Meet Jennifer Davenport, Houston Grand Opera’s newest executive leader

Jennifer Davenport / Photo by Hierarchy Advertising

Jennifer Davenport says that football fans and opera fans have something in common – they’re both among the most passionate audiences she’s met.

A longtime sports marketing executive, Davenport joined Houston Grand Opera on September 6, 2022 from the Houston Texans, where she most recently served as Chief Marketing Officer for the NFL team.

Davenport is now Houston Grand Opera’s first Chief Marketing and Experience Officer, a newly created leadership role that “will head initiatives to grow and engage the organization’s audiences,” according to HGO.

Prior to her decade-plus career with the Texans – which included leadership on the Houston Super Bowl LI Committee and activating the organization’s community response to Hurricane Harvey – Davenport also served as Marketing, Promotions, and Events Manager for the Houston Rockets.

Soprano Angel Blue will star as Violetta in HGO’s season-opening production of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Oct. 21 – Nov. 6, 2022 / Photo by Catherine Rose (Royal Opera House production)

With HGO set to open a 2022 – 2023 season of “powerhouse women,” as described by Arts and Culture Texas, Houston Arts Journal reached out to Jennifer Davenport for the following interview about her goals, the connection between sports and arts, and more:

First of all, congratulations, Jennifer Davenport, on your new position at HGO!

Thanks! I am thrilled to join HGO and have the incredible opportunity to lead initiatives to share great art with this city. I was born and raised in the Houston area. I know how important it is for us to offer top-in-class art and culture. It’s so meaningful for me to be a part of that.  

You’ve had an impressive career in the sports industry, from leadership roles with the Houston Texans to the Houston Rockets.  Now that you’re joining an opera company, I’d love to hear a little bit about your relationship to the arts.  What is your experience or personal connection to the arts – and perhaps to opera specifically?

My love for music and art goes back to my childhood. I grew up in Crosby, Texas and participated in church and school choirs and played the flute in middle and high school band. I’ve always loved attending art and music events—and how amazing is it to now have that be part of my professional life? I am fascinated by the way opera combines all the art forms together into something else in a league of its own. I look forward to fully immersing myself in the art form and everything it has to offer.  

I think Houstonians know their city is home to a world-renowned opera company, but they might not realize it is here for them. We want to be sure this art form is accessible to all, and for the stories we share to resonate with the people we serve on a personal level.

Jennifer Davenport

What do you see as the connection between your love of sports and your love of the arts?  What might you see as the relationship between football and opera, for example, and is it useful to think about it that way as you step into your role?

The fan bases for football and opera are two of the most passionate audiences you will find. And as Houstonians we love to cheer on the exceptional, whether on the field or the stage. The anticipation and energy around both show night and gameday create an opportunity for us to bring our community together through unforgettable, shared experiences. Also, football and opera are powered by talented people who are living out their dreams. It is my joy to help showcase their brilliance to opera lovers, while introducing new people to their talents.   

Your position of Chief Marketing and Experience Officer is a newly created role at Houston Grand Opera.  What can you tell us so far about your vision and goals? 

Two of my priorities for year one will be reaching new audiences and improving the guest experience at the theater. I think Houstonians know their city is home to a world-renowned opera company, but they might not realize it is here for them. We want to be sure this art form is accessible to all, and for the stories we share to resonate with the people we serve on a personal level. When you join us for a night out, we want every aspect of your experience to be seamless—and for the memory to be something you share with everyone you encounter for days to come. 

You were quoted in the press release as saying, “Under the company’s forward-thinking new leadership, we have a wonderful opportunity to reimagine how we engage Houstonians through opera.” My emphasis there. What are some of your ideas about how to do that?  And what do you think is missing in the way we currently engage people with opera?

