We Houstonians love to proclaim our love affair with the Bayou City. We shout it from rooftops. Perhaps as a defense mechanism from all the nonresident misconceptions and stereotypes, I too confess that it took me longer than expected to proclaim myself a proud Houston townsfolk.
I attribute my pseudo-religious Canada-United States conversion to learning more about our city’s diverse offerings, specifically in the nonprofit arts sector. Being aware of the Houston Symphony’s longevity, Houston Grand Opera’s commitment to new operas and, recently, the huge collaboration between a myriad of art powerhouses to benefit the educational community through Houston Arts Partners: Arts 4 All, I am confident that my creative colleagues will keep me aesthetically engaged for years to come.
Houston is a city of firsts.
But just as the big establishments thrive, forward-thinking individual artists and smaller groups add essential vibrant colors to complete Houston's rich cultural palette. Sometimes their grand performances fool you into thinking there is more than just one or two people on staff, made possible by Houston’s general entrepreneurial and all-is-good spirit.
With a slight tear of sweat running down his forehead, Viswa Subbaraman, artistic director of it’s-not-your-granny’s-opera Opera Vista, recalls of moments running from fundraising events to building a set with a hammer, nails and a saw.
“The reason that Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is famous is because Houston Grand Opera made it famous,” Subbaraman reminds me. “The first performance of Bernstein’s A Quiet Place was also here, but perhaps without the same critical acclaim,” to put it lightly.
What Subbaraman considers four-year-old Opera Vista’s first debutant performance to the Houston scene is also its largest, most expensive, most elaborate and ambitious. The Silent Prince is a Bollywood-style opera based on an Indian folk tale written by Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul featuring a live elephant that premiers in Houston Friday night at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Opera Vista is no stranger to world premieres. That's engrained in its mission. But this is definitely its biggest spectacle to date.
The Silent Prince is the tale of Temiya Jataka, a Buddha reincarnated as royalty who decides to secretly withdraw into silence when forced to choose between loyalty to his father and deeds that would bring him tragic karmic energy. Will he break his habit or succumb to external pressures?
“The last scene is the ultimate operatic challenge,” Sucharitkul explains. “It's basically how long can you delay the orgasm for? I hope that by choosing the unearthly timbre of a male soprano for this moment, I make it worth the wait.”
Subbaraman grew up with the Jataka tales. Akin to Aesop's Fables, they contain strong moral messages. And with many similarities between Indian and Thai Buddhist traditions, the thematic cultural melange seems rather appropriate.
Harboring a lifelong yearning to produce something based on Indian themes, Subbaraman originally planned to bring Arjuna’s Dilemma, a work by Douglas Cuomo. The dilemma?
It was still under contract with the original producers, and they requested a quarter-million dollars to allow it in Houston.
It was back to the drawing board for Opera Vista, but Subbaraman found the solution and an even better fit for the organization's mission in the most unlikely of places: Facebook.
“I became acquainted with Somtow, a ‘friend’ of Opera Vista on Facebook,” Subbaraman chuckles. “We chatted online and I discovered his works. His large compositions had a recognizable Western form with traditional Austro-Germanic operatic elements.”
The collaboration started in a rather unconventional manner, solely via e-mail and social media without any phone conversations.
“I think it's fair to say about Houston that everything about it is unexpected,” Sucharitkul says. “To discover a cutting-edge opera company here is both beautiful and miraculous. Then again I'm always overwhelmed by Texas in general.”
Large-scale performances are a lot more economical to stage in Bangkok. But having limited access to large venues, Opera Vista mostly rehearses in churches and stage-like spaces. A chamber opera was a better fit. The Silent Prince calls for a battery of 10 singers, 21 musicians and extended instrumentation, including Indian tamburas, Asian gongs and tam-tams.
“When I started to do the big operas for the Bangkok stage, I imagined what it would be like if the great late-Romantic composers, like Strauss, had spent a long weekend in Bali,” Sucharitkul explains. “So while the fundamental language of my operas derives from the received tradition, it's seen through a Southeast Asian prism. That's what lends it an exotic coloration. It's a new kind of hybrid.”
Sucharitkul’s favorite thing about The Silent Prince?
“I got to indulge a closet obsession with South Indian melody. I've waited at least 35 years to be able to show how much this music has affected my view of the world.”
In every Bollywood movie, aside from the richly colorful costumes, “characters go from having coffee to branching out in a choreographed spectacle for no apparent reason,” Subbaraman confides. “So, bringing in dancers was an aesthetic necessity.”
Subbaraman sought the help of Rathna Kumar, internationally recognized danseuse, teacher, choreographer and the founder-director of the Anjali Center for Performing Arts and Mahesh Mahbubani, expert in Indian contemporary dance and Bollywood fusion genres.
“Not being an opera aficionado, it was easier for me, coming from an Eastern background, to 'relate' to the unusual blend of East and West in this opera's musical composition,” Kumar says. “The theme also intrigued me, considering that the story was based on Indian mythology, with which I am very familiar.”
“I have choreographed Indian dance movements to Klezmer music, African drums, Gamelan, and to the narration of a Native American story, The Legend of the Bluebonnet. But I have never choreographed any dance to opera, and it proved to be both interesting and challenging.”
For fashion designer Prashi Shah, it was also a first opportunity to dabble in opera. “My love for Bollywood movies and the styles that were essentially born from them make this project all the more appealing to me.”
So The Silent Prince is a first for many. A first for Houston, a first for Subbaraman and Opera Vista, a first for Sucharitkul, a first for Kumar and Mahbubani, and a first for Shah.
I know what I am doing Friday night.
Tickets range from $25 to $75 (plus $6.25 fee) and can be purchased through the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts box office.