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 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.

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.”

Jennifer Bowman named Houston Grand Opera’s Director of Community and Learning, formerly HGOco

Jennifer Bowman / Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Houston Grand Opera has appointed Jennifer Bowman as its new Director of Community and Learning, effective June 6, 2022.

This follows the name change of HGOco to HGO Community and Learning in February 2022. 

Under Khori Dastoor, HGO’s new General Director and CEO, the company “felt it important to showcase this extraordinary initiative with a name that reflects the deep commitment of the entire organization, and the ownership of this important work across the company,” according to a press release.

The department remains the company’s education and community collaboration initiative, which was started in 2007 and which has produced numerous new works that center the diversity of Houston. Its previous director was Carleen Graham and its founding director was Sandra Bernhard.

A native Houstonian, Jennifer Bowman joins HGO after five years as the Director of Music Education at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

“Throughout her impactful career, Jennifer has shown a remarkable commitment to producing work that speaks to her entire community while building new audiences,” said Dastoor in a statement, also calling Bowman a “thought leader” and a “true inspiration.”

Among her notable achievements, [Bowman] served as the [John F. Kennedy] Center’s lead representative for the Washington Musical Pathways Initiative for young BIPOC artists wishing to pursue advanced study in music; spearheaded WNO’s 18-month community engagement project in support of Blue, an opera about a Harlem family’s experience with police brutality; revamped the Center’s training programs for young musicians; commissioned new works that reflect the population of the region served by the Center; and introduced youth and family audiences to diverse artists making their Center debuts.

Houston Grand Opera

“My first foray into the operatic world took place at Houston Grand Opera. It was an experience I will never forget. I am honored to bring my career full circle and return to my hometown in this exciting role,” said Bowman in a statement.

“The organization’s Community and Learning initiative has set the standard in the industry, and it is truly thrilling to have the opportunity to build upon its many successes. I cannot wait to get to work!” she said.

Artists at a libretto workshop for “The Big Swim,” a new opera by composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien, currently being developed by HGO Community and Learning in partnership with Asia Society Texas, to premiere in February 2024 in celebration of the Lunar New Year / Houston Grand Opera Facebook

According to a press release, upcoming programs for Community and Learning include:

  • Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers: Starting in fall 2022, Kamala Sankaram and David Johnston’s HGO-commissioned original opera will begin touring schools, libraries, and community spaces across Houston as part of the company’s popular Opera to Go! program. Drawing on Bollywood, opera, and Ethiopian jazz and inspired by monkey stories from India, China, and West Africa, the work shares the tale of a pair of siblings who must outwit a crocodile. Other initiatives for students include the Storybook Opera program and student performances of La traviata in fall 2022.
  • Another City: In March 2023, HGO will present Another City, the newest opera in the company’s award-winning Song of Houston series, which supports the development of new works based on stories that define the unique character of Houston. Composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann explore an often-unseen side of the city with an opera centered around our homeless community that reflects upon what it means to be home, to have a home, and to share the home that we call Houston.
  • Seeking the Human Spirit: HGO’s six-year artistic and collaborative community initiative culminates in 2023 with a set of six chamber-scale commissions, each of which responds to one of the program’s six annual themes, all grounded in opera’s universality. Together six composer/librettist teams will premiere new works centering around sacrifice, transformation, identity, faith, character, and spirit.
  • The Big Swim: This new family-friendly chamber opera from composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien, currently in development by HGO in partnership with the Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC), shares the story of the Jade Emperor and the Great Race. The work will premiere at ASTC in February 2024 as part of its Lunar New Year festivities.
Librettist Melisa Tien and composer Meilina Tsui at a libretto workshop for their new opera, “The Big Swim” / Houston Grand Opera Facebook

Houston Grand Opera’s latest grant shows continued efforts to support women in opera

Louisa Muller, opera stage director / Photo by Simon Pauly

Currently, women comprise fewer than 30% of stage directors and 15% of the conductors working on American opera productions – according to an internal review of recent seasons by Opera America.