The outstanding grand opera produced by HGO at the Wortham each season will always be at the center of what we provide to Houston. But we don’t stop there! As a company we perform in schools, libraries, and community spaces throughout our city. And as we move forward, we plan to double down on that, making art that has deep roots in this place and the people who live here. For example, next spring, we will be presenting the original operatic work Another City, based on deep collaboration with unhoused Houstonians, in a series of performances at Ecclesia downtown. This is the transformative power of opera: stories shared through words and music open our worlds to each other, helping us to see each other more clearly. 

The sports industry has had its share of challenges when it comes to pay equitydiversity and inclusiongender rights, and racial bias. How does your experience in that industry prepare you for addressing overlapping challenges in the opera world – which, as a whole, still struggles with equity and inclusion whether on stage or on the podium, as well as racism?

I’ve always believed a marketing and guest experience team should reflect and understand the community we are welcoming and the new audiences we want to engage. I am excited to work alongside the talented team at HGO, because it’s important to them, too. In fact, it is right there in the company’s strategic focus, which I’ve heard my peers going back to again and again: to create profoundly enriching experiences for our diverse audiences. One of the HGO offerings I’m most excited for this season is February’s Giving Voice concert, a celebration of Black opera stars that will take place at Wheeler Baptist Church’s new building, in collaboration with Texas Southern University, Prairie View A&M University, the Houston Ebony Opera Guild, and the HGO Chorus. It’s going to be a truly joyful evening. 

Do you think your experience as a woman in sports – where women leaders, managers have also been underrepresented – will shape how you approach such issues in the opera world?

I became a first-time mother just before accepting this role with Houston Grand Opera. This life change has made me even more aware of the challenges women face balancing personal and professional lives. I am curious and excited to take on this challenge alongside our General Director and CEO, Khori Dastoor, who is a fantastic leader, role model, and mother herself. She has recruited a number of dynamic, inspiring women to lead this organization into the future, and I’m proud to be a part of that.

First-ever Houston Theater Week could mark the start of a new performing arts season tradition

In place of the once annual Theater District Open House, Houston First Corporation and the Theater District Houston Association have collaborated to launch the first Houston Theater Week, August 22 – 29, 2022.

Modeled after New York’s Broadway Week (a bi-annual event that offers 2-for-1 Broadway tickets), Houston Theater Week features the opportunity to purchase Buy One, Get One Free tickets to more than 100 concerts and shows presented by more than 20 local arts organizations in the 2022 – 2023 season.

“Think of it like the Black Friday of the performing arts season,” said Holly Clapham, Chief Marketing Officer of Houston First.

Houston First also called the new week-long event “the largest consumer promotion celebrating live theater and performing arts in Houston’s history.”

The previous annual tradition of Theater District Open House took place for 26 years until 2019.  While that event was a day-long festival of ticket deals, as well as activities and performances, Houston Theater Week will focus on providing significant discounts to benefit patrons and to drive ticket sales that will help the local performing arts community continue to recover from the pandemic, according to Houston First.

Clapham told Houston Arts Journal that it was “hard to keep the momentum” of the Theater District Open House in the face of modern technologies, such as social media – and that the new concept of Theater Week “marries well with the way people shop … and engage with products.”

However, with the construction of Lynn Wyatt Square – a new plaza framed by downtown’s major performing arts venues – expected to be finished in early 2023, there is still the potential for a reimagined in-person event in the future, Clapham said. She anticipates that the new plaza will allow for “endless possibilities” to engage the public, and that arts leaders will be taking note of how Houstonians use and respond to that space.

In the meantime, Houston Theater Week provides the return of a collective citywide celebration of the performing arts season – and one that aims to include acclaimed local arts groups that perform beyond the downtown Theater District, such as the Ensemble Theatre, which recently won the Theatre Longevity Award at the 2022 National Black Theatre Festival.

“Houston Theater Week was developed to showcase and strengthen Houston’s diverse professional performing arts portfolio,” said Michael Heckman, Houston First President and CEO, in a statement.

“We are proud to partner with resident companies in the heart of downtown, as well as community theater groups located throughout our city, and look forward to this campaign continuing to grow in popularity and success,” he said.

