something perceived as “wrong” because everyone around them is judging their “performance.”

If we do not teach children to trust their vision, we will not only discourage future Mozarts and Nureyevs, but we will not have visionaries in any field:  teachers, medical researchers, parents, city planners, technology developers, citizens invested in community…

I remember myself as a child having few inhibitions and a sense of wonder and creativity that I now, as an artist, rely on.  My own creativity is initially fueled by an un-edited process. I simply do not let my Inner Critic have a say in the developmental stages of my work.  Everything becomes a creative possibility.

Our imaginations are where ideas grow.  All sorts of ideas. But to nurture Imagination, we must develop an Imagination Praxis - and for cryin’ out loud, let us not squelch it before the 7th grade or then all is, very truly, lost.

[Ed: Misha has her own work, unrelated to HGOco.  To find out more, feel free to visit her blog.]

70 down, lots more to's Opera to Go!

This fall Opera to Go! tried something we haven’t done in a while - our cast learned and toured two shows simultaneously. The first show was How Nanita Learned to Make Flan by Enrique Gonzalez-Medina with a libretto by Campbell Geeslin, who is also the author of the children’s book on which the opera is based. The second show was Hansel & Gretel, adapted by local playwright Kate Pogue.

Before I go further, our spring shows are open for bookings and they're going fast! To reserve a performance at your school or community center, visit our Opera to Go!

We rehearsed the two shows back to back, which made for an intense three weeks!

Tara Faircloth directed Nanita while I directed Hansel. Tara is a local artist who has directed shows with Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre and assistant directed shows on the HGO main stage. The human mind is truly a miraculous thing, especially when you have to stage one show while rehearsing the music for another. Kudos to the cast for being well prepared and putting both shows together so quickly.

Our fall tour opened at the Miller Outdoor Theatre with a string of Nanita performances. Campbell Geeslin, the librettist, came to see our final dress rehearsal, and then had lunch with us after we opened on Monday. The performers really wowed the audience with their singing and dancing! Of course, the children love when Nanita sleepwalks into the audience. Often they pay more attention to that than the Moon and Coyote singing on stage.

While Nanita performances shined in the morning at the Miller Outdoor Theatre, the same cast was busy rehearsing Hansel & Gretel in the afternoons. This show opened at the end of the following week, after another run of Nanita at Cy-Creek FACE. The Saturday opening of Hansel & Gretel played to a packed house of friends and families. From there we went straight into our tour of local libraries and community centers, sponsored by Houston Arts Alliance. One of the great things about being an Opera to Go! artist is that you learn how to adapt very quickly, especially since the venue is rarely the same twice in a row. At the libraries we sometimes have to adjust staging or remove part of the set because the performance space is small.

By the end of December we scheduled 50 Hansel & Gretel performances and 20 How Nanita Learned to Make Flan performances. When you have to perform 70 shows in barely three months time, it is nice to have some variety!

Rehearsals for our first production of the spring rep period begin this coming Monday. Wish us luck! At the end of this month we begin our tour of Cinderella in Spain, our most popular show written by local composer Mary Carol Warwick and local playwright Kate Pogue. In mid-March we premiere our first-ever collaboration between Opera to Go! and Song of Houston - a world premiere work by two Texans: Rice composition grad Ethan Greene and librettist Irene Keliher. This work is called A Way Home, and parallels the journey of a young girl from Houston to Mexico with the migration of the monarch butterfly.

Stay tuned to the blog for more reports on Opera to Go!, including our tour to west Texas in February!

Dispatches from the HS Voice Studio

[Editor: Introducing Katie, another on-the-go reporter for HGOco this year. Katie is senior at Alvin High School and a member of our High School Voice Studio. We thought you might be interested in hearing about opera and our programs from her perspective. Enjoy periodic updates about her explorations of the opera world!]

The HGO High School Voice Studio program has been the most wonderful opportunity for me. Before this program, I didn't have any voice lessons outside of my school's vocal specialist. Working with Dr. Satterfield has been a pleasure and an amazingly insightful experience.

Before I was selected for this program I had never seen an opera. I also had an unjustified dislike for them. What little bits of opera I had heard had made the distinction in my mind that opera was just a lot of ridiculous vibrato. The first dress rehearsal that we attended was The Elixir of Love. I was blown away. I absolutely, positively loved it.

The lead soprano in all her glory brought me to tears with her beautiful soaring solos. The set was a wonder in itself. It was so realistic, and the characters looked right at home.

The next dress rehearsal to see was Lohengrin. This is a famously long opera and a very different kind of opera than Elixir. Lohengrin is a German opera. German is not considered to be a very pleasant language to listen to, compared to the beauty of the Italian language. As the orchestra (which was just amazing) began the introductory song, my eyes were glued to the stage. The music had already moved me deeply before the curtain went up. When the opera began, the magic of Lohengrin unfolded. 

The story was simultaneously heartbreaking and soap-opera like. The singing was rich, glorious and powerful. I was riveted throughout the entire opera. Even the language which I worried might sound unpleasant, was beautiful to me. Members of the HSVS had the pleasure of working with one of the principal singers, Christine Goerke, who revealed wonderful insights to the opera, taught inspiring techniques and brought good humor to the class. Watching her perform was a great pleasure. At the end of the opera I was wowed. I had never seen something as awe inspiring as Lohengrin.

Stay tuned for more of my experiences as a member of HGOco's High School Voice Studio and check back for a posting by one of the other members of HSVS in the next few weeks.

Wortham Treelighting Fun

On November 25, HGOco's Opera to Go! provided holiday fun for people of all ages - part of the Wortham Theater Center Tree Lighting.  Every year, hundreds of families rush up the escalators of the Wortham Center to see the tree being lit. 

This year it was not only about the sparkling lights and dazzling ornaments that brighten up the tree, but also storytelling, music, and children’s imaginations coming to life. It was a scene of little girls dressed in their tutus twirling with the ballerinas from Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker, and families taking pictures with the gingerbread house used for the Opera to Go! performance of Hansel and Gretel.

As soon as the tree was lit, the Opera to Go! singers performed a 20-minute version of Hansel and Gretel. It brought storytelling and music together to capture the attention of parents and children. The children sat eating their holiday cookies and watching these familiar characters. They sat captivated by the colorful props, eccentric evil witch, and the beautiful singing. HGOco had a great time joining in on the festivities and demonstrating that storytelling comes in all forms.

If you’d like Opera to Go! to visit your school, library, or local community center, please visit our website at and click on Opera to Go! Read more...

Opera-sized (or bigger!) Headdresses

While the Quetzal Ollin Chicahua (see the blog posting "Traditional Aztec Dancers and a Surprise" for more info) were in the Houston area, I was privileged to attend a special ceremony at Peckerwood Gardens, northwest of the city.

The Gardens are a remarkable setting and include a collection of arare plants native to a wide region of the southern United States and to Mexico, mingled with their Asian counterparts.

For the better part of an hour, the dancers performed dances that connected the audience with Mother Earth and various animals.  Like the performances they provided for our school partners, Neff and Twain Elementary, it was interactive.  Audience members were invited to join in on many of the dances.

You can see from the photos at right that their clothing is extremely ornate, and the headdresses are beyond compare.

We're very much looking forward to their return!