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Houston Symphony’s Grammy Award-Winning Opera Staged by UH Alumna

Moores Opera House Manager Kristin Johnson (B.A. Vocal Performance Education ’99) stage directed the striking production of “Wozzeck.”

The Houston Symphony made history on January 28, snagging its first ever Grammy Award for the recording of Alban Berg’s powerful expressionist opera, “Wozzeck.”

Directed by the Houston Symphony’s former music director Hans Graf during his last year with the symphony and staged by Moores School of Music alumna Kristin Johnson (B.A. Vocal Performance Education ’99), the opera garnered critical acclaim when it was produced in 2013.

A bleak story of a soldier wronged by those closest to him, “Wozzeck” may seem a surprising choice for Graf’s farewell concert, but the conductor embraced the dark, emotionally charged work. With Johnson, he developed a stark semi-staged production that used minimal costumes, simple lighting and only a handful of props. 

“The opera tells such an intimate story, it doesn’t need bells and whistles,” explains Johnson, who recently returned to her alma mater as the manager of the Moores Opera House. In her former role as the director of operations and productions for the Symphony, she was responsible for the costuming, lighting design, stagehands and stage direction. “Our production was distilled down to the essence of the story.”

And it worked. The Houston Press described the stripped down production as “strikingly staged” and “elegantly effective,” allowing the intensity of the music to wash over the audience.

Though the opera was produced in 2013, the live recordings, created by co-producer and recording engineer Brad Sayles, were officially released in 2017. Not only is this the symphony’s first win, but their first nomination in the Grammy’s 104-year history.

“It's a huge, huge rewarding thing," said Graf in an interview with the Houston Chronicle. “I'm so happy that it was a piece from off the beaten path. And that the Houston Symphony allowed it to happen and supported it."

Johnson couldn’t be more proud. “It was a labor of love, but we had the most astounding staff,” she says, indicating several Moores School of Music faculty and affiliate artists, including Mark Hughes, Robert Walp, Wayne Brooks, Anthony Kitai, Paula Page, Robert Atherholt, Adam Dinitz, Aralee Dorough and Elise Wagner. “Being a part of this production was truly a joy.”