Out of the stage and onto the streets
Theater District organizations explore creative ways and unique spaces to foster engaging experiences

When Houston Grand Opera began conducting interviews with Houston–based NASA astronauts, scientists and engineers who had a personal connection with the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster of 2003 in search for context with which to create a chamber opera, the theme that emerged had less to do with heartbreak and disappointment. Instead, what HGO uncovered was a yearning for exploration, the necessity of dreams and how humans have an innate impulse to learn, discover and try new things. 

“Not everyone can relate to a story set in the 19th century about a wealthy duke and his court,” HGO managing director Perryn Leech says. “This work was relevant to the people of Houston. We had to earn the trust of those who were there and who were affected by the disaster before we could really get to the heart of the story that's embedded in American history. It's not easy to talk about it, but art allowed them to express their feelings fully. Opera is evolving in how it tells human stories. Music allows emotions to be unlocked.”

This innovative and “site-specific” approach to opera demanded a different kind of space. One where audiences were closer to the performers. One that echoed the vastness of the cosmos. One that allowed the staging to also take the tenor of the unknown. 

It’s with this same creative spirit that HGO stepped outside of Wortham Theater Center to try something different. Across the street, Revention Music Center (then Bayou Music Center) offered an empty black box in which O Columbia (2015) by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Royce Vavrek could freely take flight. A white acoustic shell anchored the stage and semi-circular seating to diminish the feeling of the fourth wall. Beyond the setup was a deep darkness that symbolized the incomprehensible boundlessness of space. 

In March, HGO will again step outside its traditional home in search of a different experience. The Ballroom at Bayou Place will host the world premiere of HGO's Some Light Emerges, which celebrates non-denominational Rothko Chapel. Commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil, the sanctuary has become synonymous with the pursuit of the highest aspirations of humanity. Alongside the sculpture Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman perched on the neighboring reflective pool, the two iconic landmarks on The Menil Collection campus represent contemplation and action. New York-based composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed were engaged for Some Light Emerges, HGO's 63rd world premiere.

“We looked at many spaces before deciding on the Ballroom at Bayou Place for Some Light Emerges,” Leech adds. “It echoed the feeling of entering the Rothko Chapel. We wanted that experience and the flexibility that an open space affords our creative team.”

Opera has evolved from extremely long formats that could take four or five hours; it's what people did. Composers like Rossini Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) were churning out operas at an alarming rate — sometimes in a couple of weeks. As people's entertainment habits changed, some found going to the opera incongruent with a hurried 21st century life. Today, people like to find entertainment options in their own vicinities.

After the Storm, a chamber opera about resilience of the Gulf Coast, was presented at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston. New Arrivals at Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center told the real-life story of Houstonian Yani Rose Keo, a Cambodia refugee's flight to Houston and her efforts to help others who faced persecution. Because food is a big part of a 19-minute Texas version of Wagner's The Ring Cycle, HGO will head to a local barbecue joint.

A walking, movable stage
While Alley Theatre creatives were looking for works of Latin origin, travels to Santiago and Bogota led Managing Director Dean Gladden to something that didn't fit into any established category. A curated experienced that meandered about the city, a sort of augmented reality via recorded sounds delivered through state-of-the-art headphones, became Remote Houston. German collective Rimini Protokoll — consisting of documentary theater and installation artists Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel — developed Remote Houston to put spectators' experience at the core of the work. Participants gather at a designation meeting point and embark on a journey with a guided audio tour. 

“The whole idea was to do something to break out of the boundaries of the stage and theater,” Gladden says. “Theater can be all around you. Remote Houston became a way to bring in new audiences, to expose people who don’t go to the theater, and to make contact with other communities in the city. It was a very special thing.”

In Houston, this surreal voyage began at the Evergreen Cemetery in East Downtown. What begins as a meditative, reflective experience turns into a walking adventure through secluded areas of the city and parklands, onto the light rail to approach the city, into historical buildings in Downtown Houston, through hallways and parking garages, concluding in the Theater District. Remote Houston was produced by the Alley Theatre with the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts 2016 CounterCurrent festival.

Theater-goers were asked to become part of the action. They were asked to breakout into a ballet and country line dance in the middle of a public space, knowing that unsuspecting passersby had no clue or advance warning as to what may be happening. They were asked to race adjacent to Jones Hall. To stop next to a Metro station and pretend they were watching live drama unfold. At times, they were split into different groups arbitrarily, playing different roles of a work in which everyone was a protagonist — ending in the balcony of the Alley Theatre overlooking Jones Plaza.

“Watching people's reactions was very rewarding,” Gladden says. “One of the most endearing moments was when a woman in her 80s was asked to run to an imaginary finish line. She couldn't quite get there as fast as everyone else. But when she did, everyone cheered loudly — one of those unscripted, touching moments that restores your faith in humanity.”

Creating meaningful connections at a young age
The Houston Symphony has more than 900 musician interactions outside of Jones Hall. In schools, orchestral players concentrate on helping students make connections to the art form. With older children, the majority of these interactions happen as part of the Houston Symphony High School Residencies. Educators from partnering schools work with the orchestra's education staff to customize residency content to best support the needs of the teachers. Students are coupled with a resident community-embedded musician who returns every month to lead coachings, sectional rehearsal and in-school chamber music performances.  

For young children, the symphony partners with the Prelude Music Foundation to provide age-appropriate experiences in four underserved schools. At the end of each semester-long residency, an in-school family concert engages the whole educational community. 

"A child's developmental music aptitude is most vulnerable before the age of 5 through age 9, so the work that we do in partnership with Prelude Music Foundation is essential,” says Pam Blaine, Houston Symphony chief of education and community programming. “Through the Prelude Music Foundation classes and concerts, the young children attain basic music competency. Research shows that this early acquisition fosters healthy brain development and translates to success later in life.”

In essence, the goal is to contribute to students' acquisition of life skills to succeed in school and beyond.

“We observe that after the students encounter the community-embedded musicians in their classrooms, students recognize the orchestral instruments at the family engagement concert,” she says. “For many of these students, being from low-income communities, having the real instruments is a really special experience. Most of the families do not have access to live music, so this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them."

Art for soul
The Da Camera of Houston Young Artist Program comprises an enterprising troupe of recent conservatory graduates who have a desire to learn about what it means to create musical experiences in unusual settings that are relevant and rewarding for both listener and performer. The two-year fellowship includes special training to understand the proclivities of programming outside of the traditional concert hall — experiences that are typically not offered as part of undergraduate and graduate music performance curriculum. 

To help patients cope with illness and recovery, Da Camera Young Artists travels to medical institutions such as the Houston Methodist Hospital in the Medical Center and in Sugar Land, and the Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Centers.

“All of the concerts are different that a traditional concert because the audience can come and go as they’re schedule demands,” explains Craig Hauschildt, Da Camera director of education and community initiatives. “They provide opportunities for unexpected discoveries and wonderful discourse with the audience, but they also provide a number of challenges such as ambient sound, lights and access to certain instruments. The wall between the audience is eliminated and the conversations that occur following performances are often enlightening.”

This experience has had unexpected consequences for Da Camera Young Artists. It makes them feel more connected to audiences in traditional venues. It also prepares them to search out these kinds of venues later in their career since they have the knowledge and skills on how to approach these venues.

“The most rewarding part of these experiences is getting the close interaction with the audiences,” Hauschildt adds. “Getting feedback that the unexpected music has brightened their day in a medical environment gets to the core of what it means to be an artist.”

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