That national industry organization recently announced the second round of recipients of its 2022 Opera Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors.

Among the awardees is Houston Grand Opera, whose grant will support director Louisa Muller in the 2022 – 2023 season.

Funded by the Martineau Family Foundation and initiated last year, Opera America’s grant program for women directors and composers aims to incentivize opera companies to hire women in key artistic roles in an effort to advance gender equity in a male-dominated industry.

“These hires enrich the production and performance of new operas and works from the inherited repertoire, introduce audiences to the talent and insight of new artists, and inspire future generations of creative artists who identify as women,” the organization said in statement.

While Opera America does not disclose the specific grant amounts, each grant subsidizes up to 50% (and up to $10,000) of the fee of a woman stage director or conductor who is contracted for the first time by the company in these positions.

Director Louisa Muller in rehearsal / Courtesy of Opera Queensland

Though a longtime HGO collaborator through previous work with HGO Studio and as a past staff director, Muller will make her company debut as an independent, mainstage director when she leads HGO’s new production of The Wreckers in fall 2022.

“Louisa’s previous mainstage directing work here has been revivals of operas that were originally conceived of and directed by others, so with The Wreckers this is the first time she is originating the concept and production,” said HGO in an email.

Muller’s funded directorship also marks a milestone production of a rarely performed work by a female composer: Dame Ethel Smyth. When HGO presents The Wreckers next season, it will be the first time that the 1906 opera – considered Smyth’s masterpiece – is performed in the U.S. in a full production by a major opera company.

“I’m most excited about The Wreckers, I’ll be honest,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO’s general director and CEO, during a media preview of the company’s 2022-23 season on February 28.

“I have felt my whole life, ‘Why don’t people know this piece?’ And I would love to know if others feel the same way, and I think Houston with its commitment to discovery and new work … that this is the right audience for this piece, to embrace it, to receive it with respect, and maybe restore it to the repertoire,” Dastoor said.

Houston Grand Opera’s hiring of Muller and presentation of Smyth’s The Wreckers reflect an ongoing effort by the company to represent and advance women in opera.

With director Arin Arbus and conductor Eun Sun Kim also part of the 2022-23 creative teams, as well as the centering of numerous female stories and performers, HGO’s upcoming season is said to “lean into female power,” in an article by the Houston Chronicle.

“It’s a powerhouse season for women,” Dastoor said of the 2022-23 season at the media preview.

In 2021-22, half of HGO’s operas were conducted by women, marking a historic first for the company and a unique occurrence in the industry as a whole. That season included three female conductors, as well as two female directors: Dame Jane Glover, Omer Ben Seadia, Lidiya Yankovskaya, Eun Sun Kim, and Francesca Zambello.

Houston Grand Opera also received an inaugural Opera America Grant for Women Stage Directors and Conductors in 2021 in support of Lidiya Yankovskaya, who conducted the 2021-22 season opener of Carmen.

Local performing arts groups updated – and reduced – COVID safety requirements throughout March

Melissa Pritchett as Marianne Dashwood, Laura Kaldis as Anne Steele, Todd Waite as John Dashwood, Michelle Elaine as Fanny Dashwood, Chris Hutchison as Mrs. Ferrars & Melissa Molano as Lucy Steele in Alley Theatre’s production of Sense and Sensibility, March 28 – April 10, 2022 / Photo by Lynn Lane

While the omicron variant wave forced some local arts groups to cancel events in late 2021 and early 2022, nearly all of the major Houston Theater District arts organizations have lifted masking or proof of vaccination requirements for audiences this past month – following the significant decline of COVID-19 cases in the City of Houston and Harris County.

In a statement by the Alley Theatre, which changed its protocol to ‘masks optional’ on March 9: “The Executive Directors at the Theater District organizations were in communication with each other around updating policies,” indicating information sharing and support within the arts community.

