In the News 2015-2016

Even Clowns Cry: Opera In The Heights Presents Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci

Houston’s small opera company opens its 20th season with the verismo masterpiece.
By St.John Flynn, September 24th, 2015

Soprano Donata Cucinotta, who sings Nedda, and music director Eiki Isomura from Opera in the Heights current production of Pagliacci. Photo by St.John Flynn.

Soprano Donata Cucinotta, who sings Nedda, and music director Eiki Isomura from Opera in the Heights current production of Pagliacci. Photo by St.John Flynn.

Opera in the Heights (OH) celebrates its 20th year with a season that includes The Medium and The Telephone, two short operas by Gian Carlo MenottiRossini’s beloved La Cenerentola, the story of Cinderella, Gluck’s 1762 masterpiece Orfeo ed Euridice.  The company opens its season with Ruggero Leoncavallo’s verismo classic Pagliacci which is currently on stage at Lambert Hall in the Heights through September 27.

OH music director, Eiki Isomura and American soprano Donata Cucinotta, who sings the role of Nedda, talk to Houston Public Media’s St.John Flynn about OH’s new season which sees the company going in a different direction.

To listen to the full interview, click HERE.


September 21, 2015
By D. L. Groover

Dash Waterbury as Beppe; James Rodriguez as Tonio.  Photo by Deji Osinulu Photography

Dash Waterbury as Beppe; James Rodriguez as Tonio.

Photo by Deji Osinulu Photography

The set-up:
In a snit with his music publisher Ricordi, who was pushing young Puccini, Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, who thought his first opera had languished because of indifference, signed up with rival publisher Sonzogno. He had an opera ready to go, a heady melodrama about infidelity within a traveling theater troupe. I Pagliacci (The Clowns) struck opera gold. Conducted at the 1892 world premiere by soon-to-be legendary firebrand Arturo Toscanini, and sung by a four-star quartet of singers (including Victor Maurel, the French baritone superstar who created the role of Iago in Verdi'sOtello and would soon debut in his Falstaff), Leoncavallo's verismo opera about sex, jealousy, and revenge was a thunderous success. The music world ate it up. It was the last time, however, that one of Leoncavallo's works would ever catch fire. But if you're destined to write one of the most enduring operas in history, Pagliacci is the one to pen.

The execution:
It is concise, utterly dramatic, and totally believable. Full of heat and rushing melody, it never stops. The opera's as theatrical as its setting. The work has entered the world's consciousness with its motif of “laugh, clown, laugh;” the old showbiz chestnut that the show must go on, no matter how much your heart is breaking. Leoncavallo runs with this idea, setting his original libretto (his own, by the way) in a bedraggled commedia dell'arte company touring the Italian provinces. Colorfully designed by Torsten Lewis – those antique circus posters are definitely eye-catching – with costumes by L.A. Clevenson, the production is set in Victorian England, although you wouldn't know if you hadn't read the program. Why England instead of southern Italy is anyone's guess, but Pagliacci would work even if were set on the moon.

Canio (tenor James Chamberlain), who plays Pagliaccio in the “show within the show,” runs the business. He's insanely suspicious of wife Nedda (soprano Donata Cucinotta), who plays Columbina in the troupe. Canio had rescued Nedda as a “young orphan” from the Italian mean streets. He thinks he has saved her. Not exactly virtuous, Nedda yearns to be free. She already has a lover, local Silvio (baritone Jeremiah Johnson), but company member Tonio (tenor James Rodriguez), ugly and hunchbacked who plays the troupe's comic fool, lusts after her, too. The company's other member, Beppe (tenor Dashiell Waterbury), tries to stay out of everyone's way. When Tonio makes his move on Nedda, she spurns him, laughing and mocking him. He vows revenge for this humiliation, and when he spies her tryst with Silvio, he runs to tell Canio.

In one of opera's most famous tenor arias, “Vesti la giubba” Canio puts on his costume and makeup while his heart aches. The troupe performs for the small town. Ironically, the play mirrors the actors' real life, as Columbina cuckolds Pagliaccio. The audience has a merry time until Canio breaks the fourth wall, accusing Nedda of being unfaithful. Is this part of the play? they wonder, it's so real. Canio demands Nedda reveal her lover's name. She refuses. He loves her; he can't understand why she would betray him. She's adamant. No name. Furious, he stabs her. When Silvio runs to help, Canio stabs him, too. Quick as a flash, with a wicked laugh, Canio announces, “The comedy is over.” Blackout.

