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Frederica Von Stade is back

Putting a ring on it: Houston Grand Opera reveals its new season and there's extra drama

Houston Grand Opera, Aida, January 2013
Aida features sets and costumes by fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. Photo by Cory Weaver
Houston Grand Opera, Rigoletto
Rigoletto continues the season's Verdian obsession. Photo by Felix Sanchez
Houston Grand Opera, Rheingold
Das Rheingold, the prelude opera of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, sets in motion a four-year to perform the complete cycle. Photo by Tato Baeza
Houston Grand Opera, Patrick Summers, January 2013
Patrick Summers, music director Photo by © Christian Steiner
Houston Grand Opera, Stefan Margita, January 2013
Stefan Margita Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera, Jamie Barton, January 2013
Jamie Barton, mezzo-soprano Photo courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera, Iain Paterson, January 2013
Scottish baritone Iain Paterson Photo by © Clive Barda
Houston Grand Opera, Aida, January 2013
Houston Grand Opera, Rigoletto
Houston Grand Opera, Rheingold
Houston Grand Opera, Patrick Summers, January 2013
Houston Grand Opera, Stefan Margita, January 2013
Houston Grand Opera, Jamie Barton, January 2013
Houston Grand Opera, Iain Paterson, January 2013

In this world you're either growing or you're dying — so get in motion and grow. Words to live by from Lou Holtz, a famous American football coach, author and motivational speaker.

His adage, evident in the master plan of Houston Grand Opera's 2013-14 season, holds true when it comes to the ideal strategy for presenting arts organizations. The Grammy-, Emmy- and Tony-winning company will offer many firsts in the new season, which was just announced Wednesday.

Among them are world and American premieres, commissions and new productions alongside standard repertoire. Together they represent a 45 percent increase in the number of performances staged at Wortham Theater Center and out in the community.

Artistic and music director Patrick Summers and managing director Perryn Leech tracked a 35 percent rise in subscription sales from 2007, an achievement that offers a financially stable foundation from which to expand its programs, services and scope.

"The growth in demand for tickets is in alignment of Houston's growth, strong economy and HGO's consistently high level of performances and varied repertoire choices," Summers tells CultureMap. "One of the best kept secrets in the East Coast centric opera world is that Houston possesses one of the great and diverse opera audiences."

Here's what opera fans can expect: A mixture of drama (it's opera after all), innovation and charming entertainment.

Fulfilling the promise HGO made a couple of years ago, the prelude opera of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des NibelungenDas Rheingold (April 11-26, 2014) sets in motion a four-year venture that follows the Norse tale of fate, destiny, celestial heroes and villains. A production of La Fura dels Baus, whose notoriety stems from the opening spectacle of Barcelona's 1992 Olympic Games, the production promises to present acrobats fashioning vignettes flowing with imaginative visual content. 

Scottish bass-baritone Iain Paterson makes his HGO debut as Wotan, HGO Studio alum, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton complements him as Fricka with Slovak tenor Stefan Margita as Loge.

 "One of the best kept secrets in the East Coast centric opera world is that Houston possesses one of the great and diverse opera audiences."

Will there be live elephants? That's the big tongue-in-check question posed when a revival Verdi's Aida (Oct. 18-Nov 9) is staged.

The production, which features sets and costumes by fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, collaborates with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater to bring to life the grand dance sequences. Opera giants like Dolora Zajick as Amneris and the pride of the Ukraine National Opera, Liudmyla Monastyrska, as Aida sing along more familiar faces of HGO, including baritone Scott Hendricks and conductor Antonino Fogliani.

Rigoletto (Jan. 24-Feb. 1, 2014) continues the season's Verdian obsession. Rigoletto was performed in 2009 with Albina Shagimuratova, who stole the show, and though rumors infer that she may have been at one point recast as Gilda, the coloratura role remains to be fulfilled. Confirmed are bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as the title character and tenor Stephen Costello as the Duke of Mantua.

On the lighter side, and aligned with a trend at HGO to mount one or two pop-ish works in the genre, Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus (Oct. 25-Nov. 10) will be staged in Art Deco-style as envisioned by Australian director Lindy Hume. This charming operetta's cast includes Studio alum Liam Bonner, soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer and the zestful mezzo Susan Graham in drag, singing a trouser role as Prince Orlofsky. A dose of celebrity is added with four-time Grammy Award-winner Anthony Dean Griffey as Alfred.

Along those gaily flamboyant tunes, fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi designs Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music (March 7-23, 2014). Soprano Elizabeth Futral, Studio alum Chad Shelton and mezzo Joyce Castle join in the musical theater fun.

On a serious note, the North American premiere of Polish-Jewish exiled composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger (Jan. 18-Feb. 2, 2014), a setting based on a novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, journeys with a former SS officer, Linda, aboard an ocean liner. There, she identifies a  concentration camp prisoner. The opera dates back to 1968, though its fully-staged premiere did not occur until 2010 at the Bregenz Festival. South African mezzo Michelle Breedt and Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser are featured in this poignant, emotional story.

The world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt (March 14-22, 2014) marks the inaugural commission in a series of operas, and continues HGO's focus on being a catalyst for the creation of new, fresh, contemporary works that speak to audiences today. Frederica Von Stade, whose apparent retirement from the operatic stage didn't last very long, comes back to take on the lead role.

"This new opera has deep Texas roots," Summers writes in a statement. "It is based on a play of the same name by the renowned Texas writer Horton Foote. Ricky Ian Gordon is a very theatrically driven composer with a style that is perfectly suited to opera."

The main stage season closes with another new production of an old time favorite. Bizet's Carmen (April 25-May 10, 2014), directed by American director/choreographer Rob Ashford, an on-trend young Broadway director, is set to be a show stopper with talent like Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez, another Studio alum, as the sassy gipsy, tenor Brandon Jovanovich as the love stricken Don José, and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Escamillo.

HGO's community engagement arm, HGOco, carries on the métier of the Song of Houston's East + West initiative with two additional world premieres. The Vietnamese Lunar New Year will be observed with Bound (January 2014) by librettist Bao-Long Chu and composer Huang Ruo. To coincide with the Indian festival of Holi, Jack Perla, whose Courtside premiered in 2011 as part of the same venture, alongside wordsmith Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, make this the company's 53rd world premiere since 1973.


Tickets go on sale 9 p.m. Thursday. Information on Houston Grand Opera subscription and single ticket sales can be found online or by calling 713-228-OPERA (6737).

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