Houston Grand Opera to Launch 2014 With Three World Premieres, American Premiere and More

The opening months of 2014 bring into focus the strengths of Houston Grand Opera (HGO), which launches the new year with an extraordinary line-up. This comprises the world premieres of three important new commissions -Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt, named one of the twelve "must-see opera events of the season" (Opera News), and two works exploring Houston's Vietnamese and Indian communities, courtesy of HGO's award-winning Song of Houston project; the hotly anticipated American premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's long-suppressed Holocaust opera, The Passenger, in the production that took Europe by storm; the first American presentation of a visionary and groundbreaking treatment of Das Rheingold by Catalan's La Fura dels Baus; a new HGO production of Carmen from Broadway sensation Rob Ashford; a revival of Rigoletto; and a restaged production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, which boasts designs by fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi. As the Houston Press recently noted, "Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers is thinking bigger than ever."

As the first in a series of new HGO commissions, the company presents Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt, composed to a libretto by Leonard Foglia, who will direct the stage premiere. A moving melodrama, the opera stars legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, one of opera's most beloved figures. "This new opera has deep Texas roots," Patrick Summers explains. "It is based on a play of the same name by the renowned Texas writer Horton Foote. Ricky Ian Gordon is a very theatrically driven composer with a style that is perfectly suited to opera." Houston Grand Opera's legacy of commissioning and premiering new works goes back more than 40 years and includes commissions from John Adams, Philip Glass, Daniel Catán, André Previn, Mark Adamo, and Jake Heggie. Opening on March 14, A Coffin in Egypt marks HGO's 52nd world premiere since 1973.

It was under the auspices of HGOco, its community collaboration program, that HGO inaugurated the Song of Houston project -winner of the National MultiCultural Institute's Leading Lights Diversity Award - to celebrate Houston's cultural diversity. In 2014, Song of Houston presents the world premieres of two new commissions in its East + West series, which pays tribute to Houston as a meeting place for Eastern and Western cultures. Timed to coincide with the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrations, the first piece, Bound, is the creation of librettist Bao-Long Chu and composer Huang Ruo, a Luxembourg International Composition Prize winner, with costumes by Project Runway-winner Chloe Dao, and will debut on February 15. The second, River of Light, bows on March 23, in conjunction with the Indian festival of Holi. With a libretto by American Book Award -winner Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, this marks the second contribution to East + West by composer Jack Perla, whose China-themed Courtside premiered in 2011. These operas represent HGO's 51st and 53rd world premiere productions.

No less momentous is the American premiere of The Passenger (1968), a powerful Holocaust opera by exiled Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg, which opens at HGO on January 18. Based on a novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, The Passenger was recognized as "a perfect masterpiece" by Shostakovich but was censored by the Soviet establishment and never performed in Weinberg's lifetime. It premiered at the 2010 Bregenz Festival, and received its subsequent UK premiere at the English National Opera thanks to award-winning British director David Pountney, whose staging inspired the Telegraph to write: "Risky though it may be to label a first production 'definitive,' it is hard to imagine it ever being done better." Now HGO brings the same production across the Atlantic, complete with mezzo-soprano Michelle Breedt, who "excelled" (New York Times) in the leading role at two European premieres. She will be joined by Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, best-known as Tamino in Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of The Magic Flute, and by soprano Melody Moore, whose recent HGO house debut in Show Boat was praised by audiences and critics alike. Patrick Summers will conduct HGO's performances of The Passenger.

Marking an important company milestone in April, HGO will launch its first presentation of Wagner's glorious Ring cycle, in a "visually dazzling" (Los Angeles Times) production from La Fura dels Baus, the genre-defying Catalan theater company behind Barcelona's 1992 Olympic opening ceremony. Previously staged only in Europe, director Carlus Padrissa's innovative conception employs acrobats in tableaux of human scenery and cutting-edge visual imagery to create "a veritable symphony in pictures" (Opera News). Highlights from the production, which was released on DVD by C Major Entertainment and won the 2010 ECHO Klassik Award for DVD of the year, can be seen here.