Lean and taut with no extra filler whatever, Leoncavallo's two-acter gallops like a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper account of some sensational murder. It's melodrama in all capital letters – Love, Lust, Revenge, Murder! Leoncavallo has a felicitous way with melody that he would never display again, and Pagliacci is filled with exquisite songs and orchestral effects that nemesis Puccini would finally rival.

Each of the five principals gets to shine. Tonio has the “Prologue,” a beguiling intro to the opera, both bounding and thoughtful as he warns us not to confuse acting with real life. Watching the birds fly overhead, Nedda envies their freedom in “Stridono lassu,” a rapturous paean whose vocal line soars ever higher. Canio, of course, gets his showstopping “Vesti” and another winner in Act II, his cantabile “No, Pagliaccio non son” (“No, I'm not a clown”), when he confronts his faithless wife. Lover Silvio has a gorgeous duet with Nedda, “Tutto scordiam”(“Forget everything”), a Tristanesque moment of bliss; while Beppe sings a melodious old-fashioned serenade in Act II's play within the play.

This is all gangbusters. So why is Opera in the Heights' opening production of its 20th season (!) truly alive only in the last half-hour? No one warms up until midway through the work, and by then we've lost a lot of interest. Rodriguez grumbles through the Prologue, Cucinotta's big set piece about freedom is choppy, Chamberlain blusters and bellows, Johnson looks terribly uncomfortable, and only Waterbury knows what he's doing. Did director Susan Stone Li phone in her notes? Maestro Eiki Isomura doesn't help, overlaying Act I with sleepy tempi and some missed communication between pit and singers. And those strings need extra rehearsal time. Even OH's chorus, known for its plangent communal blend, sounds ragged and miscued.

But then something magical happens. Maybe it's Leoncavallo's Midas touch; maybe the singers passed through opening night jitters; maybe the drama took hold and shook them awake, but suddenly Pagliacci came alive. The singers relaxed (or their throats did), maestro Isomura got a B12 shot, and the drama took off. What had been clunky staging turned natural; the play within the play actually was funny; and the underlying tension which had been missing in action came to the fore. The final twenty minutes were harrowing, edge-of-your-seat excitement, just what Leoncavallo had in mind.

What had been bluster from Chamberlain – my, he can sing loud! – worked in his favor when he toned it down. His wrenching final aria to Nedda was heartbreakingly tender; his gruff stage presence paying off handsomely as the big lug begs her to reconsider. Cucinotta's fiery soprano opened up with a blistering top, square on, raising goosebumps in the best possible way. To top it off, she's the only soprano I know who can do a split, cartwheel, and headstand! Brava for that!

The verdict:
Leoncavallo wrote a one-off with Pagliacci. But what a one-off. This late 19th-century work certainly isn't subtle, but it connects with audiences in a visceral way. Unique in the repertoire, Pagliacci punches without apology. It seems to floor Opera in the Heights until our venerable little brother of an opera company fights back. Once OH meets Leoncavallo on his own terms, it scores a knockout.

I Pagliacci. September 20, 24, 26. Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at or call 713-861-5303. $13-$63.

For Full Article, click HERE.

With ‘I Pagliacci,’ Opera in the Heights starts third decade

September 18, 2015
By Martin Hajovsky 

Soprano Donata Cucinotta performed from “I Pagliacci” during Opera in the Heights’ Overture! event at Tommie Vaughn Ford in the Heights, accompanied by Bethany Self. Photo by Carl Cramer

Soprano Donata Cucinotta performed from “I Pagliacci” during Opera in the Heights’ Overture! event at Tommie Vaughn Ford in the Heights, accompanied by Bethany Self.
Photo by Carl Cramer

There’s a clown show in the Heights this week and next, but probably not the kind you’re imagining.

As has been noted here and hereOpera in the Heights is kicking off its 20th anniversary season, and this weekend opens with the classic “I Pagliacci” by Ruggero Leoncavallo at Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard.