Participating local arts groups include:

  • 4th Wall Theatre Company
  • Alley Theatre
  • Ars Lyrica Houston
  • Chamber Music Houston
  • Da Camera
  • Dirt Dogs Theatre Company
  • The Ensemble Theatre
  • The Hobby Center
  • Houston Ballet
  • Houston Brass Quintet
  • Houston Chamber Choir
  • Houston Grand Opera
  • Houston Symphony
  • Kinetic Ensemble
  • Main Street Theater
  • Mercury Chamber Orchestra
  • Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company
  • Performing Arts Houston
  • ROCO
  • Stages
  • Tee Zee Productions
  • Theatre Under the Stars

Details on Houston Theater Week will be updated and available here.

UPDATE, 8/16/22, 4pm: This article was updated to reflect the increase in the number performances eligible for discounts from 86 to 93, and to include the addition of the Ensemble Theatre’s participation in Theater Week.

UPDATE, 8/22/22, 9:30AM: This article was updated to include the added participation of Chamber Music Houston, Houston Brass Quintet, Houston Chamber Choir, and Stages. The number of performances eligible for discounts was updated to “more than 100,” and the number local arts groups participating updated to “more than 20,” to reflect the changing numbers on Houston Theater Week’s website.

Houston music community remembers Larry Rachleff, mourns passing of the longtime Rice conductor

Larry Rachleff / Courtesy of Rice University

The classical music world has lost a conductor, educator, and mentor described by many as a “genius” and a musical “giant,” and noted for his humor, humanity, and ability to bring people together.

Larry Rachleff, longtime professor and conductor of the Symphony and Chamber Orchestras at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, died on Monday, August 8 at the age of 67 after a battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Rice University shared news of his passing yesterday in a remembrance article, as well as in a social media post – with hundreds of students, colleagues, musicians, and friends reacting and commenting with personal tributes in appreciation of Rachleff, who touched countless lives during his 31 years at the Shepherd School.

“[Larry Rachleff] was a champion of all young musicians, not just those who sat under his baton several times a week or studied conducting with him,” wrote Grammy-winning composer Gabriela Lena Frank, who earned her bachelor and master degrees at Rice’s Shepherd School.

“He took interest in me as a composer and followed my career for decades afterwards, sending me the occasional note of encouragement and cheer, premiering one work, and programming many others.

“I always loved talking with him, from the time I was an undergrad when he first came to Rice, until our last exchange just a few months ago when we were thinking of ways that I could come back to Shepherd as a guest. What an enormous loss. What a gift he was to all of us for so many years,” commented Frank on Facebook.

Soprano Melissa Givens, a Shepherd School alumna who sings with the Grammy-winning choir Conspirare, wrote on social media: “[Larry Rachleff] was a gentle giant and will be greatly missed. My condolences to the enormous circle of family, friends, and colleagues he leaves behind. I have very fond memories of working with him.”

“Larry made me a better musician and he forever touched my life,” commented Houston soprano and music educator Ana Treviño-Godfrey, who earned her doctorate at the Shepherd School.

Larry Rachleff conducting the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra / Courtesy of Rice University

Joining Rice University in 1991, Larry Rachleff was the Walter Kris Hubert Professor of Orchestral Conducting and Music Director of the Shepherd School Symphony and Chamber Orchestras. Rachleff also served for two decades as Music Director of the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra, stepping down in 2017.

As a guest conductor, Rachleff worked with numerous major U.S. orchestras, including the Utah Symphony, Houston Symphony, and the Seattle Symphony, and he was active at prestigious music festivals, including Tanglewood, Aspen, and Interlochen, among others.

Joel Luks remembers him as a “beautiful person.”

While studying for his Masters of Music in Flute Performance at Rice, Luks experienced a special connection with Rachleff during a rehearsal of Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony.

“‘Joel,’ he said decisively but with a mischievous (but somber) tone. ‘Sound expensive,’” Luks posted on Facebook.

