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.”

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.

A free performance series encourages COVID-19 vaccine awareness through the arts

L-R: Donald Rabin (“Come Together Houston” project manager), Dr. Courntey Crappell (Director of the Moores School of Music, University of Houston), and artist GONZO247 at the Lyons Avenue Festival, April 9, 2022 / Photo by Donald Rabin

At the height of the omicron variant surge in January, the CDC Foundation awarded $2.5 million in funding to 30 organizations across the U.S. to create arts and culture-based approaches to promote vaccine education and acceptance.

Among the grant recipients was Dr. Courtney Crappell, Director of the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston. 

The arts and culture can be crucial tools in public health communication. Because local artists have long served as trusted messengers and translators of vital information in their communities, they can support vaccine education and acceptance in ways that cut through cultural barriers, skepticism and misinformation.

CDC Foundation

Dr. Crappell and colleagues at the UH McGovern College of the Arts, in collaboration with Houston Methodist Hospital, used the grant to develop Come Together Houston: A Community Arts and Health Partnership – a series of free performances this spring/summer that also brings free vaccinations to underserved and immunization-hesitant communities.

Neighborhoods include Third Ward, where the percentage of vaccinated individuals is lower in comparison to other parts of Houston, said Donald Rabin, the series’ project manager.

Outspoken Bean / Photo by Donald Rabin

Performances will feature four Houston artists: GONZO247, a graffiti muralist; Mariachi Pumas, the UH Mariachi ensemble; Outspoken Bean, Houston Poet Laureate; and Urban Souls, a contemporary dance company.

The first event took place at Lyons Avenue Festival on April 9, and the series continues May through July:

  • May 6, 5:30 – 8pm, Outspoken Bean at MECA Dow Campus (Multicultural Education & Counseling through the Arts) 1900 Kane St, Houston, 77007
  • May 21, 12 – 2pm, Outspoken Bean at Trinity Houston United Methodist Church, 2600 Holman St., Houston, 77004
  • May 27, 5:30 – 8pm, Mariachi Pumas at MECA Dow Campus (Multicultural Education & Counseling through the Arts) 1900 Kane St, Houston, 77007 
  • July 23, 4 – 7pm, GONZO247, Mariachi Pumas, Urban Souls & Outspoken Bean at Discovery Green, 1500 McKinney St., Houston, 77010

During the events, a team from the Moores School of Music will record stories from audience members, reflecting on their COVID experience. Individuals who wish to participate will answer prompts, such as “How did COVID affect you using one word?” and “What did you learn from COVID so far?”

Organizers say the answers will be used to inspire the performances, in an effort to raise awareness of the benefit of vaccines. Digital stories may also be featured on the Come Together Houston website and shared with the CDC Foundation.

Most of the events will have access to free vaccinations, and brochures with information on vaccines and vaccine hesitancy will also be distributed.

Currently, the percentage of fully vaccinated individuals (ages 5 and older) in Harris County is 67%, compared to the national rate of 70%.

Organizers say the series uses the arts not only to encourage vaccination but also to bring the community back together from the pandemic.

Mariachi Pumas at the Lyons Avenue Festival / Photo by Dr. Courtney Crappell

No more ‘SPA’ – The organization soon becomes ‘Performing Arts Houston’

Winners and performers of the 2021 Houston Artist Commissioning Project with Mayor Sylvester Turner / Asaeda Badat Photography

After 55 years, Society for the Performing Arts is changing its name to Performing Arts Houston.

The major nonprofit arts presenter publicly announced the new name on April 5 in a newsletter to patrons and on social media.

The new name goes into effect on April 12, along with a new website, new branding, and a new membership program. That same day, Performing Arts Houston will also announce its 2022-2023 season and open applications for its 2nd annual Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

“Dropping the word ‘Society’ from the name helps us welcome everyone to the performing arts. This is an experience for all Houstonians,” said the organization in a statement.

The shorter new name is intended to celebrate the connection to local communities, while capturing the depth of arts presented.

“It also lets us lose the acronym SPA,” stated the organization, adding cheekily: “As therapeutic as the performing arts may be, we are not a spa.”

We’ve presented Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater for over 50 years. We’ve brought Marcel Marceaux, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Yo-Yo Ma, Martha Graham Dance Company, Lang Lang, STOMP, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Spalding Gray, American Ballet Theatre, and hundreds more world class artists to our city. Parallel to what you see on stage, our education and community programs create and inspire arts engagement to the wider community. We’re proud to continue that work as Performing Arts Houston.

Society for the Performing Arts, April Newsletter

The new name was first revealed to attendees of its April 2 gala, The Kaleidoscope Ball, which raised nearly $600,000 is support of the organization’s presentations and education and community engagement programs.

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.

Society for the Performing Arts will change its name in April

Urban Souls Dance Company in the World Premiere of “Colored Carnegie” by Harrison Guy, 2021 SPA Houston Artist Commissioning Project / Melissa Taylor Photography

After more than 50 years of being known as Society for the Performing Arts – or SPA, for short – the nonprofit arts presenter will change its name on April 12, 2022.

