Houston Grand Opera premieres “Another City,” a collaboration with Houston’s homeless community

Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

A site-specific production that focuses on the lives of those without housing in Houston, Another City will mark Houston Grand Opera’s 74th World Premiere when it debuts on March 9, 10, and 11 at the downtown campus of Ecclesia Houston.

Based on research, interviews, and volunteer experiences at homeless service organizations, Another City aims to center and give voice to the stories of unhoused Houstonians and to explore the meaning of home.

Local efforts to support and help the city’s homeless community have included a $56 million joint homelessness initiative between the City of Houston and Harris County in 2020 and, as part of that initiative, a $7.1 million contract to rehouse people living in homeless encampments in 2022. As the Houston Chronicle reported last year: “The city’s homelessness programs have garnered attention and praise from other major U.S. cities in recent years following a more than 50 percent decrease in homelessness from 2010 to 2021, according to the Coalition for the Homeless’s data.”

Another City’s storytelling embraces “a constantly shifting and interwoven structure that gives the audience a feeling of moving through the city and the sense that although Houston is making a good deal of progress on this front, there will always be remaining questions, new challenges to resolve,” said librettist Stephanie Fleischmann.

Right side of photo, top to bottom: Alex Amsel, conductor; Jeremy Howard Beck, composer; Stephanie Fleischmann, librettist; and Jeremy Johnson, HGO Dramaturg/Associate Director of New Works during a workshop with artists for “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

To honor the stories of people experiencing homelessness, Fleischmann and composer Jeremy Howard Beck held listening sessions – and recorded more than 60 hours of interviews – with Houstonians through collaborations with SEARCH, The Beacon, Star of Hope, Coalition for the Homeless, and New Hope Housing, as well as the Houston Mayor’s Office. They also “joined case managers for ride-alongs … volunteered in kitchens and at clothing drives, and helped with client intake, listening closely to community members generous enough to speak with them,” according to Houston Grand Opera. From these words and rhythms, the opera’s libretto and score began to emerge.

“Listening to all these myriad stories, we soon realized we could not just tell one story, with a single protagonist,” said Fleischmann. “Our mandate, as we saw it, was to attempt to put a city on stage.”

The 75-minute opera – set within the course of a single day in the life of Houston – tells the stories of a young man who has just spent his first night on the street, a woman who has lost her son to homelessness, an unhoused veteran, a teenage volunteer, and others.

“The opera is populated with many other characters who … are all in their own way equally important to this truly ensemble work,” said Fleischmann. She added that the storylines also encounter “a young man fresh out of jail and new to the system, a man struggling to overcome his addiction so that he can be there for his wife, a chronically homeless woman who lives at the bus station.”

L to R: Rohan Ramanan, Joshua Blue, Norman Mathews, and Nick Davis during a workshop for the World Premiere opera “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Composer Jeremy Howard Beck said he was inspired by the sounds of the voices of the people he interviewed.

“There were the many different musics of the way people spoke as they talked to us, and I felt a deep responsibility to honor that musicality in how the voice parts were composed,” said Beck.

“Some people told us about their favorite music, and I believed that referencing those musical languages for those characters was something I could give back to them, a way the characters could ‘speak for themselves,’” he said.

Beck also made field recordings around the city to layer in his score, which creates the “feeling of immersion in an urban soundtrack.”

“One recording I made just a few days ago happened to include a sort of ‘duet’ between a post-dawn chorus of songbirds and a worker intermittently power-washing a roof many stories above me,” said Beck. “I also love grackle sounds! I can’t get enough of them and their strange, swoopy, laser-gun, rusty-gate calls.”

Houston Grand Opera says that Another City is not only a vehicle for sharing the stories of unhoused Houstonians but also an opportunity to create continued engagement with the city’s homeless service groups and their clients.

“We have connected with a multitude of amazing individuals committed solving the issue of homelessness. They have educated HGO on how we, as an opera company and not a social service organization, could contribute to the needs of this community,” said Jennifer Bowman, HGO’s Director of Community and Learning.

“Thanks to that guidance, HGO has steadily provided performances and youth, family, and other programming to clients and staff at facilities like The Beacon, Brigid’s Hope, Ecclesia, and House of Tiny Treasures,” she said. “These activities will continue in some form after the close of Another City.”

L to R: Aarianna Longino, Assistant Stage Manager Meghan Spear, Travon Walker, Norman Mathews, and Aaron Keeney during a workshop for the World Premiere opera “Another City” / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Another City is the penultimate commission of HGO’s long-running “Song of Houston” initiative, which since 2007 has commissioned groundbreaking operas that celebrate diverse experiences and contemporary life in Houston – including Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (2010), considered to be the world’s first mariachi opera.

According Bowman, the “Song of Houston” initiative will be discontinued next year (after the commission of The Big Swim, a chamber opera in honor of the Lunar New Year, scheduled for February 2024), as the company shifts its focus to creating new Houston-centric works in collaboration with composer-in-residence Joel Thompson.

“The company will be invested in supporting Mr. Thompson as he continues to grow as a Houston resident and develop multiple projects, including a full-length opera, within this city’s unique atmosphere, history, culture, and diversity,” said Bowman. “He is already working on a song cycle with playwright, educator, librettist, and former Houston Poet Laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, based on oral history archives of Black Houstonians collected by the Emancipation Park Conservancy in Third Ward and others.”

Bowman added, “No matter the initiative, HGO’s mission remains to enrich our diverse community through the art of opera.”

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