The American Idol of Opera: Forget the large woman in a horned hat

The American Idol of Opera: Forget the large woman in a horned hat

Opera Vista founder Viswa Subbaraman holds his third annual opera festival Saturday through March 27 at the Czech Center Museum Houston. New works from national and international composers will be voted on American Idol style. There will also be two chances to see last year's festival winner, Line Tjornhoj's haunting Anorexia Sacra at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House.

Recently named an Arts Mastermind by the Houston Press, Viswa Subbaraman is carving his own particular niche in the opera ecology of Houston. The fledgling troupe's big hits include a stellar performance of Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti on the Bayou Bend grounds, performing Amy Beach's landmark opera Cabildo at the actual Cabildo Museum in New Orleans, and numerous outreach programs that make opera seem fun, accessible and unscary.

Next fall, Opera Vista premieres The Silent Prince, a new opera from Thailand, at Hobby Center followed by a Bangkok tour. Subbaraman tells us exactly how he creates an opera-friendly place.

Q: How did you catch the opera bug, and have your parents gotten over the fact that you are not a doctor?

A: I took the conducting route. Almost all great conductors are opera conductors. I did not get interested in opera until I was a sophomore at Duke, where I majored in biology and music. Yes, everyone in my family is a doctor. My mom always says, "You used to be so smart Viswa. What happened?"

Q: Talk about your upcoming festival. New work in any art form is risky, and there seems to be a major drought when it comes to new operas. In Houston, we are lucky if we see a premiere every other year. It's slim pickings out there in the opera factory biz, don't you think?

A: The fear behind new opera on a grand scale is that if it doesn't go well the organization is out a few million. They need to take large risks to produce new work. We are a chamber opera contest with very specific requirements. It's doable. Over the past three years we have looked at over 200 chamber operas, so I have a good idea of what's happening nationally and internationally.

Q: How exactly do you face the opera fear factor?

A:  We try to get away from opera's image of a large woman wearing a horned hat singing at the top of her lungs in a foreign language.  We have a series called Opera 101, which takes place at Boheme once a month where we do all kinds of activities that engage people. Last month, we wrote an instant opera. We had two ringer singers in the audience, and of course that helped. There was a Vespa in the story, and some guy went and got his Vespa for the performance. I do something different each time. In the festival we give the audience a vote, American Idol style. Audience members can also give comments and feedback along with the jurors. They have some measure of control of their experience.

Q: What's the crowning jewel of the festival?

A: We fully produce the opera that won the previous year. We will be presenting Danish composer and 2009 winner Line Tjornhoj's opera Anorexia Sacra at the Live Oak Quaker Meeting House, which is a perfect space for the opera. It's based on the letters of Clare of Assisi, founder of an extreme ascetic medieval order known as "Poor Clare's." She died of anorexia in 1254. Tjornhoj was also inspired by pro-anorexia sites on the Web and attempts to build a poetic bridge spanning 800 years.

Q: What's your big plan for Opera Vista?

A: My hope is that we are building the next generation of audiences for  Houston Grand Opera and Opera in the Heights. We take a more aggressive approach with presenting operas outdoors at Bayou Bend every fall where people can enjoy a glass a wine and walk around, using our American Idol model with the festival, and events that are way less button-down than traditional opera. I hope to make Houston the Cannes or Sundance for new opera.

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Shannon Langman, mezzo-soprano, as Clara in an excerpt of Line Tjornhoj's "Anorexia Sacra" at the 2009 Vista Competition Courtesy of Opera Vista
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John Weinel, tenor, as Ayaz Marhoni in the world premiere performance of R. Timothy Brady's "Edalat Square" from the 2009 Opera Vista Festival Courtesy of Opera Vista
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From "Edalat Square," John Weinel, Brian Schircliffe as Mahmoud Asgari and Vanessa Beaumont as the mother Courtesy of Opera Vista