It’s been a long pandemic for virtually everyone in Houston. But perhaps nowhere were the effects felt more keenly than in the Theater District. The Alley Theatre’s iconic winding red staircase empty, the Wortham’s graceful escalators stilled, the Hobby Center’s soaring white lobby in silence. Gone were the touring Broadway shows. Gone were the plays. Gone were the exquisite ballets. From one end of Downtown to the other, the city’s major performing arts groups were in the wings.
Yes, it’s true every performing arts group quickly pivoted over the last 18 months to offer a variety of virtual programming, giving Houston audiences glimpses of everything from new works to artists’ living rooms. But the irreplaceable experience of sitting in a communal space and watching a performance was extinguished. At least for a while. Now, the curtain is set to rise again.
When Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch thinks about the upcoming season, he feels two things: excitement and relief.
“All the live performing arts come alive, they catch fire, in front of an audience,” he said. “That chemistry between the dancers and the audiences is something we really need. It’s amazing.”
The Ballet opens the 2021–2022 season with the Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance, Sept. 30 through Oct. 3. The compilation program features a selection of solos, group dances and pas de deux from different ballets. The show will include the first and last movements of “Divergence and will celebrate dancer Melody Mennite’s 20th anniversary with the company. It was, said Welch, a perfect choice for the season kickoff.
“I wanted to get every dancer on stage, to make sure that all these 60 artists have a chance to perform again,” he said. “This gives us that opportunity. The audience gets to see everybody and they get a taste of all the sorts of things that we do and that are coming.”
Welch said arts subscriptions before COVID-19 were in what he calls “a bit of a downturn.” He cites a culture of people being glued to their phones and other online diversions.
“So, the people who were with us are still with us, but the challenge for us going forward is building our subscriber base to what it is was three, four, five seasons ago. But our subscribers and our doners have stuck with us, and that’s been really rewarding because they allow us to do what we do.”
The Ballet performs in the Wortham Theater Center, a space it shares with the Houston Grand Opera. As of press time, Welch noted that safety protocols were still being worked out, but the expectation for audiences should be that things are back to full capacity. As with other arts organizations around the Theater District, the Ballet is following closely the news from national and local health organizations and will communicate news with ballet goers throughout the season.
He said that during the pandemic, it was inspiring to see the level of creativity the artists had, both the dancers and those behind the scenes. They rallied to create online content, and the company’s popular ballet classes never stopped, even as they entered an online arena. But Welch and the company are ready to get back to work onstage and have their audiences in the theater with them.
“We’re going to keep innovating,” he said, noting that the Ballet has made it a point to embrace a diversity of artists, stories and leadership. “We won’t let that go. We’ll continue leading the way with our diversity of programs.”
He’s looking forward to collaborating with other Theater District organizations, even as he sees this season as one to get the company back on its feet. And audiences should expect the Ballet to continue its digital offerings, something Welch feels is important. There may not be full productions or series like last year, but an online presence is something he feels will bring dance to more people.
The Ballet promises a full season of productions, and the fall tops off with an enduring favorite: The Nutcracker opens Nov. 26.”
“The Jubilee is a smorgasbord buffet of little bits,” said Welch. “And we follow that with the big Christmas cake!”
HOUSTON GRAND OPERA
Houston Grand Opera Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers calls performing opera for a live audience “a uniquely captivating experience.” And audiences who’ve attended an opera at HGO’s home base of the Wortham Theater Center have seen that firsthand. The renowned company has presented 70 world premieres to date and routinely casts a dazzling array of established and emerging stars for its repertoire.
Opening the 2021–2022 season is one of the most enduring and beloved operas of all time: Bizet’s Carmen, on stage Oct. 22 through Nov. 7. A tale of obsessive love and the tragedy of jealousy, the story unfolds against the backdrop of Seville. Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, praised for her “deft touch” by The Washington Post, makes her HGO debut in the production, which stars mezzo-soprano and HGO Studio alumna Carolyn Sproule in the title role.
“We are all ready to fully immerse ourselves in transcendent music and passionate performances, live and in person on the stage,” said Summers. “Having our beloved audience in the room with HGO’s incredible artists as they create operatic magic is truly an incomparable experience.”
The company’s season includes the December world premiere of The Snowy Day, based on the classic children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats, the January premiere of Dialogue of the Carmelites, set in a convent during the French Revolution, The Magic Flute in February, and new productions of Turandot and Romeo and Juliet, both in April. While Summers is grateful the company was able to create beautiful pieces of digital content during the pandemic, he’s thrilled to be back on stage.
