Sept. 11, 2015
By Colin Eatock
After two decades of bringing intrigue, passion and murder to a normally quiet neighborhood, Houston's Opera in the Heights is in a festive mood.
The plucky little opera company opens its 20th season with Ruggero Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci," on Friday at Lambert Hall.
Tenor James Chamberlain leads the cast as the jealous Canio, opposite soprano Donata Cucinotta as Canio's wife, Nedda. Eiki Isomura conducts, and staging is by Susan Stone Li.
The company has remained loyal to its core artistic mission for 20 years, said Keith Chapman, the company's director of artistic administration.
"Opera in the Heights was created by three local people," he said, "Lois Alba, Bettye Gardner and John Jennings. They started the company so they could give opportunities to young singers to perform on stage. Today, our mission is still exactly the same."
Almost from the beginning, the company has staged operas in their original languages, with costumes, scenery and even a small orchestra. Despite the company's modest budget - less than $1 million for the whole season - it operates on a professional basis, and all artists are paid for their performances.
Chapman - who has been involved with Opera in the Heights since the early days - takes pride in the many young singers who have sung leading roles. Many have been local, but the company also casts a wide net, with national auditions every year in New York.
"We've had singers go on to the Metropolitan Opera, to the San Francisco Opera and to La Scala," Chapman said. "That's one of our greatest achievements. These singers got a chance to start performing with Opera in the Heights."
The company has also remained loyal to its home - Lambert Hall, on Heights Boulevard. The company re-purposed the 1927 brick edifice, originally built as a church, as a small opera house, with seating for 300 people.
"It was John Jennings who discovered this little gem," Chapman said. "He suggested we could turn it into a small, European-style opera house. It's a beautiful old space. It's all plaster and has wonderful surfaces that make the sound bounce around. Singers love to sing in there."
Not even a fire in the hall - set by an arsonist - in 1996 could put a stop to the fledgling company's determination. A quick response from the Houston Fire Department saved the building, and the company raised funds to repair the damage.
Yet even as it celebrates 20 years, Opera in the Heights is re-thinking its artistic priorities, and is deliberately stretching its own comfort zone. The 2015-16 season runs a gamut of styles - from the 20th-century Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti to the pre-classical poise of the German Christoph Wilibald Gluck.
Chapman said the upcoming season is an experience because the company will be presenting 20th-century operas. "Menotti's 'The Medium' and 'The Telephone,' written in the 1940s, are the most modern operas we've done. And we're also reaching back to 1762 for Gluck's 'Orfeo ed Euridyce.'"
"La Cenerentola" - Gioacchino Rossini's operatic version of the Cinderella story - rounds out the season.
At the same time, the company has decided that small is beautiful and has turned to operas that are modest in scale. This shift in direction was made when the company's former artistic director, Enrique Carréon Robledo, left halfway through last season.
The company currently has no artistic director. Rather, it's run by a four-member artistic advisory board.
Conductor Isomura, who will be leading all the productions this season, is on the board. He explains the company's shift in artistic priorities.
"In the past," he said, "Opera in the Heights didn't do enough to distinguish itself from the big show in town - the Houston Grand Opera. So we wanted to focus on works that would allow us to do what only we can do - productions that take advantage of the intimate atmosphere of Lambert Hall."
In Isomura's opinion, "I Pagliacci" - with its small cast and condensed two-act format - is a fine example of the kind of opera that the company does best.
"We knew we wanted to do 'Pagliacci,' he said, "because it's a play within a play. We thought it would be a very special experience for our audience. We've set up the stage in such a way that the audience will really feel part of it."
"And," he adds, "the cast is superb. Rehearsals began two weeks ago - and I think people will be blown away by our singers."
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