HGO will present one installment of the cycle each year, starting on April 11 with Das Rheingold. Leading the outstanding cast is Scottish bass-baritone and "talent to watch" (Chicago Tribune) Iain Paterson, making his house and role debuts as Wotan. Singing opposite him as Fricka is American mezzo Jamie Barton, an HGO Studio alumna and winner of the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, one of opera's most influential awards. Slovak tenor Stefan Margita reprises the role of Loge with which he "stole the show" (Opera Tattler) at San Francisco Opera. Patrick Summers, who made his Wagner debut at HGO with "a soulful reading [of Lohengrin] that unleashe[d] the score's power and encompasse[d] its breadth" (Houston Chronicle), will conduct.

On April 25, HGO breathes fresh life into Bizet's perennially popular Carmen with the help of American director/choreographer Rob Ashford. "Rob Ashford is Broadway's hottest young director," notes Summers, "and we are looking forward to Rob's take on an iconic classic." A Tony, Emmy, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Award winner -with nominations for a further seven Tonys and five Olivier Awards - Ashford needs little introduction on Broadway or in London's West End. "I am thrilled to be making my HGO debut with Carmen," the director/choreographer explains. "I've always loved this score and look forward to exploring its strong flamenco rhythms and influence. It is a very exciting opportunity."

In her role debut as Bizet's irrepressible Gypsy, the new production presents Grammy Award-winning Puerto Rican soprano, Ana María Martínez. As an alumna of the HGO Studio, Martínez was the inaugural recipient of the company'sLynn Wyatt Great Artist Award. Opposite her, Richard Tucker Award-winner Brandon Jovanovich - hailed as "a high heroic tenor clearly destined for greatness" (Wall Street Journal) - portrays Don José. Their doomed love triangle is completed by the Escamillo of bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, another former HGO Studio artist and the first recipient of Plácido Domingo's Birgit Nilsson Prize. Scotland's Rory Macdonald will conduct.

January 22 is opening night of HGO's revival of Rigoletto, in a production of Verdi's masterpiece directed by Harry Silverstein and led by Patrick Summers. Ryan McKinny, whose powerful bass-baritone "drips with gold" (Opera News), returns to sing his first performances in the title role, while Richard Tucker Award-winning tenor Stephen Costello makes his long-awaited HGO debut as the Duke of Mantua. Costello drew rave reviews at the recent Tucker Award Gala, when the Associated Press praised his "ardent, effortless vocalizing," noting, "Costello was in brilliant voice, his bright tenor brimming with youthful vigor and passion."

Described by the New York Times as "the greatest and perhaps best-known artist in the American musical theater," Stephen Sondheim is the winner of a Pulitzer Prize, an Olivier Award, an Academy Award, seven Tony Awards, a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, and multiple Grammy Awards. The upcoming production of his intimate urbane piece A Little Night Music demonstrates HGO's ongoing commitment to musical theater, America's original contribution to the operatic genre. On March 7, the company will restage the production with costumes by Isaac Mizrahi, about which the Wall Street Journal concluded: "No surprise that Mr. Mizrahi's costumes were enchanting..." Headlining the cast are American soprano Elizabeth Futral, described as "magnificent..., with a mesmerizing combination of vocal elegance and expressive ferocity" (New York Times); HGO Studio alumnus and company regular Chad Shelton, who impressed Opera News with his "total tenor confidence"; and American mezzo Joyce Castle, who was chosen by the composer himself to record "Send in the Clowns" for the Book-of-the-Month collection Sondheim. Musical direction is by HGO's own associate music director, Eric Melear, a Sir Georg Solti Foundation Award winner and former HGO Studio artist.

More information about these upcoming Houston Grand Opera productions is available at the company's web site: www.houstongrandopera.org.

Houston Grand Opera: January-May 2014:

* HGO debut
? former HGO Studio Artist

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: The Passenger (American premiere)
Jan.18, 22, 25, 31; Feb. 2m
Liese: Michelle Breedt *
Walter: Joseph Kaiser
Marta: Melody Moore
Tadeusz: Morgan Smith

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