“Years of preparation go into planning and presenting a full season,” he explained, “and our team is hard at work gearing up for opening night and the entire incredible slate of performances ahead. We’ve also been workshopping new works, welcoming new artists training with the HGO Studio, and planning a host of exciting events to take place in the months to come, while focusing on the organization’s financial recovery and doing everything we can to bring our subscribers back to the theater after not seeing them for so long.”
Like other arts organizations who shifted to digital programming during their long hiatus from performing live, HGO found that its online offerings not only helped connect Houston audiences to the company, but also allowed opera lovers outside the city—even the state—to see all that HGO has to offer.
“We believe that streaming is here to stay,” said Summers, who shared that HGO will fold a series of digital offerings into its upcoming season. Those offerings, he said, should be seen as an enhancement to the company’s live performances.
So what can audiences expect when they come back to the Wortham Center? The opera has been working closely with its HGO Health Advisory Committee and partnering with organizations such as Houston Methodist to ensure it’s adhering to safety protocols and implementing standards to keep audiences, the cast, the creative team and the company’s staff safe. The organization continues to monitor the pandemic and plans to finalize its protocols close to opening night. HGO’s Wortham Center-based staff worked remotely through August, before returning to the office, and at the time of this interview, Summers was looking forward to seeing them in person again.
“This past season showcased our company’s resilience once again,” he said. “I am so proud of the entire HGO team. We can’t wait to be back where we belong, at the Wortham.”
Anyone standing outside of Jones Hall last August might have been surprised to see patrons lining up to hear a live performance when everything was shuttered. The Symphony, like its fellow arts organizations pivoted fairly quickly from its COVID-19-induced quarantine to offering quality digital programming. Then, last summer, the organization did something else: it found a way to offer live programming, with musicians socially distanced on stage and audiences separated from each other.
“The music couldn’t be stopped,” John Mangum, executive director, CEO and Margaret Alkek Williams chair, told us then.
Now, however, he—and the rest of the orchestra—are elated to bring Jones Hall back to full capacity, and to see the Theater District spring back to life.
“It’s so much more energetic when everyone is up and running,” he said. “People will come to our hall and see the sign for a show at the Alley – and vice versa – and decide they need to see it. The restaurants are open and our patrons are dining at places like Cultivated F&B at The Lancaster. There’s so much life in the District when we’re all open.”
The orchestra may not have had quite the same pandemic shutdown as its performing arts neighbors, but excitement for the new season is still palpable. Limited-capacity concerts had their attendance capped at 500 people; Jones Hall’s full seating capacity is close to 3,000. And he’s looking forward to the schedule for concertgoers this fall.
The orchestra’s official opening night was Sept. 11, with a concert featuring megastar soprano Renee Fleming. Mangum says the evening featured a selection of well-known opera arias, along with Broadway selections and pieces from the Great American Songbook. It was conducted by Steven Reineke, the orchestra’s POPS conductor.
“This will really showcase the Symphony,” said Mangum. “It’s absolutely a show that spotlights what our orchestra can do.”
This season marks Music Director Andrés Orozco Estrada’s final season with the Houston Symphony, and he’ll conduct Andrés Conducts Beethoven’s Fifth Sept. 17- 19. The concert also features Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano, along with Bridgetower’s Henry, A Ballard for Fortepiano and Voice, arranged by Kyle Rivera through a Houston Symphony commission.
“George Bridgetower, who was a Black violinist, was a contemporary of Beethoven,” explained Mangum. “So, we’re really happy to present this work together with a slate of Beethoven. We feel there are a lot of untold stories in classical music, and we’re exploring ways to shine light on those. It’s exciting.”
Magnum said that commitment to tell more diverse and lesser-known stories has always been important to them and audiences can look for that to continue this year. He’s convinced this will not only allow current audiences to hear pieces they might not know, but also encourage new concertgoers to Jones Hall.
“There’s no reason to stay away from the concert hall!” he said.
Audiences can expect that masks will be optional and there won’t be social distancing, Mangum said. While that could change, depending on what happens with the pandemic going forward, he said that audiences can also look forward to the Green Room and concessions being open and operational.
“The neighborhood’s been quiet,” he quipped. “It’ll be great to have everyone back.”