Houston Grand Opera to Premiere O COLUMBIA, 9/23

By: Jul. 22, 2015
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Houston, July 21, 2015- Houston Grand Opera (HGO) will present the world premiere of O Columbia, a chamber opera created by an acclaimed team of artists: composer Gregory Spears, librettist Royce Vavrek, stage director Kevin Newbury, and conductor Timothy Myers-on September 23 and 24 at 8:00 p.m. at the Bayou Music Center. O Columbia examines the past, present, and future of the American spirit of exploration and celebrates the identity of America's frontiersmen and women. O Columbia will be HGO's 57th world premiere.

Informed by interviews with astronauts, engineers, shuttle mission trainers, and others from the NASA community, the chamber opera in three acts explores our culture's fascination with space and introduces historical events of exploration as touchstones. Each short act, framed by works for chorus, imagines a conversation that crosses space and time to create a unified story: we ride with Sir Walter Raleigh on the bow of his ship heading for the New World in the 16th century; sit with a teenager in her Houston bedroom as she experiences communion and later, heartbreak, with a Columbia space shuttle astronaut gliding around the earth; and finally we travel with future astronauts to the far reaches of the solar system, with Lady Columbia waiting to greet them.

"A core group of about 20 people from the space community have advised us since the beginning of our work, including giving feedback at the libretto reading and the music workshop," explain Spears and Vavrek. "As a result, what began with a focus on the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy became a broader meditation on America's history of exploration, loss, and perseverance. Our hope is that the piece will be both an elegy for the Columbia crew and a reflection about the heavens as a frontier to be explored at all costs."

A prominent symbol in the piece is the Voyager Golden Record, a disc containing readings, images, and music launched into distant space by NASA in the 1970s. The record suggests that the spirit of discovery goes hand in hand with our need to preserve that which makes us uniquely human: knowledge, language, and art. There are also references to the 80 scientific experiments that the Columbia crew conducted during their mission.

The team is approaching the production of O Columbia as a site-specific installation for the Bayou Music Center, a vast, flexible space that offers many opportunities not afforded in a conventional proscenium theatre. "The production will be ensemble-based, with the entire cast onstage for the whole performance," explains Kevin Newbury. "The audience will be seated in the round, the action happening in front of them and behind them. Using a variety of hand-made theatrical techniques (including shadow puppetry, practical lighting and household props and furniture), the production will focus on the wonder and joy of exploration as seen through the eyes of a group of teenagers."

The cast of O Columbia includes soprano Pureum Jo as Becca, mezzo-soprano Megan Samarin as Lady Columbia, and baritone Ben Edquist as Raleigh/Astronaut, along with an eight-voice mixed adult vocal ensemble. The principals all are members of the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

Composer Gregory Spears's opera Paul's Case, performed at Pittsburgh Opera, Urban Arias, and New York's 2014 Prototype Festival, was described as having "blinding brilliance" (New York Observer). Spears's new evening-length chamber opera, Fellow Travelers, written in collaboration with librettist Greg Pierce and director Kevin Newbury, was recently developed in a 2013 Opera Fusion workshop by Cincinnati Opera/University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. His music has also been performed by the American Composers Orchestra, Inscape Chamber Orchestra, the NOW Ensemble (the MATA Festival), So Percussion, and Eighth Blackbird. Spears wrote the score for HGOco's The Bricklayerin 2012.

Royce Vavrek is a Canadian filmmaker, librettist, playwright and musical theater writer known for his collaborations with composers David T. Little, Missy Mazzoli, and Ricky Ian Gordon; soprano Lauren Worsham; producers Beth Morrison and Lawrence Edelson; and conductor Alan Pierson. His work has been presented at or performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, International Contemporary Ensemble, and Opera America, among others. Vavrek wrote the "playful, quick-witted" (Wall Street Journal) libretto to composer Ricky Ian Gordon's score for the opera 27, which premiered at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in June 2014. His current commissions include JFK for Fort Worth Opera/American Lyric Theater and a musical for Signature Theater.

Stage director Kevin Newbury's recent projects include Kansas City Choir Boy at the 2014 Prototype Festival and Anna Bolena at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Especially committed to developing new work, he has directed a dozen world premiere operas, including Oscar at Opera Philadelphia and The Manchurian Candidate at Minnesota Opera, both in 2015. At HGO he directed Mary Stuart (2012) and The Magic Flute(2008). Newbury has enjoyed repeat engagements with other leading American opera companies, including Minnesota Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Portland Opera, Utah Opera, and Opera Theatre of St. Louis. His production of Virginia for the Wexford Opera Festival won the 2010 Irish Times Theatre Award for Best Opera Production.

Conductor Timothy Myers led HGO's world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt featuring Frederica von Stade in 2014, as well as Daniel Crozier's With Blood, With Ink at Fort Worth Opera and John Supko's All Souls at Washington D.C.'s National Gallery of Art. The artistic director and principal conductor of North Carolina Opera, he has expanded the company's repertoire to range from Handel to Glass. Myers's recent and upcoming engagements include the Atlanta, Portland, Toledo, Chautauqua, and Tulsa symphony orchestras, the Malaysian Philharmonic, Washington National Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and the Wolf Trap Festival.

O Columbia is presented under the auspices of HGOco, the company's community collaboration and education initiative. Since 2007, HGOco has commissioned 16 new works and three song cycles and has conducted innovative community projects reaching more than one million people in the Greater Houston metropolitan area. HGOco creates opportunities for Houstonians of all ages and backgrounds to observe, participate in, and create art. Through projects like O Columbia, HGOco endeavors to make opera relevant to its changing audiences by connecting the company with the diverse Houston community through collaboration.

O Columbia is the first of three new chamber operas to be commissioned in the award-winning Song of Houston series, an ongoing initiative within HGOco that creates new works based on stories that define the unique character of Houston. Notable Song of Houston projects include 2007's The Refuge, a groundbreaking musical tapestry of immigrant stories from various Houston communities; 2010's Cruzar la Cara de la Luna / To Cross the Face of the Moon, the world's first mariachi opera; and East + West (2010-14), a four-year series of eight chamber operas telling contemporary stories from Houston's Asian communities. In 2009 the program received the Leading Lights Diversity Award in Arts and Culture from the National MultiCultural Institute (NCMI).

O Columbia is made possible through generous support by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Conoco Phillips, Occidental Petroleum Corporation, and Bank of America.


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