The University of Houston has been hitting the high notes with its opera program now for three decades. As it celebrates its upcoming 30th season, its longtime director revealed the simple secret for success behind such a complex and challenging enterprise.
“Our primary goal has always been to get our students on stage,” says Buck Ross, who has held the reins since his arrival in 1985 to help UH launch its own opera program.
Yes, it is admirable to be applauded for frequently tackling new and innovative works, praised for staging lavish, high-quality productions with limited resources and commended for the sheer abundance of presentations. But, in the end, the most lasting reward has been providing a training ground for new talent and the opportunity for genuine hands-on experience that can be found in only a precious few venues.
“A typical opera school might do one or two operas a year,” Ross says. “We do four productions every year, because our students don’t want to sit on the sidelines. They want to get on stage. I love the challenges we’ve been faced with, and so do the students. When they’re challenged by the work, they embrace the work. And that’s a good thing.”
The roots of opera instruction at UH run deep, going back to 1977 when Houston Grand Opera partnered with the UH School of Music to develop the Houston Opera Studio.
“Originally, it was a training program developed when oil money was plentiful and composer Carlisle Floyd was here at UH and David Gockley was at HGO,” Ross recalled.
Floyd and Gockley, the opera company’s general director from 1972 to 2006, launched a program to shape young artists with potential into well-rounded professionals capable of performing in all genres of opera and music theater. Studio students received vocal coaching from HGO company members and took language training and acting lessons from UH faculty.
Eventually, however, the programming needs of a professional opera company building its reputation for world-class, cutting-edge opera no longer neatly aligned with the academic mission of a university-based school of music awarding baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees.
In 1986, the Houston Opera Studio moved off campus and was rechristened the HGO Studio — and, at UH, the University Opera Theatre was born.
In its first season after the split, the University Opera Theatre produced one opera with costumes, a few props and a piano in the 300-seat Dudley Recital Hall. The following academic year, the fledgling college opera company presented a complete season of three fully produced operas with an entire orchestra in the 1,500-seat Cullen Performance Hall and the 600-seat Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre.
And the year after that, the University Opera Theatre scaled up to four operas — a pace that it maintains today.
In the mid-1990s, Rebecca and John J. Moores donated a substantial gift toward the construction of an on-campus opera house that could elegantly frame the large-scale productions the opera theatre was becoming known for. As a thank you, the name of the opera theatre and the school were changed to the Moores Opera Center and the Moores School of Music.
Opened in 1997, the Moores Opera House seats 800, mimics the interior design of Old European theaters and contains the largest installation in the UH art collection. “Euphonia,” by the world-renowned artist Frank Stella, is a collage of abstract imagery that covers the 100-foot-long barrel vaulted ceiling of the opera house. It’s a hall that blends contemporary and classic aesthetics visually and acoustically.
“It’s one of the finest opera houses in the nation and, for a university theater, it is extraordinary,” says Moores Opera House manager and set designer Thom Guthrie. “It is close to acoustically perfect. You can concentrate on the quality of the singing and not have to compromise the music to get more volume.”
Guthrie was hired to handle the daily logistics of the theater’s operation just a few months before the Moores Opera House’s grand opening.
For that very first production, a big, splashy opera with plenty of parts for lots of eager students was needed so as many people as possible could say they were there when it all started. That’s when Ross hatched the idea that embodied the same creative inspiration that first launched opera training at UH.
He decided to re-stage “The Ghost of Versailles,” an ambitious two-act opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera (The Met) that premiered in Manhattan in 1991. The Met’s production featured an eye-popping extra-large chorus, onstage orchestra and special effects.
“The Met, with all of its resources, could do that, and people got the mistaken impression that the opera was too big to do by anyone else,” Ross says. “But, we showed that it could be done on a smaller scale.”
That success led to the school carving out a niche for itself that benefits curious and appreciative Houstonians looking for what’s fresh in opera.
“The majority of what we’ve done these past few years is the second productions of shows that had big professional premieres,” Ross says. “We don’t have the budget to be in the commissioning business as this point. What we do provide are second productions of pieces that composers often find are harder to get performed again than the original commissioning was to get.”
UH, for example, was the first university to produce Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Robert Aldridge’s “Elmer Gantry” and Daron Hagen’s “Amelia.” Such boldness did not go unnoticed. UH’s versions of “Il Postino” and “Amelia” won first place awards from the National Opera Association, the membership organization for academic institutions and small regional opera companies.
Not only has the innovative “second show” strategy made the Moores Opera Center a strong contender for awards, it also allows its season to complement the Houston
Grand Opera repertoire and offer Houston arts community even more contemporary opera choices.
“We have created a program centered on serving the students,” Ross says, “and establishing a culture of believing we can do something that conventional wisdom says shouldn’t be able to happen — what could be more operatic than that?”