As March continued, arts groups – one after another – began announcing updated COVID policies on their websites or social media, citing guidance from public health experts, government officials, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (A list of updated protocol appears at the end of this article.)

Two local milestones also helped pave the way. On February 24, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner lifted mask requirements for employees and visitors in city buildings, and on March 10, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered the county’s COVID threat level to yellow, signifying a “moderate or controlled level of COVID-19.”

With a recently reported new BA.2 subvariant now in the Houston area, it’s unclear to health officials if that could lead to another surge.  The average positivity rate in Harris County currently remains low, under 2%.

For now, audiences have the opportunity to attend spring performances with less restrictions, while arts groups – many of whom have recently announced their 2022 – 2023 seasons – hang onto the hope for a healthier future.

Here’s a summary of updated COVID protocol of the 8 major Theater District arts groups and 3 Houston theater companies that operate their own venues:

A.D. PLAYERS

As of March 1, A.D. Players no longer requires masks and temperature checks for patrons.

Due to the recent, rapid decline in positive COVID-19 cases in our area, revised union guidelines, and the new CDC guidance regarding indoor masking, we are pleased to announce that masks will no longer be required when attending a performance at the George Theater. We cannot thank you enough for your patience and support during this difficult time and we look forward to seeing your smiling faces once again at The George!

Kevin Dean, Artistic Director and Jake Speck, Executive Director

HOUSTON SYMPHONY

As of March 4, the Houston Symphony no longer requires masks for patrons, though “mask-wearing is strongly recommended for all audience members while inside of Jones Hall.”

ALLEY THEATRE

Beginning today, Wednesday, March 9, we are pleased to announce that the Alley will no longer be requiring proof of negative COVID test or proof of vaccination to enter the Theatre. Additionally, guests and volunteers will no longer be required to wear a mask inside the Theatre, though anyone is, of course, still welcome to do so.

Alley Theatre website

STAGES

MAIN STREET THEATER

As of late March, Main Street Theater no longer requires masks, but continues to require proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, for audience members of its MainStage productions at its Rice Village venue.

Due to the intimacy of our MainStage theater in Rice Village, we are erring on the side of caution and continuing to require proof of a negative COVID test or vaccination.

We are prepared to be flexible. We will adjust as the virus and positivity rates adjust. Also, keep in mind that for our MainStage, we operate under an Actors’ Equity Association contract, so some rules they set. Basically, we are re-evaluating before each new production on both our MainStage and Theater for Youth stages.

Shannon Emerick, Director of Marketing and Communications

Previously in late February, Main Street Theater lifted mask requirements for its Theatre for Youth productions at MATCH. Proof of vaccination was never required for patrons of that series.

Elias String Quartet at the Menil Collection, March 29, 2022 / Courtesy of Da Camera

DA CAMERA

As of March 21, Da Camera no longer requires proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, while maintaining its mask requirement: “All patrons must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth at all times, except while actively eating or drinking.”

DACAMERA’s safety policy was recently updated to reflect changing conditions in the community while remaining consistent with the policies implemented by the various venues in which we present performances.

Brandon Bell, General Manager

BROADWAY AT THE HOBBY CENTER and THEATRE UNDER THE STARS

As presenters at The Hobby Center, both companies follow the safety protocol of the venue.

As of March 21, The Hobby Center no longer requires proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination, while maintaining its mask requirement: “Currently, all patrons must only wear a mask while inside the building and are required to provide their own mask.”

Houston Grand Opera’s 3rd Annual Giving Voice Concert, March 19, 2022 / Photo by Lynn Lane

HOUSTON GRAND OPERA

As of March 25, Houston Grand Opera no longer requires masks for patrons.

Per the latest guidance on COVID-19 safety from the HGO Health Advisory Committee, local health officials, and the Centers for Disease Control, HGO will no longer require masks for audience members, effective immediately, although we continue to encourage their use.

