Wednesday on the NewsHour: The Houston Grand Opera Sings to a New Audience

BY Mary Jo Brooks  May 22, 2013 at 3:52 PM EST


An epic journey told in song. Laments about lost loves. A protracted death scene. Just another production at the Houston Grand Opera. But there’s nothing typical about “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” or “To Cross the Face of the Moon.”

Written in 2010 and billed as the first mariachi opera, “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” tells the story of three generations of a Mexican family in the United States. It’s also just part of a grand mission by the Houston Grand Opera to engage new audiences by telling their stories. Patrick Summers, HGO’s artistic director, says he sees it as a moral responsibility to “broaden the art and take it to as many people as want to seek it.”

Part of the outreach to new communities is a matter of pure demographics. Thanks to a large influx of immigrants over the past several decades, Houston has become a majority minority city, with 60 percent of its residents of African, Hispanic or Asian descent. But Summers says what his company is doing has less to do with filling seats and much more to do with fully integrating into the community.

“We absorb each other’s culture and what comes out is something very uniquely American,” Summers says. “That’s how I view Houston. And that’s very much how I view the role of the Houston Grand Opera.”

The effort began six years ago with a production called “The Refuge,” which told stories of refugees from around the world who have settled in Houston. Since then, more than a dozen other works have been created, all telling the stories of real people and experiences in the city.

Sandra Bernhard, who directs the company’s community engagement program, says her job is to “show up, shut up, listen and show up again.” She recently listened to teens at a Latino neighborhood center tell their “journey stories” — how their families came to America. Several months ago, the teens helped HGO market a new opera called “Past the Checkpoints” using Facebook and Twitter. It told the story of an undocumented Mexican youth living in Texas.

Sixteen-year-old Pablo Flores says he and his friends enjoyed watching what was their very first opera, because it told his story. “That’s what I went through,” he says. San Juana Banda agrees, “It shows a part of Houston that is not really told that much.”

Yani Rose Keo has seen her personal story told on stage. In 1975, she fled her native Cambodia, where several members of her family were killed by the Khmer Rouge. She eventually came to Houston and started a non-profit organization that provides job training and social services to immigrants from all over the world. Three years ago, the Houston Grand Opera approached her to see if it could tell her story in song. Although initially reluctant, she agreed and ultimately was thrilled with the resulting opera, “New Arrivals.”

“The first time I saw it, I cried and cried,” Keo says. “I could close my eyes and see what my family went through. How hard it was.”

Next year, the Houston Grand Opera plans to spotlight a different kind of local community: an opera based on the stories of Iraq War veterans returning to Houston. And “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” has begun a life beyond Houston, with recent performances in Chicago, San Diego and even Paris.

Opera soprano singer Ana Maria Martinez was born in Puerto Rico and got her start at the Houston Grand Opera. She now performs at opera houses all over the world, but continues to make her home in Houston. She’s also a big believer HGO’s mission and frequently visits schools, particularly in Latino neighborhoods, to spread the word and demystify opera. She recently spoke about that with PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown: