Joel Thompson is named Houston Grand Opera’s first full-time Composer-in-Residence

Joel Thompson in New Haven workshopping “The Snowy Day” / Photo by Matthew Fried

A doctoral student at Yale School of Music with an American Prize for Choral Composition and an Emmy Award to his name, Joel Thompson wrote his first opera for Houston Grand Opera this past season.

That opera was The Snowy Day, with libretto by Andrea Davis Pinkney and based on the classic Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats.

Thompson’s The Snowy Day made its world premiere at the Wortham Theater Center on December 9, 2021 and had a successful nine-performance run with positive feedback from the community and coverage by The New York Times and Texas Monthly. In a historic first, HGO livestreamed the opera’s opening night for free, drawing viewers in 34 countries.

In another historic first for the company, HGO recently announced that it has recruited Thompson to live and work in Houston as its first-ever, full-time Composer-in-Residence, in a role that will aim to strength connections with Houstonians and their communities through opera. His five-year residency begins on August 1, 2022.

“This position was created for Joel because he is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation, a transformative artist that is redefining the future of opera and expanding its reach,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in a statement.

“We are confident that Joel’s artistic contributions are making the world a better place, and we can’t wait to see and hear what he will do next,” Dastoor said.

During his tenure, Thompson will serve as a member of the company’s artistic leadership. According to a press release, his initiatives and plans will include: forming music-based educational partnerships with schools and nonprofits; identifying and mentoring homegrown composers, librettists, and other artists and creatives; composing a major mainstage commission; and composing a set of smaller-scale original works, informed thematically by his collaborations with the people who live here, which will premiere at HGO.

“This residency will provide me with an opportunity to do the things that matter to me most: creating music through community and creating community through music,” said Thompson in a statement.

“I’m especially excited to do this in partnership with HGO, the visionary company that has helped me launch my career in opera,” he said. “HGO is giving me the chance to dream and to create works that I hope will be deeply meaningful to the community we will build together over the next five years.”

Artistic team of HGO’s “The Snowy Day,” L-R: Omer Ben Seadia (director), Andrea Davis Pinkney (librettist), and Joel Thompson (composer) / Photo by Matthew Fried

Thompson’s works have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Tallahassee Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Master Chorale, Los Angeles Master Chorale, and EXIGENCE.

In addition to The Snowy Day, Thompson is known for the choral work, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, which commemorates the lives of seven Black men killed at the hands of police or authority figures. The work earned Thompson the 2018 American Prize for Choral Composition and a 2017 Emmy Award for a documentary about the piece.

Opera is an art form that combines the transformational power of music, visual art, theater, and dance in service of a singular communal experience—it depends on our capacity to connect to one another through our stories. If we do the work to make opera a space where people of all ages, ethnicities, sexual and gender identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities, and levels of education have access to this art form, I think that opera can revolutionize our society. If everyone in a community can see and hear themselves on stage, and in the creative team, and play a part in sharing and holding space for each other’s stories, opera can become the space where we connect in an age of increasing isolation. That’s the future I’d like to see.

Joel Thompson, in a conversation with HGO on Art & Activism

While Thompson is HGO’s first Composer-in-Residence dedicated solely to that role, the company has supported other resident composers over the years, including Damien Sneed, who served as Music Director and Composer-in-Residence of HGOco (now HGO Community and Learning) during the 2018 – 2019 season and whose chamber opera Marian’s Song, with libretto by Deborah DEEP Mouton, premiered in March 2020.

Among the five major Texas opera companies that make up the Texas Opera Alliance, HGO is the only company currently with a full-time composer residency – a position that the company considers renewing in the future.

“HGO is committed to identifying and supporting opera’s most extraordinary creatives – the composers, librettists, and other artists poised to push the art form forward,” said Houston Grand Opera in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“When we identify rare talents like Joel Thompson, we will always find a way to support them, and that could very well mean establishing future residencies. We tailor these positions individually.”

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