Last week the company marked the beginning of the season with “Overture,” a party at Tommy Vaughn Ford on South Shepherd, featuring “I Pagliacci” cast members Donata Cuccinotta, James Chamberlain, James Rodriguez, Dash Waterbury and Jeremiah Johnson.

There will be four productions of “I Pagliacci,” tonight, Sept. 18, at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 20, at 2 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 26, at 7:30 p.m.

The Sunday performances will have a special feature this year. The company will host a “Talk-Back” event following each performance, allowing opera-goers the chance to speak with the cast, stage director Susan Stone Li and conductor Dr. Eiki Isomura. The Talk-Back feature is a great extension of Opera in the Heights’ opera-outreach mission, extending opportunities both to up-and-coming singers and musicians as well teaching the public about this beautiful, beautiful art form.

To that end, the company has expanded its support and outreach programs. From the Young Opera Lovers Organization to the Oh! Guild and educational initiatives, the company is in investing mode. To be completely frank, this company has already lasted 20 years longer than I thought it would when it formed. I was wonderfully wrong about that. And with these initiatives building a foundation for the future, it looks like Opera in the Heights will be around for some time longer.

To get tickets for “I Pagliacci” or one of the other three shows this season — Menotti’s “The Medium and The Telephone” beginning Oct. 30; Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” in February; and Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” in April — check out or call 713-861-5303.

Opera in the Heights kicks off 20th season

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."


For Full Article, click HERE.

Opera in the Heights to Open New Season with I PAGLIACCI

By Opera News Desk
August 27, 2015

Opera in the Heights (Oh!) kicks off its 20th anniversary season with Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci (The Clowns) on Sept. 18, one of several inspired works in the company's 2015 -2016 repertoire. I Pagliacci runs Sept. 18, 24 and 26 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. and is an enduring tale of jealousy and rage between lovers in a comedy troupe. Art imitates life with fatal results in this iconic tragedy, featuring the famous tenor aria, Vesti la giubba ("Put on the costume").

To create additional excitement for the new season, on Sept. 10 Oh! will host Overture!, a fund raiser/cocktail reception from 6 - 8 p.m. at Tommie Vaughn Ford, 1201 N. Shepherd Dr., which is open to members of the community, with tickets starting at $40. (Funds will help support Opera in the Heights community programs.) Guests will mingle with Oh! conductor Eiki Isomura, take in performances by some of the company's rising stars and enjoy beverages and appetizers.

"I am giddy with excitement, as we have assembled an absolute dream cast for I Pagliacci," says Oh! conductor Eiki Isomura. "It's a remarkable privilege working with such fine artists, and especially with stage director Susan Stone Li, whom I consider to be a visionary."

"Audiences will also be pleased to find how prominently the piece features our extraordinary orchestra and chorus," Isomura continues. "This promises to be something truly special, a powerhouse production worthy of opening the company's 20th anniversary season."

"We hope our subscribers, YOLO (Young Opera Lovers Organization) members and the public will join us for Overture! to experience a taste of what's in store for this season," says Mariam Khalili, Opera in the Heights' Executive Director. "Oh! is known for supporting the careers of emerging artists, such as the ones you will see at our event. Even those who are not familiar with opera should come away with an appreciation for great art and a feel for what we do. It's also a chance to meet other opera lovers."

For Full Article, click HERE

'I Pagliacci' opens Opera in Heights season

Wednesday, August 26, 2015
By Don Maines

Soprano Julia Engel and Tenor James Chamberlain, Photo by Carl Cramer. 

Soprano Julia Engel and Tenor James Chamberlain, Photo by Carl Cramer. 

A single cast was announced Aug. 24 for "I Pagliacci (The Clowns)," which opens the 20th season of Opera in the Heights Sept. 18 at Lambert Hall.

The 1892 "comic thriller" by Ruggero Leoncavallo will be performed four times, in contrast to the usual seven performances, with double-casting, of each opera in recent seasons, said Mariam Khalili, the group's executive director since January.

"The change will allow Opera in the Heights to better focus its financial resources, while enhancing the artistic quality of each of the four productions," said Khalili.