“I knew exactly what he wanted and how to give it to him. His descriptions and instructions were memorable, an imprint on all young musicians he trained at Rice,” wrote Luks in his personal tribute.

An advocate of public school music education, Rachleff conducted all-state orchestras and festivals throughout the U.S., Europe, and Canada. It was in this role that Houston composer Pierre Jalbert first met the conductor.

“I first played under him as a high school student in the early 80’s at the Vermont All-State Music Festival. Who was this amazing conductor who brought out the best in all of us and introduced us to such interesting repertoire?” wrote Jalbert on Facebook.

“It seems I followed Larry around most of my life, learning about music from him all the while,” posted Jalbert – who later studied at Oberlin Conservatory, where Rachleff also taught, and went on to join the Shepherd School faculty, alongside his former teacher.

Rachleff was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in 2017.

The Shepherd School will honor the late Larry Rachleff at the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra’s 2022 – 2023 season opening concert on September 30 at 7:30pm in Stude Concert Hall. Details will be updated here.

Houston Texans’ Jennifer Davenport named Houston Grand Opera’s first-ever Chief Marketing and Experience Officer

Jennifer Davenport / Photo credit: Hierarchy Advertising

Jennifer Davenport, who most recently served as the Chief Marketing Officer for the city’s NFL team Houston Texans, will join Houston Grand Opera in a newly created leadership position.

In a press release today, HGO announced Davenport’s appointment as the company’s first Chief Marketing and Experience Officer, who “will head initiatives to grow and engage the organization’s audiences.”

Her position begins on September 6, 2022 – in time for HGO’s 2022-2023 season, which opens with Verdi’s La Traviata on October 21 at the Wortham Center.

“I’m so excited to be joining HGO at this extraordinary juncture,” said Davenport in a statement.

“Under the company’s forward-thinking new leadership, we have a wonderful opportunity to reimagine how we engage Houstonians through opera. I cannot wait to work alongside the incredible artists and professionals that form the HGO community,” she said.

Davenport’s hire comes at a time when HGO says that it has spent the past year recruiting new leadership talent – including a new Music Director of HGO Studio (Maureen Zoltek), Composer-in-Residence (Joel Thompson, in a newly created full-time position), Director of Community & Learning (Jennifer Bowman), and Board Chair (Claire Liu).

HGO says it recruited Davenport for her unique expertise and experience, which encompasses more than a decade with the Texans, as well as previously serving as Marketing, Promotions, and Events Manager for the Houston Rockets and Toyota Center and Director of Promotions and Marketing for Clear Channel Radio/iHeart Media in Austin.

[Jennifer Davenport’s] track record of drawing crowds from across our diverse community together through unforgettable shared experiences is exactly what our organization needs as we seek to increase access to this transformative art form.

Khori Dastoor, HGO’s General Director and CEO, in a statement

As the Texans’ Chief Marketing Officer since 2021 (having started as Director of Marketing and promoted four times during her career with the Texans), Davenport was responsible for creating community-focused strategic marketing plans, increasing the fan base, improving the gameday experiences, and leading initiatives that secured corporate partner investments, according to a press release.

Davenport is a founding board member of Houston’s Women in Sports and Events chapter and served on the YMCA of Greater Houston Board of Directors for 11 years. She was also a Lead Executive and Marketing Committee member for the Houston Super Bowl LI Committee.

A World Premiere inspired by Gandhi marks the first collaboration between the Indo-American Association and Houston Symphony

Dr. L. Subramaniam / Courtesy of the Houston Symphony

Indian violin icon and composer Dr. L. Subramaniam has collaborated with Carnatic music legends like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, and M. Balamuralikrishna, as well as Western classical music, jazz, and pop stars, such as Yehudi MenuhinStéphane GrappelliJean-Pierre RampalHerbie Hancock, and George Harrison.

