Resilience Indeed

Setting a whole new stage: How HGO quickly turned a convention hall into a really grand theater

How HGO quickly turned a convention hall into a really grand theater

Houston Grand Opera presents <i>La traviata</i>
The stage will be ready for la traviata, opening Friday, October 20. Photo by Robert Kusel
HGO Resilience Theater
HGO turned George R. Brown Convention Center, Exhibit Hall A3 into Resilience Theater. Photo by Tarra Gaines
HGO Resilience Theater, backstage
Julius Caesar costumes backstage.  Photo by Tarra Gaines
Houston Grand Opera presents <i>Julius Caesar</i>
An updated operatic version of Julius Caesar, set in art deco Hollywood, opens at Resilience Theater on October 27. Photo by Felix Sanchez
HGO Resilience Theater, cyclorama
Backstage lies behind the Cyclorama, a large reflective plastic drop, which provides an acoustical environment for opera.  Photo by Tarra Gaines
HGO Resilience Theater, Summers & Leech
HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers and Perryn Leech, HGO’s managing director, give a preview of the Resilience Theater as the HGO crew continues to build the stage area.
HGO Resilience Theater, props
Props for both Verdi’s La traviata and Handel’s Julius Caesar are stored in the makeshift area behind the stage. Photo by Tarra Gaines
Houston Grand Opera presents <i>La traviata</i>
HGO Resilience Theater
HGO Resilience Theater, backstage
Houston Grand Opera presents <i>Julius Caesar</i>
HGO Resilience Theater, cyclorama
HGO Resilience Theater, Summers & Leech
HGO Resilience Theater, props

“They thought we were mad.” Houston Grand Opera managing director Perryn Leech says that was the reaction when he and HGO artistic director Patrick Summers met with the good people of Houston First to broach the idea of staging the HGO 2017-2018 season in the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Yet less than two months after Hurricane Harvey flooded HGO’s home at the Wortham Center, the crazy idea to temporarily house one of the world’s best opera companies in an vast exhibit hall in the Houston convention center will become a reality with the opening this weekend of Verdi’s La traviata (October 20–November 11) followed by Handel’s Julius Caesar (October 27– November 10).

The show will go on: The fat lady will sing and art will thrive in a very different venue than usual, but this is a city and artistic community that survives by getting creative about everything, including our use of space.

“We serve up to 60,000 Houstonians a year who seek in opera a refuge or some kind of artistic home. We never once considered not providing that simply because we were out of our home. An opera company is more than just a building,” Summers says about the decision by HGO to seek a new venue when it became apparent that the Wortham Center could not reopen until May, 2018 at the earliest.

While HGO looked at other venues — Leech concedes that if you had a performing space in Houston it was probably visited by HGO officials — George R. Brown ended up being the best pick in the chaotic circumstances that was post-Harvey Houston. Once they saw the viability of the idea, Houston First, the city corporation that manages the Wortham and George R. Brown, worked tirelessly to rehouse conventions scheduled for the space this fall. 

Room to roam 

To stage the grand operas on this HGO season roster, the artists and crew need lots of room to roam, and the Exhibit Hall, renamed and remade into Resilience Theater, can provide a 124,000 square feet area while also becoming an intimate space opera audiences have likely never experienced before, with only a 100 feet maximum distance from a theater seat to the performance area.

To turn the cavernous third floor exhibit hall into a grand, yet intimate, theater, they’ve used enormous swaths of fabric curtains and nearly one mile of truss for hanging lights and equipment to help create distinct areas and a proscenium arch stage on the floor of the hall.

A curved reflective plastic drop called a cyclorama lines the back of the stage area. While lights and projections can be used to turn the cyclorama into a part of the set, its most most important duty is to reflect sound back into the audience. The same type of plastic drop hangs behind the back of the seating area and to the sides of the theater. In essence, the cyclorama acts as the acoustics keeper, catching the music and holding it within the the makeshift theater.

“The acoustics have been fantastic so far, ” says Leech after experiencing the space during orchestra rehearsals. 

A little normalcy

To help bring back a little normalcy to its audience, HGO will offer many of the amenities subscribers expect, including valet parking, a donor room, pre-performance lectures, and a concessions area to purchase refreshments and a light meal before the performance. Leech also hopes their new closeness to Discovery Green, the restaurants, bars and stadiums near to east downtown might coax a whole new audience into the Resilience Theater to get a taste of opera.

“We’re particularly moved that we were able to bring our opera house into the George R Brown, which was itself such a refuge for so many Houstonians after the storm. That’s such a meaningful connection for us,” says Summers. “We’re just so eager to show you what we’ve done.”

Check out this video of Resilience Theater from our news partners at ABC13: