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He'll be back

Opera Vista's Viswa Subbaraman heads for Milwaukee but hopes for further Houston collaborations

Viswa Subbaraman, Skylight Music Theatre, artistic director
Viswa Subbaraman, founder of Opera Vista, has landed an important gig at the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, Wis., a position that he'll assume in July 2013. Photo by Mark Frohna/Skylight Music Theatre
Opera Under the Stars at Bayou Bend
This season, Opera Vista aims to stage Andy Pape's Houdini the Great (Sept. 22 at Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens) and Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar (Nov. 17 and 16 at Zilkha Hall).

It wasn't that long ago that Opera Vista was warming up to intone its swan song. A jack-of-all-trades, founder and maestro Viswa Subbaraman needed to reenergize his board, reorganize his priorities and reignite his desire to overhaul the way contemporary chamber opera is presented and perceived by audiences. 

The nonprofit's financials weren't looking particularly healthy when this small-size company opted to cancel the second half of its 2011-12 season. But as they say, sometimes you have to take a step back before you can take two steps forward.

On a personal level, Subbaraman's respite from the wear and tear of arts administration, an endeavor that surely isn't for the faint of heart, paid off. He has landed an important gig at the Skylight Music Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisc., a position that he'll assume in July 2013, when he'll uproot his life in Houston and move to the Midwest. 

The audition process took more than one year. Subbaraman originally saw the vacancy advertised and, like any hopeful, sent in an application, curriculum vitae and cover letter. Three interviews later, observations by the Skylight's search committee and a strong endorsement from American composer and Milwaukee-native Daron Hagen, who was a judge in Opera Vista's chamber opera competition and whose Vera of Las Vegas was performed by Opera Vista, and Subbaraman was extended an offer letter.

 "It could be a great partnership for Opera Vista, this great little jewel in Houston."

"Going from a small company to one with a budget of $4 million with 33 people on staff, that's something I couldn't resist," Subbaraman, who's already working on casting and crafting Skylight's 2013-14 season, says. "I can concentrate on programming — on making art. Though the different administrative roles I took on at Opera Vista makes me value everyone who has a hand at running Skylight."

Subbaraman is attracted to the Skylight's wide gamut of works that comprise its season, among them opera, operettas and musical theater. He's already thinking about the big picture and dreams of a season that hones in and deciphers what it means to be human by exploring themes of freedom and revolution. He jokes that he's going to get out of the business of theater and get into the business of human ideas.

Skylight has seen its ups and downs as well. The performing group's troublesome financial statements in 2009 resulted in a publicized string of firings, hirings and resignations at the staff and board level. It changed its name from Skylight Opera Theatre to Skylight Music Theatre. The 2010 IRS 990 form lists a $500,000 decrease in contributions and grants and a revenue decrease of $200,000 from the previous filing, and total liabilities at $855,204. In 2011, Skylight's deficit was reduced to $30,000.

In a professional sense, that some of the theater industry's greats — Clair Richardson, Francesca Zambello and Bill Theisen — have passed through Skylight can only further his own career, Subbaraman says. Moreover, he also sees a silver lining for Opera Vista's future.

"It could be a great partnership for Opera Vista, this great little jewel in Houston," he explains. 

 "We brought Opera Vista into the world and now it's time for Opera Vista to stand on its own two legs, walk, live beyond me and become an integral part of the Houston art scene."

Subbaraman sees the possibility of Opera Vista becoming a forum to prepare emerging stage directors for larger and more ambitious productions. Strategically, such a mentorship program has the potential to keep Skylight fresh with new and innovative personalities, and heighten Opera Vista's visibility.

Subbaraman will continue to be involved in Houston for the next two to three years, though he will curtail his conducting engagements with Opera Vista. Local conductors Mark Marotto, who was recently appointed as the director of choral activities at Lone Star College-Montgomery, and Stephen Jones are candidates who could step up to the podium. 

This season, Opera Vista aims to stage Andy Pape's Houdini the Great (Sept. 22 at Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens), for which a magic consultant will engineer escape tricks, and Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar (Nov. 17 and 16 at Zilkha Hall), a flamenco opera about Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. The latter calls for a large orchestral force and a sizeable cast, the biggest project for Opera Vista to date, one that Subbaraman will direct. 

"It was the right call to take a brief break," Subbaraman says about the decision to take a short hiatus from producing chamber operas. "A new motivated board is in place, we've rethought our core productions to function more efficiently as an organization, and devised a strong fundraising strategy."

A transition plan is in the works. Opera Vista hopes to hire a managing director by the end of this season.

"We brought Opera Vista into the world and now it's time for Opera Vista to stand on its own two legs, walk, live beyond me and become an integral part of the Houston art scene."

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