The Houston Symphony will now join that impressive list when it performs the World Premiere of Subramaniam’s Mahatma Symphony on Saturday, August 6 at the Hobby Center – in a co-presentation with the Indo-American Association, one of Houston’s longest-running Indian arts organizations.

The new work – and its occasion – are special for a number of reasons.

“This particular concert has great significance because we are commemorating the 75th year of India’s Independence in 2022,” said Radhika Day, a member of the Indo-American Association’s Board of Directors.

August 15 is India’s national Independence Day, marking the end of British rule in 1947 and its establishment as a free and sovereign nation.

The Mahatma Symphony musically traces the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi, considered the “father of India” who used nonviolent resistance to advance the Indian Independence movement – and one of the 20th century’s most influential political and spiritual leaders.

“The Mahatma Symphony was specially commissioned by IAA, and Dr. L. Subramaniam himself is presenting the world premiere in Houston,” Day said. “It is also the first time that the Houston Symphony has collaborated with an Indian organization.”

Day says IAA is “honored and proud” of the partnership, which will bring not only Subramaniam to Houston, but also his wife, the major Bollywood playback singer and classical Indian vocalist Kavita Krishnamurti (featured in the Mahatma Symphony), and guest conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl (Music Director of the Omaha Symphony).

That concert, Celebrating 75 Years of India’s Independence, also features performances by an Indian ensemble alongside the orchestra, the Houston Symphony Chorus, and Subramaniam as the soloist in his violin concerto Shanti Priya.

John Mangum, Executive Director and CEO of the Houston Symphony, calls the first-time collaboration – and the opportunity to work with Subramaniam – an “inspiration.”

“We wanted to partner with [the Indo-American Association] because of their commitment to celebrating the best in Indian performing arts and culture,” Mangum said.

The collaboration has given both organizations a chance to reach into each other’s audiences, he says, and to share music cross-culturally at the highest levels.

“We’re so excited to be able to present the world premiere,” he said. “Dr. Subramaniam has written for some of the world’s great orchestras – the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra – and we’re honored to join their ranks.”

Dr. L. Subramaniam / Courtesy of the Houston Symphony

Houston is only the first stop for the Mahatma Symphony, which will travel to European performances this fall – including concerts in Milan, Bologna, and Madrid.

Mangum thinks the work will resonate with audiences in Houston and, he hopes, around the world – perhaps especially in our current moment of international conflict and political tensions.

“It’s a wonderful way to celebrate Gandhi’s message of nonviolence, change through peaceful protest, and dignity and equality in music,” he said. “And it gives us a chance to come together and reflect on how his message is as relevant now as ever.”

Hobby Center announces a new President and CEO

Mark Folkes / Al Torres Photography

Veteran Houston arts leader Mark Folkes, formerly of Stages and the Houston Symphony, has been named President and CEO of the Hobby Center, as announced today in a press release.

Folkes “will provide strategic leadership and drive deeper community engagement” in his role, effective August 22, 2022. His selection was the culmination of a search process that began this past January by the Hobby Center Foundation’s Board of Directors.

Hobby Center for the Performing Arts / Courtesy of the Hobby Center

“We are delighted to welcome Mark Folkes to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts,” said Rob Doty, Chairman of Board of the Hobby Center Foundation, in a statement.

“With a passion for the performing arts, an impressive business acumen, and strong ties to the Houston community, Mark stood out as the right candidate for the position. There is no doubt he will be an outstanding leader for the Hobby Center for many years to come,” Doty said.

Folkes comes to the Hobby Center from Greater Houston Community Foundation, where he was Chief Advancement Officer since 2021. His history of arts, community, and fundraising leadership also includes serving as Managing Director of Stages from 2015 – 2021, where he headed the company’s $35.8 million capital campaign to build its new facility The Gordy. Prior to that, he was Senior Director of Development at the Houston Symphony.

“Arts and culture are at the center of our civic identity. Houston has so much to be proud of for fostering a dynamic and diverse arts ecosystem, and the Hobby Center is, in many ways, at the center of this progress,” said Folkes in statement.

