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The Arthropologist

Who cares about James Franco? Here are three Houston artists who really make magic happen

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Charles-Louis Yoshiyama in the Houston Ballet's production of Fingerprints, choreographed by Stanton Welch Photo by Amitava Sarkar
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Ars Lyrica_Melissa Givens
Melissa Givens with Ars Lyrica musicians Matthew Dirst (harpsichord and conducting), Barry Sills (cello) and Tim Jones (bass) Photo by Anthony Rathbun
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Main Street Theater_Blithe Spirit_Joel Sandel_Lisa Thomas Morrison
Joel Sandel as Charles Condomine and Lisa Thomas Morrison as Ruth Condomine Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit at Main Street Theater Courtesy of RicOrnelProductions.com
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Houston Ballet_Marie
From the Houston Ballet's production of Maria, Charles Louis Yoshiyama and artists of the company Photo by Amitava Sarkar
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Melissa Givens_head shot
Melissa Givens Photo by Jeanique LaCour
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Tom Stoppard_The Coast of Utopia
Joe Kirkendall and Joel Sandel in Main Street Theater's first U.S. production of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia Courtesy of www.RicOrnelProductions.com
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Houston Ballet_Fingerprints_Charles Louis Yoshiyama
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Ars Lyrica_Melissa Givens
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Main Street Theater_Blithe Spirit_Joel Sandel_Lisa Thomas Morrison
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Houston Ballet_Marie
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Melissa Givens_head shot
News_Nancy_Artists You Should Know_Tom Stoppard_The Coast of Utopia
News_NEW HEAD SHOT_Nancy Wozny_column mug

Put down that tabloid.

We hear enough about celebrities and not enough about the artists who bring joy to our eyes, ears and hearts. Unlike pop culture icons, artists choose a life of uncertainty, sacrifice and often miniscule financial rewards in comparison to their level of training and work ethic. They rarely get famous for being famous, and often never achieve fame at all, yet they persevere.

If I could take your attention away from James Franco's possible whereabouts at UH's food court, I'd like to introduce you to three artists that you should know.

Houston Ballet's rising corps member Charles-Louis Yoshiyama will take Clara on an enchanted journey as the Prince in Ben Stevenson's The Nutcracker on Friday night.

Melissa Givens' angelic voice will ring in the New Year with Bach in Time at Ars Lyrica on Dec. 31. 

Joel Sandel transforms into Russian literary critic Vissarion Belinsky for Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia trilogy running at Main Street Theater, Jan.12-March 11.

It's all in a day's work, or really, a life's work.

Givens, Sandel and Yoshiyama are three fantastic performers doing fantastic things on Houston stages soon, so let's bring on the fuss.

Charles-Louis Yoshiyama gets princely at Houston Ballet

I first noticed Yoshiyama during his Houston Ballet II years. He was a standout, with polished technique, princely good looks and the right amount of bravado to make it into the company, which he did in 2008. As for dancing the Prince in The Nutcracker, he debuted in the role last season, so this year, it's all about growing into the part.

"I'm looking forward to being able to focus on what I want to bring to the character, instead of the nerves that come with the first performance," he says.

He partners Nao Kusuzaki as Sugar Plum Fairy and Allison Miller as Snow Queen. When he's not dancing the Prince, you can watch him in several other standout roles during the run. 

The Japanese-born dancer received great opportunities from the get go. "Most of it was being in the right place at the right time," Yoshiyama says, modestly. "I got to show my strengths, which gave me continued success with Houston Ballet."

He danced Marquis de La Fayette in Stanton Welch's Marie right out of the starting gate. "It was an honor to have such a large role given to me during my first year in the company," he says. "I also enjoyed being a part of the character development in the choreographic process. Performing Hortensio in John Cranko's Taming of the Shrew was also a very rewarding experience. Hortensio was a lot like myself, so I had a connection with the character from the beginning."

  "Since I love what I do, heralding the New Year singing anything is a singular joy," Givens says. "Singing music that has endured through the centuries gives me a sense of hope and grounding — perfect for this time of year." 

Melissa Givens sings in the New Year at Ars Lyrica

"You can't have a civil society without music," Givens tells me, with knowing confidence. For the record, I was a Givens fangirl before I learned that she was from my hometown of Buffalo and graduated from the same high school as many of my family members. Nothing in Givens' elegant speaking patterns gave away her western New York origins.

I first heard Givens' velvety soprano voice with Ars Lyrica a few years back. Her sound penetrated my bones. Givens is a concert singer and a teacher at Houston Baptist University, a life she chose over the uncertain careers of traditional opera singers. Other than singing in church, Givens had no plans to be a classical singer. "I was going to be a neurosurgeon," she quips, with a smile.

It was at Davidson College that her talents were revealed, when she sang an aria from Porgy and Bess. "You can sing," people told Givens, after a talent show. After a little convincing, Givens joined the choir, then switched her major to music, making a career choice that has been Houston's gain.

She also had the opportunity to have a fantastic teacher in Henny Driehuys at Davidson, who inspires the singer in her current job as an assistant professor at  Houston Baptist University. "She used to curse at me in Dutch," Givens jokes. "She was a wonderful match for me. I'd like to think that I'm that kind of teacher now."

Today, Givens divides her time between teaching the next generation of singers and performing with Ars Lyrica, Conspirare, and Canticle. Ars Lyrica's Bach in Time program on New Year's Eve is exactly the kind of rep that excites Givens.

"Since I love what I do, heralding the New Year singing anything is a singular joy," she says. "What we're doing this year is specifically linked to time, which makes it programmatically perfect. Singing music that has endured through the centuries gives me a sense of hope and grounding, perfect for this time of year." 

 The only thing, theatrically, you can do in New York that you can't do in any other major city in the country is win or be nominated for a Tony award," Sandel says. "Actors need to be where they can work, period."

Joel Sandel masterminds the Russian revolution at Main Street Theater

I've been watching Joel Sandel transform into different people for years now. He's one of the most prominent actors in the city. Sandel looks so at home in Noel Coward's plays, I wonder if he walks around his house with a martini and a smoking jacket.

"I love doing Noel Coward," insists Sandel. "Oddly enough, I've done only two Coward plays in my entire career: Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit. I've always had an affinity for anything British. As a kid, I loved to watch Masterpiece Theater, and I'd mimic the actors on those series."

It's going to be non-stop Stoppard for Sandel from January through March. No stranger to the Stoppard canon, Sandel has performed in The Real Inspector Hound, Rough Crossing, Hapgood Night and Day and On the Razzle.

Doing The Coast of Utopia is a huge undertaking for any actor, it's only the second production in the nation. Stoppard's trilogy chronicles real-life Russian intellectuals, including anarchist Michael Bakunin, critic Vissarion Belinsky, literary giant Ivan Turgenev and writer Alexander Herzen while they dream of revolution.

As Belinksky, Sandel gets to be in the center of the action. "Russia makes you think of great writers first and foremost. All of these great Russian thinkers from this period were in a constant state of discovery. Everything was new and exciting," says Sandel. "This play is also so relevant to our time. The words seem to jump right off the page and grab me (Occupy Wall Street, anyone?)."

As for living the acting life in Houston, Sandel has found a solid home on Houston's stages. "The only thing, theatrically, you can do in New York that you can't do in any other major city in the country is win or be nominated for a Tony award," he says. "Actors need to be where they can work, period."

Charles-Louis Yoshiyama at Prix de Lausanne

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