"I Pagliacci" will star James Chamberlain as Canio, which was a signature role of opera great Enrico Caruso. Canio leads a commedia dell'arte troupe that includes his wife, Nedda. Her adultery is revealed in the opera's comic play-within-a-play.

Joining Chamberlain will be Donata Cucinotta as Nedda, James Rodriguez as Tonio, Jeremiah Johnson as Silvio and Dashiell Waterbury as Beppe.

For Full Article, click HERE.

Up-and-coming opera singers transform young professionals party into a tuneful time

By Shelby Hodge
Aug. 11, 2015

Megan and Jake Stroudand, Boran and Becky Buturovic.    Photo by Carl Cramer

Megan and Jake Stroudand, Boran and Becky Buturovic. Photo by Carl Cramer

Opera in the Heights (Oh!) took center stage at Silver Street Studios"Second Saturday" event, transforming the happening from a visual arts party into a performing arts fete. There were multiple aria presentations, costumes on display and chats about the regional opera company that performs in Lambert Hall in the Heights. 

In a special welcome, Flashback FilmsMichael Raak hosted the event for Oh! and held a VIP reception in his Silver Street studio for the Young Opera Lovers Organization or YOLO, the young professional group affiliated with Oh! Adding to the colorful afternoon were FotoFest's I Am a Cameraexhibition and artists studios open for touring.

Young rising opera talents tenor James Chamberlain and soprano Julia Engel, accompanied by pianist Keith Weber, wowed guests throughout the day with their talents while violist Faith Jonesadded to the musical entertainment.

With Oh! approaching the start of its 20th season, the afternoon outing was the perfect vehicle for introducing the company to a broader audience.

Music lovers on the scene included Oh! executive director Mariam Khalili, Tony Tripodo, Marcia and Michael Feldman, Dan Mathena, Corey Powell, Marianne and Kenny Terrell, Patricia Bernstein, Becky and Boran Buturovic, Samuel Chavez, Barbara Henley and Jordan Mathews.


Opera in the Heights kicks off 20th season a month early

by Martin Hajovsky

While Opera in the Heights‘ 20th anniversary season is still a month away, this Saturday you can get a sneak peek of what’s on offer.

Opera in the Heights will feature at Silver Street Studios’ First Saturday event Aug. 8.

OH will kick off the year at Silver Street Studios’ “Second Saturday” at 2000 Edwards, this Saturday, Aug. 8 from 2-5 p.m. Opera in the Heights will share the space with Foto Fest International and its exhibit I Am A Camera, along with open studios for the artists housed at Silver Street.

Filling the schedule will be:

  • Two micro opera performances by Opera in the Heights singers (This will make the entire day for me.)
  • Ice cream truck Chocolate Wasted, and Wokker Texas Ranger, Asian/Texan fusion cuisine truck. (Wait, wait. I get food too?)
  • Karbach Brewing Co. will be on hand with complimentary beverages (Now my cup, it doth runneth over, though not by much as I would never waste Karbach beer that way.)
  • The company is also launching its new YOLO group, which stands for Young Opera Lovers Organization. For more on that, check out the video below.
  • The costume work and set designs by Opera in the Heights designers will be on display.
  • And more! (Because there’s always more.)

That’s a full Saturday right there. But to learn more, and to buy tickets for the 20th season, check out the niftily redesigned

As I’ve written many times before, Opera in the Heights is one of those unique elements that helps to make the Heights what it is, which is for my money (Hello HCAD!) simply the best neighborhood in my city, and as a fifth-generation Houstonian and father to two sixth-gen-ers, I get to say that! Hope to see you out at Silver Street Saturday.


Chronicle critics offer some entertainment options

Wednesday, August 5

Open Studios: Check out works by more than 200 artists, jewelry designers and other creative types during the monthly Second Saturday open studio event in the Washington Avenue Arts District. Follow your ears as well as your eyes: Opera in the Heights, celebrating its 20th anniversary, will give pop-up performances at Flashback Film's space (#105) in the Silver Street Studios building, where you can also catch FotoFest's "I Am a Camera" exhibition. 2-5 p.m. Saturday at 2000 Edwards, 2010 Winter, 1502 Sawyer and 1824 Spring; FREE

Molly Glentzer