Houston Grand Opera Embraces Multicultural Chorus of Community Stories

May 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Where can you take in the first Mariachi opera in addition to the "classics"? Jeffrey Brown reports on the Houston Grand Opera's unique mission: to engage audiences from the city's diverse, multicultural community by staging productions originating from the experiences of its neighbors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: bringing opera to the community and the community into opera.

Jeff is back with that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: A tragic death scene, a lyrical duet and an epic tale of family and history, the very stuff of grand opera.

But this is “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna,” “To Cross the Face of the Moon,” composed in 2010 and billed as the first mariachi opera. It’s part of an experiment by one of the nation’s leading opera companies to reach new audiences, become a better neighbor in its community and just maybe help secure the future of an art form.

PATRICK SUMMERS, Artistic Director, Houston Grand Opera: I believe that the responsibility of an arts institution is to broaden our art and take it to as many people as want it, as want to seek it out. We have an educational and an embracing responsibility. And I think that’s a bigger responsibility than filling the seats in the theater.

JEFFREY BROWN: Patrick Summers, artistic director of the Houston Grand Opera, is hardly giving up on the classics. On the day of our visit, he rehearsed singers preparing for a production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.”

And the company is mounting a new version of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” in the next few years. But amid rapid demographic change, as Houston has become one of the most diverse big cities in the country, where minorities make up the majority of the population, the company decided it had no choice but to rethink its role.

PATRICK SUMMERS: We absorb each other’s culture and what comes out is something very uniquely American. And that’s how I view Houston. And that’s very much how I view the role of the Houston Grand Opera, to reflect that youthful immigrant city.

JEFFREY BROWN: The effort began six years with a production called “The Refuge,” which told stories of refugees from around the world who’ve settled in Houston.

It was the brainchild of then general director Anthony Freud, who created HGOco, Houston Grand Opera Company Community Collaboration. More than a dozen works have followed, most recently, one called “Memory Stone” about members of Houston’s Asian community after the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

All have been based on real people and experiences and are often performed in smaller neighborhood venues around the city.

SANDRA BERNHARD, Director, HGOco: I want to know what you detected as themes. I want to know if some of those themes changed when you sat in an audience with your community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sandra Bernhard heads HGOco and on this evening wasn’t in the opera house, but a community center meeting with Hispanic teens and local leaders.

SANDRA BERNHARD: Our job is to listen to the community. We show up, you listen, you show up again. You listen. You show. You shut up. And you listen again.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then when do you start doing something? And what do you do?

SANDRA BERNHARD: What we do is tell the stories of those who call Houston their home. And we do that through small works, through chamber works, through writing songs about things that people care about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some critics have asked, this is fine as community outreach, but is it really opera? Bernhard’s response: Don’t sweat the strict definitions.

SANDRA BERNHARD: Sometimes it doesn’t look like an opera and sometimes opera can be defined as storytelling with words and music. And that’s how we like to define it. Sometimes, it’s not about grand.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year, the company staged a work titled “Past the Checkpoints,” about an undocumented Mexican youth living in Texas.

They partnered with teens in an after-school training program called Digital Connectors and got the young people, including Pablo Flores and San Juana Banda, both 16, to come see and help market the production using their new skills.

What was that like?

PABLO FLORES, Student: I didn’t feel overwhelmed, but I was worried that we didn’t really have experience for doing this.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what happened?

PABLO FLORES: Well, we took it step by step. We all talked. We were all communicating and I think we did a pretty good job.

SAN JUANA BANDA, Student: I know like a lot of teenagers don’t really care about opera. It’s not their thing.


SAN JUANA BANDA: And I think it’s important for them to know about opera.

JEFFREY BROWN: If it’s not their thing, how did you try to reach them?

SAN JUANA BANDA: By social media. We created a Facebook page. We send invitations about the opera.

PABLO FLORES: People want to see their story being played in the opera. The want to see, oh, I can relate to that; that’s what I went through.

JEFFREY BROWN: They also thought it was important for Anglo audiences to see as well.

SAN JUANA BANDA: It shows a part of Houston that is not really told that much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seventy-four-year-old Yani Rose Keo knows that side of Houston through hard-earned personal and professional experience. Keo fled her native Cambodia in 1975. Several members of her family were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

She eventually came to Houston and started a nonprofit organization that provides job training and social services to immigrants from all over the world. Three years ago, she got an unexpected call from the Houston Grand Opera.

YANI ROSE KEO, Houston: She said, Yani, I want you to talk what you — about your life. I said, are you sure? Because our culture, that we don’t tell the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your culture is not to tell?

YANI ROSE KEO: No. You are not to tell your own personal story to anyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eventually, she decided to work with a writer and composer. And the result was “New Arrivals.”

YANI ROSE KEO: The first time I saw it, I cried and cried. I can close my eyes, I see what my family went through, how hard they went through, and even my life, my anger that I went through. I changed my anger into peace and love.

JEFFREY BROWN: Companies throughout the country are watching what is happening in Houston, aware of the need to engage and build new audiences.

In the meantime, “Cruzar,” the Mariachi opera, has begun a life beyond Houston. It’s been produced in Chicago, San Diego and even Paris. And next year, the company will spotlight a different kind of local community, as it develops an opera based on the stories of Iraq war veterans returning to Houston.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, watch an excerpt from the world’s first mariachi opera and learn more about how the Houston Grand Opera is engaging with residents.