“I am excited to lead the team to help deepen our impact in presenting engaging performing arts experiences for all Houstonians,” he said.

Folkes joins the Hobby Center as it celebrates its 20th anniversary. Home to Broadway at the Hobby Center and Theatre Under The Stars, as well as a major Houston Theater District venue for numerous local arts groups and touring acts, it opened in May 2002 and is operated by the nonprofit Hobby Center Foundation.

Allen Hightower is named the new Houston Symphony Chorus Director for next season

Allen Hightower / Courtesy of the Houston Symphony

Last week the Houston Symphony announced the appointment of longtime Texas choral director and educator Allen Hightower as Director of the Houston Symphony Chorus for the 2022-23 season.

Hightower succeeds Betsy Cook Weber, who had held the role since fall 2014. Weber stepped down at the end of the 2021-22 season to focus on her work at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, where she is Professor and Director of Choral Studies, according to a press release.

Currently the Director of Choral Studies at the University of North Texas, Hightower has previously served as Weston Noble Endowed Chair in Music at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa and Professor of Music and Director of Choral Studies at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. As a high school educator in Texas, he has taught at Klein High School in Spring and at Odessa Permian High School in Odessa. He is also the former Artistic Director of the Houston Masterworks Chorus and Orchestra.

Houston Symphony Chorus / Photo by Jeff Fitlow

For the 2022-23 season, the Houston Symphony welcomes not only Hightower as the new Chorus director but Juraj Valčuha as the orchestra’s new Music Director in his highly anticipated inaugural season. Hightower will prepare the Houston Symphony Chorus in Valčuha’s Opening Night performance of Verdi’s Requiem on September 16, 2022, in addition to several other classical and pops concerts – including:

Houston Symphony and Chorus under former Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada / Photo by Wilson Parish

The Houston Symphony Chorus is the official choral unit of the Houston Symphony and is a highly skilled volunteer group.

“I really do think it consists of the finest volunteer singers in the Greater Houston area,” said former director Betsy Cook Weber in a 2016 audio birthday card produced by Houston Public Media in honor of the Chorus’ 70th anniversary.

Founded in 1946 as the Houston Chorale, the Chorus has performed under numerous world-renowned conductors over the decades and has been led by seven directors – including Charles Hausmann (1986-2014), named Director Emeritus for his longtime contributions.

As its eighth director, Hightower will head a choral leadership team that includes pianist Scott Holshouser, principal vocal and diction coach Anna Diemer, and rehearsal conductors Kaitlin DeSpain, Julia Hall, Emily Jenkins, Matthew Lyon Hazzard, Janwin Overstreet-Goode, and Carlin Truong.

Information on auditioning for the Houston Symphony Chorus is available here.

Founded as the Houston Chorale, the Chorus sang its first official concert with the Houston Symphony under Music Director Efrem Kurtz in 1949 / Photo credit Bob Bailey Studios, courtesy of Houston Symphony Archives

Maureen Zoltek is the latest hire in a year of new leaders at Houston Grand Opera, with more to come

Maureen Zoltek / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera has spent this past year recruiting new talent, and the latest is Maureen Zoltek – with another new hire expected in August.

The company recently announced that Zoltek has been appointed Music Director of the HGO Studio, its highly competitive and acclaimed training program for rising opera artists. She begins her role in September 2022.

The position was formerly held by Miah Im, who served from mid-2020 until she passed away in September 2021 after a battle with cancer. HGO’s 2022 Concert of Arias was dedicated in Im’s honor.

HGO describes Zoltek as an “active proponent of new works” with a “commitment to emerging artists.” She is currently assistant conductor, vocal coach, and orchestral keyboardist at San Francisco Opera, as well as a faculty member at the Music Academy of the West.

Zoltek has served on the music staff for world premieres operas by Mark Adamo, John Adams, and Bright Sheng. She earned her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Manhattan School of Music and Master’s Degree in piano performance and musicology from Roosevelt University.