In addition, HGO will remove all previous requirements (masks, proof of vaccine/negative COVID tests) for those attending special events at the Wortham Theater Center, including Opera Ball on April 9, and we will be reopening the Green Room for our spring repertoire.

Houston Grand Opera website

SOCIETY FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS

As announced in a March 28 email, SPA will no longer implement the same requirements – masks and proof of negative COVID-19 test result or vaccination – at all of its shows.

SPA has revised policies for several upcoming shows, on a case-by-case basis.

We present artists from around the world, each with varying needs and perspectives. Conversations around health & safety differ for them all.

As the situation around Covid has changed, we’ve kept those conversations going. And we have updates.

Please see revised Covid policies below for upcoming 21/22 Season performances. Like our programs, there’s no one-size-fits-all.

Society for the Performing Arts

Details can be found on its FAQ page, under Health and Safety.

HOUSTON BALLET

In an email to Houston Arts Journal, Houston Ballet says it plans to lift mask requirements for patrons in time for its next production, Pretty Things, opening May 20, 2022.

As we are planning to head back to the theater in mid-May, our current plan will include having a mask as an option, not a requirement. However, we will continue monitoring local conditions and updating our COVID policies with guidance from our medical partners, government officials, and the CDC.

Angela Lee, Director of Marketing and PR

Updated March 31, 2022, 1:20pm: This article has been updated to include new information provided by Houston Ballet.

Houston Grand Opera announces new Board Chair and changes to leadership structure

Claire Liu / Photo credit: Hierarchy Advertising

Houston Grand Opera recently announced the election of Claire Liu as the new Chairperson of its Board of Directors, effective August 1, 2022. Liu will serve a two-year term, succeeding Allyn Risley in the role.

Liu’s appointment dovetails with a new era of leadership at HGO under Khori Dastoor, who was appointed General Director and CEO in the summer of 2021.

“Claire has a deep love for opera’s past, present, and future, and a rich history serving and supporting this organization,” said Dastoor in a press release.

“She brings to the table invaluable expertise gained during an impressive career as a corporate finance executive with a staggering track record leading growth and positive transformation,” Dastoor said.

Liu led the corporate finance team at LyondellBasell until retiring in 2015, previously working for more than 20 years at Bank of America. She joined HGO’s Board of Directors in December 2015 and currently serves on the Finance Committee (as Chair), Executive Committee, and Management Development Subcommittee. Liu is also involved on various boards and committees of the Houston Zoo, SEARCH Homeless Services, and United Way of Greater Houston.

Khori Dastoor and Claire Liu / Photo credit: Hierarchy Advertising

“What an honor to be selected as new board chairperson for such a storied organization, at such a critical time in its history,” said Liu in a statement.

“From the years I’ve already spent in service to this board, I know that the world-class art on stage is matched by HGO’s world-class leadership and staff. I want to thank Allyn Risley for the remarkable job he has done guiding HGO through a difficult and transitional time,” Liu said.

Risley’s tenure as Board Chairperson spanned the COVID-19 pandemic, during which he has led the company in navigating unprecedented challenges, notably the creation of HGO’s first fully digital season.

The company had already begun experimenting with digital operas pre-pandemic by producing a series of mini opera films for YouTube. But COVID-19 lockdowns and safety concerns forced opera companies across Texas to commit to digital offerings, with HGO expanding its efforts into HGO Digital.

HGO is a leader in the opera world in commissioning new works (72 world premieres to date), including efforts to create works that reflect Houston’s diverse communities through its HGOco initiative.  The company has won a Tony, two Grammy awards, and three Emmy awards – the only opera company to win all three honors.

Concurrent to Liu’s election, Dastoor also announced changes to the organization’s leadership structure.

