Patrick Summers

Houston Grand Opera's leader is a bike nut, leaf-blower hating, Ethel Merman lover

Houston Grand Opera's Patrick Summers is a bike nut, leaf-blower hater

Houston Influentials Patrick Summers May 2013
Photo by © Michelle Watson/

As he approaches his 50th birthday, life is sweet for Houston Grand Opera artistic and music director Patrick Summers. He will spend most of the summer on the shores of Lake Constance in Austria where he will conduct the Vienna Symphony in The Magic Flute during the Bregenz Festival. Surprisingly, it will be a first for the conductor who has been an integral part of HGO's dynamic growth for 25 years.

In the fall, he heads to the West Coast to continue his relationship as principal guest conductor with the San Francisco Opera for which he will conduct The Flying Dutchman and then back to Houston for the rest of the season. Except for the break in March when he conducts The Enchanted Island at the Metropolitan Opera with Susan Graham, Placido Domingo and David Daniels.

No surprise that this in-demand maestro is on a first name basis with opera greats throughout the world, in particular Renée Fleming with whom he enjoys a 20-year friendship that has included leading several of her role premieres, tours and recordings. Their CD Bel Canto on Decca won a 2002 Grammy.  

The biggest project of Summers' career and of HGO lies ahead — the launch of Wagner's Ring Cycle which begins with Das Rheingold in April 2014, followed by one installment each year over four years. The provocative production by La Fura dels Baus of Barcelona, Spain, is sure to create a conversation across the city.

What is your chief characteristic?

Stealthiness. I'm a slow burning fuse. I am very, very patient and I think in long periods of time. So when something is momentarily great or momentarily bad, it doesn't affect me.

Your idea of happiness?

Nature. Silence. Nature. The music of the world. Everything that art created to help us understand.

Your pet peeve?

Any kind of mechanized noise like a leaf blower, a lawn mower or construction noise. I know we have to have progress but why does it always have to be near where I'm sleeping. I think leaf blowers are the absolute bane of modern life. You can't have a walk in the morning anywhere in the world without them.

A motto that you try to live by?

I will credit it to my dad because it was absolutely him. You had to do one, at least one, kind thing for someone every day that no one else knew about. And when I was a kid, if I told my dad about it, it didn't count. You had to go out and do another good thing. It had to be something you got no credit for. And I try to do that every day. I think being kind is very important.

What do you do to chill?

I'm very athletic. I swim almost daily. I ride my bike everywhere in Houston. I walk a lot. I love my bike rides and I love my swims because they're quiet and I can think about things or not think about things. So I find physical activity very relaxing. And I'm a very avid reader of many different disciplines. I find it very relaxing.

Favorite restaurant in the world?

Chez Panisse in Berkley. Or the most extraordinary dining experience I ever had was eating at a place called the Three Kranes in Japan. That was a dining experience that I will never ever forget. But I guess that everyone who's ever been to California says Chez Panisse.

Favorite restaurant in Houston?

Da Marco but that is not a surprise.

Something about you that people would be surprised to learn?

You mean besides my riding a bicycle everywhere? That I think Ethel Merman was one of the greatest voices that ever lived. Great singer, great artist.

Who are your heroes in real life?

Sir Charles Mackerras — he was my conducting mentor for more than half my life and for me the epitome of what a serious artist should be. And he was motivated by the right things. He was a consummate musician. He got better every day as he got older. Never stopped learning. That's what artists should do. Never got trapped in the ephemera of fame and notoriety. He was a great hero of mine, yes.

How do you think Houston will receive HGO's production of The Ring Cycle?

I think The Ring exists in an alternative world. It's an allegory of the industrial revolution. The Ring is so many things. It's a great, grand adventure and what I love about the production we're doing from La Fura dels Baus is that is has that visual fanaticism and grandeur and adventure. It's very adventurous and thrilling. So I think our audiences will take to it very well.  . . It's the biggest artistic project this company has ever been engaged in.

What do you like most about Houston?

The incredible diversity of the community. I love it when European artists come here, and it happens all the time, and their cliches and stereotypes about Texas are shattered in hours of getting to Houston. The restaurants, the people, the community, the landscape of the community here is just wonderful. It's really great.

What is the biggest challenge facing Houston Grand Opera?

The biggest challenge facing Houston Grand Opera, I think, is the challenge facing all arts institutions today. It's how do you both protect and preserve a great art form, whatever it is, while being heard above the incessant din of popular culture and how do you revel in the relevance of the works themselves because there is a kind of greatness that these great pieces dwell in that is most certainly relevant to us. How do you communicate and live in that relevance without dumbing it down?