Discovering the Heights of Opera
A few months ago, the Houston Ballet dance talk crowd sighed when I announced that the music for the ballet, Manon, is not from Massenet's famous opera, but from his orchestral works and other operas. I tried to soothe them by relaying the fact that the score is still Massenet, it's one of the best compiled ballet scores out there and Opera in the Heights (OH!) would be performing Manon later that month. Afterwards, a tall, stately gentleman came up, not to correct my ballet facts, but to thank me. He was OH! acting executive director William Haase.
Haase invited me to come on down to catch OH! fever.
You would think that an opera buffette like me would have discovered Opera in the Heights by now. I've only had a mere 13 years to make the trek. There are no excuses, but I'd like to offer two anyway. First, as an OTL (Outside the Looper) I suffer from severe "Heights envy." You left-leaning people can plant heirloom tomatoes in your front yard, walk to such eclectic temples of cuisine as Shade, Textile and The Glass Wall, and the real killer, stroll to the opera. From my house in Cypress, I can walk to the oil change place and about 13 nail joints.
The other is that I am forever getting lost in the Heights. It's like the Bermuda triangle for me. I got lost going tovisit with Haase last week. "It's not that hard," he said, after listening to my wrong-way-on-Shepherd-Drive saga.
We traded our love affairs with opera tales. Scoring well in the Saturday Texaco Opera Broadcast quiz was a requirement for supper at my house. Haase found opera as an adult in 1969. His first date with his wife was Rigoletto, and he's been hooked on the woman and the art form ever since. During his years on the East Coast he was a regular at The Metropolitan Opera. Haase loves opera up close, and will take opera HD and OH! over big houses any day. He's held just about every job at OH!, from volunteer to Ike water remover.
"I love my job, plus, I have a great boss," joked Haase, who is also chairman of the board.
Maestro William M. Weibel gives OH! its musical cred. After a significant career at the Met and other legendary houses, Weibel came out of retirement to mentor young singers. "He's a direct link to an older tradition," Haase boasted.
As we chatted, the sounds of Un Ballo in Maschera, Giuseppe Verdi's tale of love, politics and one deadly big bash, filled the cozy church-turned-300-seat opera house. "No singer can phone in a performance here," Haase said. "They have to give it their all." The modest size of the house also prevents singers from pushing their voices, so young artists can tackle larger roles.
Dancer-turned-director Matthew Ferraro makes his OH! directorial debut with Un Ballo in Maschera, and takes advantage of the small-house intimacy. "I really like the visceral feel of the space and will be more focused on the story and characters, rather than bringing in some fire-eating dragon," Ferraro said. "I get to experiment and a lot of my ideas work really well here. The singers are wonderful; there are no diva fits here."
John Rodger, also making his OH! debut, has sung in 4,000 seat houses but cherishes the chance to get so close to the audience. "The acting must be natural and down to earth because people can actually see my facial expressions. There are no big costumes or gigantic sets to hide behind, " Rodger said. "It's actually my favorite style of acting; it's more like film."
Haase seems pleased that so many singers want to come and once they do, return. He sees his organization moving into a middle ground since smaller troupes like Opera Vista and Divergence Vocal Theater have emerged. OH! now auditions in New York and is getting a national reputation as a great place to nurture young talent. Haase loves to see OH! singers go on to big careers.
"They pass through this nest," he said. "Then they need to fly."