Civic Stature: Houston Grand Opera Provides a Model
We at the League of American Orchestras constantly look for examples that might inspire orchestras to think about community engagement in new ways - we call it "achieving civic stature," meaning that it makes the orchestra important to your whole community, not just your main-series audience. While visiting Houston, I learned of a remarkable project of the Houston Grand Opera that struck me for its boldness and the depth of its impact, and I thought I would share it.
The specific project is The Refuge, a full-scale piece by Christopher Theofanidis for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. The text is taken from specific stories of immigration to Houston, from a wide range of areas: Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Africa, Mexico, Soviet-Era Jewish, and Central America. The music, which I have heard on CD, works as an overall piece, but each movement has in it the influences of the region related to the story of that particular immigrant. The text was written by Leah Lax, after discussions with specific refugees. Anthony Freud, the Houston Grand Opera's general director, explains: "It seemed to me that if we could find a selection of stories of journeys to Houston, from a wide range of communities around the city, and tell them as music theater, then we would be achieving a whole range of things. We would be using the resources of Houston Grand Opera in a new way. We would be building bridges to a range of communities around the city with which we have had little contact, in a way that would perhaps earn for HGO a sense of relevance. And in creating a wonderful new piece, we would be helping opera and music theater evolve as an art form."
Freud discussed the idea with the mayor of Houston, who became an early enthusiast. The mayor assisted in making connections with representatives of the various communities. The piece involved the HGO Orchestra, Chorus, and singers from their opera studio - but also involved performers from each of the communities. Once the composer and librettist were chosen, the HGO then mounted multi-disciplinary school-based projects in the communities, involving painting and poetry projects, with those works to be displayed during the performances. The librettist spoke to hundreds of people from the chosen communities and created the text from those conversations, using the words of the participants. The premiere was a success, and now two more performances are scheduled for May in the Miller Theater, an outdoor amphitheater with very large capacity. A recording will be released.
The Refuge struck me as the kind of large-scale project that could be adapted to any community and done by any orchestra, and it's a model of what the League means by civic stature. It has served as the foundation for an ever-widening set of community programs. It is the type of program that any orchestra could do with groups in its own community - and in the process begin relationships yet unborn. I found the whole concept inspiring.
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