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The Yao Ming opera? Houston Grand Opera combines East + West with a nod to basketball

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From the Mexico project, "To Cross the Face of the Moon" was one of Song of Houston's most successful partnerships with Talento Bilingüe de Houston Photo by Felix Sanchez
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News_Joel_HGO_To Cross the Face of the Moon

The term outreach has almost transcended into a taboo industry expression in the arts world. Whether it is used for education or to reach untapped audiences, it has the potential to be slightly patronizing.

Rooted in an attempt to engage new audiences with their respective art forms, arts organizations have to find a way to bridge and make their programming relevant to others while not loosing their identity in the process. The balance is tricky, almost an art form in itself.

Houston Grand Opera is well versed in successfully creating, developing and implementing programs that bring untapped communities together. Houston Grand Opera's community and collaboration arm, HGOco, manages Song of Houston, a program specifically catering to the unique and diverse cultural make-up of our city. In essence, Song of Houston is about “our stories. In words and music.”

Brilliant. This is not outreach, but rather celebration through collaboration while shaping community engagement.

“As its name implies, Song of Houston is deeply rooted in the cultures of all those for whom Houston is home, and will generate fresh, relevant, exciting new operas by important composers and librettists. We are passionate about collaborating meaningfully with communities throughout our city," Anthony Freud, HGO general director and CEO, said.

Through Song of Houston, HGO recently announced the launch of East + West, the beginning of a four-year project that will commission and present a series of new chamber operas based on the intersection of Eastern and Western cultures.

“When Anthony Freud came to town, he wanted to integrate what HGO stood for and make it relevant and a cultural resource for the community,” Sandra Bernhard, director of HGOco, explained. “We work within communities and tell stories found right here, of those that come to Houston and call it their home.”

If the recent success with Cruzar la Cara de la Luna / To Cross the Face of the Moon in collaboration with Talento Bilingüe de Houston is an indication of East + West’s future, HGO has already set very high expectations for exceptionally high artistic merit and active community engagement. 

Focusing on the Chinese community, the first of the series is Courtside, a chamber opera composed by Jack Perla with libretto by Eugenie Chan. It tells the story of three generations of Chinese Americans as they reconcile their differences and live with pride in modern America while retaining their cultural identity, in between the dinner table and basketball court.

Written for a cast of four, the premiere will take place at the Chinese Community Center on Feb. 5 during the Lunar New Year celebrations. Although the universal topic has been explored before — most recently in the Musiqa-programmed Stewart Wallace’s She Told Me This, with libretto by Amy Tan and sung by mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao — it is the strategic venue that will help HGO increase its exposure and service area.

Perla, having the advantage of being well versed as a composer, pianist and improviser, embraces all music styles and periods. His music is beautifully accessible.

For Courtside, a traditional chamber ensemble of violin, cello, bass will be enhanced with a vibraphone and the pipa, a popular four-stringed plucked Chinese instrument, first appearing in the Qin Dynasty later developed during the Han Dynasty. It is best described as a Chinese lute. In contemporary music, the pipa has already made appearances in the works of Philip Glass, Lou Harrison, Tan Dun and Chen Yi. The combination is deliciously evocative and wonderfully exotic, for a Western ear that is.

"You will hear some typical opera elements and quite a bit of unexpected sounds," Perla describes. "The pipa became almost a fifth character in the opera, encompassing a lot of things that reflect the Asian cultural aspect of the piece. That became more central to the score as I got into the piece."

"As I worked with Shenshen Zhang, a pipa virtuoso specializing in cross-cultural music, I began to be influenced by its ornamented style," Perla said. "I had to become versatile in the technique, possibilities and limitations of the instrument. Sometimes, the pipa will be playing something typical to the instrument, a quick walking bass in the next bar while mixing opera, jazz, and traditional Chinese music." 

Chan brings first hand accounts of the universal themes of global travel and cultural assimilation. A fourth generation San Franciscan “whose forefathers sold slippers in Chinatown, dry goods in the desert, and love in the bordellos,” her background teaching high school adds another dimension to the intergenerational story.

But why center it around basketball? “I wanted to do something that would speak to Houston audiences,” Chan explains. “Yao Ming is something Houston and the Asian community have in common. It would speak to both audiences equally.”

The storyline’s universal themes deal with student’s difficulty in balancing extracurricular and academic activities and the tensions that arise when adding familial pressures.

“It’s the story of a young man as he negotiates with his own integrity, honor and maturity,” Chan says.

Chen and Perla plan to be in Houston for the premiere. Shenshen Zhang will also perform.

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