A new seven-member Executive Leadership Team will now be comprised of Dastoor, General Director and CEO; Patrick Summers, Artistic and Music Director; Greg Robertson, Chief Philanthropy Officer; Molly Dill, Chief Operating Officer; Richard Bado, Director of Artistic Planning and Chorus Master; Elizabeth Greer, Chief Financial Officer; and a new Chief Audience Officer, for whom a search is underway.

‘The Snowy Day’ continues Houston Grand Opera’s efforts in recent decades to tell more inclusive stories

L-R: Andres Acosta, Cory McGee, Raven McMillon and Nicolas Newton in Houston Grand Opera’s “The Snowy Day / Lynn Lane Photography

While New York’s Metropolitan Opera achieved a major milestone this fall by presenting Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, making it the first opera by a Black composer ever performed in Met history, Houston Grand Opera has presented four operas by Black composers: Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha (1976, 1981), Leroy Jenkins’ The Mother of Three Sons (1992), Damien Sneed’s Marian’s Song (2020, 2021) – and now the World Premiere of Joel Thompson’s The Snowy Day, based on the classic children’s book by Ezra Jack Keats.

This points to the trend in the company’s 66-year history, in particular in recent decades, of engaging in efforts towards diversity and inclusion in opera.

As shown by data shared with Houston Arts Journal, Houston Grand Opera has also staged five operas by Asian composers and six by Hispanic composers – including Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, the world’s first mariachi opera.

Most of those operas were commissioned by HGOco, an initiative started by the company in 2007 with the intention of producing new works that center the diversity of Houston.

Marian’s Song, an HGOco commission inspired by the life of Marian Anderson, was produced by the Black artistic team of composer Damien Sneed, librettist Deborah DEEP Mouton, and director Dennis Whitehead Darling. The Snowy Day marks the company’s first mainstage production by a Black composer and librettist team, that of Joel Thompson and Andrea Davis Pickney.

The company’s trend points not only to more stories about diverse communities but also the creation of those stories by members of those communities.

Houston Grand Opera’s track record stands out when compared to other major U.S. opera houses, such as the Met, and other performing arts industries, such as Broadway – where 100% of Broadway musicals were led by white directors in the 2018-19 season, including shows written by BIPOC writers and/or about the BIPOC experience, according to the Visibility Report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.

Librettist Andrea Davis Pinkney and composer Joel Thompson during a 2019 workshop for “The Snowy Day” / courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Inclusion overlaps with accessibility – in order to include as many stories and audience members as possible, you have to make opera easier to find, learn about, and afford.

Houston Grand Opera had already begun experimenting with digital operas pre-pandemic by producing a series of mini opera films for YouTube. But COVID-19 lockdowns and social-distancing would force opera companies across Texas to commit to digital offerings, with the Houston company expanding its efforts into HGO Digital – a virtual platform for presenting an entire season of programming, mostly free of charge, which has continued into this season.

This innovation of the pandemic has now led to another first in the company’s history: the free, online presentation of a live opening night performance. Houston Grand Opera live-streamed the World Premiere of The Snowy Day on December 9. That performance will remain on their website through January 8, 2022, with only registration required for viewing.

“It’s thrilling not only to be able to see all of you here back in the Wortham, but to be able to share this evening with a global audience watching online,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO General Director and CEO, in opening night remarks from the stage.

“Just like the snowball that Peter [in The Snowy Day] tries to save in his pocket, live theater is ephemeral. But thanks to technology, we get to hold tonight’s performance in our pockets forever,” Dastoor said.

For an opera that has the potential to introduce more children, families, and communities than ever to the art form, that kind of lasting impression – and impact – just might be possible.

Read more here:

Houston Grand Opera’s ‘The Snowy Day’ Celebrates Black Joy (via Texas Monthly)

‘The Snowy Day,’ a Children’s Classic, Becomes an Opera (via The New York Times)

Raven McMillon in Houston Grand Opera’s “The Snowy Day” / Lynn Lane Photography