In Houston, Zoltek will work closely with HGO Studio Director Brian Speck to lead the program, serve as a member of the company’s casting committee, and oversee programming for HGO Studio’s recital series.

“Artists compete to join the program because it provides personalized, intensive training that prepares them to perform at the highest levels, alongside the best in the business,” said Speck in a statement. “Under Maureen’s exceptional mentorship, our HGO Studio artists will be positioned for success on stages across the world.”

Zoltek is the fourth addition to HGO’s leadership this year. The company also announced a new Board Chair (Claire Liu), a new Director of Community & Learning (Jennifer Bowman), and a new Composer-in-Residence (Joel Thompson) in recent months.

While departures have left some of these positions open, HGO says the changes are also a sign of commitment to fostering talent in the industry and advancing the artform.

“It’s a new era at HGO!” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in an email to Houston Arts Journal. Dastoor herself joined the company in August 2021 as she transitioned from her previous role at Opera San Jose, then fully taking over this past January.

“Since joining the organization our priority has been to sharpen our entire strategic focus,” she said. “A huge part of that is building the right team, and over the past year we’ve put everything we have into launching an exhaustive and wide-ranging recruitment initiative.”

HGO says it also plans to announce a Chief Marketing and Experience Officer in August – a newly created position (previously named Chief Audience Officer), whose search began earlier this year.  The role is crucial for the organization’s strategic focus and emphasis on creating lasting experiences for audiences, says HGO.

“It’s essential that we hire arts leaders who are not just the best the industry has to offer, but fervent believers in our mission of bringing world-class artistic experiences to everyone in this city,” Dastoor said.

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.”

Jones Hall’s $50 million renovation plan could help Houston arts recover from the pandemic

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

This summer, Jones Hall continues major renovations that will aim to improve acoustics, backstage technology, ADA accessibility, restrooms, and more – and potentially help Houston arts groups recover from the pandemic.

The projected $50 million renovation plan – which builds upon renovations made in 2020 and 2021 – will take place primarily in summer months over coming years, as recently announced by the Foundation for Jones Hall. Organizers are hopeful the work will be completed by 2024, according to the Houston Chronicle.

This multiyear approach works around resident arts organizations’ seasons, allowing them to carry on full performance schedules in order to recoup some of the significant financial losses sustained from COVID-19.

The Houston Symphony – which is based in Jones Hall, along with Performing Arts Houston (the former, recently renamed Society for the Performing Arts) – estimates that it lost about $9 million in ticket revenue between March 2020 to September 2021 due to cancelation of shows and performances to very reduced audiences for social distancing.

“Rather than close Jones Hall for a full year or more, this project will be done over a series of summers to allow the Symphony to have its full regular season in Jones Hall, its performance home, without disruption,” said the Houston Symphony in an email.

While Performing Arts Houston says it’s grateful for the support of federal pandemic-related programs, donors, and foundations during COVID, its ticket revenue also took “an extreme hit.”

“In a normal season, almost 70% of our revenue comes from ticket sales, and that revenue came to a full stop in March 2020. It was almost 19 months before we returned to live performances,” said Performing Arts Houston in an email to Houston Arts Journal.

“We look forward to Jones Hall improvements to enhance the audience experience to help us grow our ticket revenue back to normal levels and beyond,” said Performing Arts Houston.

Jones Hall under renovation in 2021 / Photo by Paul Hester

Both arts groups point out that the renovations will benefit patrons as well as performers, thus attracting both back to the venue – and potentially strengthening ticket sales, plus diversity and quality of programming.

“Returning audiences will see exciting changes to this iconic Houston structure, updates that many have looked forward to for years,” stated Performing Arts Houston. “And with an improved audience experience, we expect new attendees will be more likely to return again and again.”

For summer 2022, work in Jones Hall will include:

  • Refinishing of the stage floor and rebuilding of orchestra pit floors
  • Replacement of hydraulic lifts for the orchestra pit with a new lifting system, allowing for gentle, quiet movement and stable support of the stage and orchestra pit
  • Work to replumb and redirect cable and conduit, while removing electrical equipment to further modernize infrastructure
  • Replacement of the audio network, which consists of the equipment and data network that support amplified performances, to further revamp acoustics in the hall for musicians and patrons

By the end of 2023 and beyond, expected improvements will include:

  • Renovations to the Green Room, lobby, and other public spaces, easing lobby congestion and traffic flow throughout the facility; lobby layout to be expanded, along with aesthetic transformation
  • New seats installed in the concert hall
  • ADA improvements made for greater wheelchair accessibility
  • Restrooms added, expanded, and relocated, including those on the courtyard level; restrooms accessible by only a short flight of stairs, rather than a long walk up and down, with widened stairways between levels
  • State of the art lighting and rigging systems to improve the efficiency of backstage work
  • New stage automation control to modernize how large pieces of scenery, electrics, and audio-visual components are used in the venue
  • Introduction of fiber networks to enable the hall to unitize the full potential of entertainment industry technology

These renovations come at a time when Houstonians are eager to return to live performances, as evidenced by public response to the 2021-2022 season – the first full, in person season for both the Houston Symphony and Performing Arts Houston, following the pandemic’s nearly two-year disruption to the arts.

“Ticket demand has already rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and the Symphony hopes to continue expanding audiences,” said the Houston Symphony, adding:

“Improvements to Jones Hall support those efforts as they will not only improve audience experience, but also improve the acoustics and artist experience which will enable us to continue to attract the best musicians and guest artists to Houston.”

Jones Hall: During summer 2021 renovations, the focus was on acoustic work, including custom construction with sidewall and alcove “infills,” using metal framing with four layers of sheetrock for acoustic density. This was covered by a wood veneer finish. The infills corrected echoes and sound delays that impacted musical performances and allowed sound to be evenly distributed throughout the hall. / Photo by Paul Hester

An updated Jones Hall may also attract the public’s overall return to Houston’s Theater District, whose parking revenue fell about 45% during the pandemic. Revenue from the Theater District Parking Garage dropped from $9.8 million in 2019 to $5.3 million in 2021, according to figures provided by Houston First.

“Houston has a dynamic and robust love for the arts, which are an integral part of our city’s identity and essential to the quality of life,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. “Every Houstonian will benefit from this magnificent project.”

The Foundation for Jones Hall, the nonprofit overseeing the renovations, has currently raised $25.5 million toward the $50 million project through its ongoing capital campaign “Overture to the Future.”  Donors to date include an anonymous donor, Houston Endowment, the Robert and Jane Cizik family, Janet Clark, Nancy and Chuck Davidson, the Shirley and David Toomin family, and the City of Houston.

“Jones Hall has stood the test of time and gave rise to the Downtown Theater District over 50 years ago,” said Barbara McCelvey, the foundation’s board president, in a press release. “We are thrilled to be making this new investment in the Hall so that it can serve millions of artists and the public for the next 50 and beyond.”

The venue’s post-pandemic future includes virtual offerings, which are here to stay– and the technological renovations will benefit those digital options as well.

Since July 2020, the Houston Symphony has livestreamed performances from Jones Hall, and it says it will continue doing so in 2023 and beyond, having developed a loyal virtual audience outside Texas and the U.S.

“The new renovations of Jones Hall include a substantial investment to improve audio/visual capabilities throughout the facility, bringing those systems up to the latest standards … [and] will provide very noticeable improvements in the experiences that our audiences will enjoy both in person and via livestream,” said the Houston Symphony.

Cautiously optimistic, Performing Arts Houston notes that theaters are filling up, but not at pre-pandemic attendance levels – yet:

“Enthusiasm for returning to the theater is continuing to grow … We will have to wait a few more years to enjoy the full benefits of the renovations, but the momentum of support for a thriving and enduring performing arts culture in Houston is continuing to build.”