As recently announced in its March newsletter:

You’ve known us as Society for the Performing Arts. On Apr. 12, we’re changing our name, and our look. 

We’re changing our name, but not our commitment to ignite and cultivate passion for the performing arts, and more than ever, to support and amplify the voice of the artist.  

Society for the Performing Arts

Founded in 1966, Society for the Performing Arts is considered one of the major arts organizations in downtown Houston’s Theater District, and it has become “the largest nonprofit presenting organization of its kind in the Southwest,” according to its website.

Its founding dovetailed with the 1966 opening of Jones Hall. Created with the intention of filling the new venue with performances, Society for the Performing Arts – which would make its home in Jones Hall – would help ensure audience attendance in that space season after season, along with performances by the Houston Symphony and, until 1987, Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera.

CEO Meg Booth interviews 2021 SPA Houston Artist Commissioning Project awardees: musician Sonny Mehta of Riyaaz Qawwali, poet-playwright Deborah DEEP Mouton, and choreographer Harrison Guy / Melissa Taylor Photography

In addition to bringing international touring artists, musicians, dancers, actors, and speakers to Houston, the organization also champions local artists through its Houston Artist Commissioning Project – an initiative launched in 2020 that aims to support new works by the city’s artists, in particular those of marginalized communities.

Houston Arts Journal reached out to Society for the Performing Arts with a few questions about its forthcoming name change:

Why is SPA changing its name now?

For years, there’s been interest in changing the name. With our 2020 Strategic Plan, working with our board, community partners, and staff, it was clear that this was a natural time to make the change.

What prompted this decision, and is it possible to say anything about what it might symbolize?

We wanted a name that better represented who we are, to match the scale and diversity of the arts we present on stage.

Will the name change be accompanied by any other changes within the organization or programming that you can share with us right now?

Yes! We’re getting a whole new look, launching a new website, and a new membership program. On the programming side, we’re building on the success of the Houston Artist Commissioning Project.

Something that isn’t changing—we’ll continue presenting the most diverse live arts experiences in Houston. We’re set to announce the 22/23 Season next month.

So the new name will be revealed to the public on April 12 and officially go into effect that day?

The new name and brand, the 22/23 Season, and memberships all go live on April 12. Attendees at the 2022 Kaleidoscope Ball get a first look at the brand on April 2.

We’re so thankful for our stakeholders, supporters, partners, and audiences. Without their financial support, their minds, their love for this city and for the performing arts, this work wouldn’t be possible. Under a new name, we’re ready for decades of arts yet to come.

Any hints you can drop now about the new name?

It’s a bit shorter!

Local art and artists show support, raise money for Ukraine

Digital art by Dominika Dancewicz / Courtesy of the artist

Dominika Dancewicz is known in Houston and beyond as an accomplished violinist with the Axiom Quartet and Duo Dramatique. But she says she’s also always been interested in visual art, designing posters and flyers for concerts and dabbling in digital art.

In the days following the February 24th Russian invasion of Ukraine, she got an idea.

“I could make different kinds of images using the same [software and apps] and start raising awareness and possibly raise money to help,” she said. “I started making digital designs, or digital art pieces, with activist images pertaining specifically to the situation in Ukraine.”

Dancewicz then opened an online store on Redbubble, a print-on-demand platform, and began creating digital collages and graphic statements, “using the colors of the Ukrainian flag, various symbols of defiance and peace, along with some other symbolism.”

Art by Dominika Dancewicz

When people purchase the designs – printed on everyday items, like T-shirts, mugs, mousepads, phone skins – Dancewicz says she makes about a 20% profit on each item sold, and she plans to contribute all profits to the Ukraine-based Hospitallers, a volunteer medical organization that treats and evacuates the wounded.

A native of Poland, Dancewicz said she first heard about Hospitallers through the prominent Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, which had listed it among organizations providing boots-on-the-ground aid in Ukraine. Hospitallers has also been mentioned by Newsweek and NPR.

Dancewicz’s Axiom Quartet also plans to collect donations for Ukraine at an outdoor concert on March 12:

Axiom Quartet Porch Concert
Saturday, March 12, 6pm
1816 W 14th Street in the Heights
Sponsored by the Clark Pines Civic Association of Houston Heights
Collecting donations and tips for Ukraine

In addition to accepting donations, she says the quartet will donate 100% of their tips from the concert to one or more of the charities listed on their Facebook event page, and they plan to maintain transparency of their donations on social media.

When asked how the war in Ukraine has personally affected her, Dancewicz shared with Houston Arts Journal:

“Even though I myself haven’t experienced the direct impact of war, everything in my accrued life experience – the literature I read, the movies I saw, the places I grew up around [in Poland], the monuments, the museums, the bullet holes in old buildings, the concentration camps, the memories of my own grandparents – all of that screams at me that the violence of war is very real. 

“Through the stories of World War II survivors, through the stories of my parents and grandparents … the trauma of war is embedded in me, and I guess it’s embedded in all of my fellow Poles. Seeing the images of abysmal destruction of the Ukrainian cities, buildings, apartments, and homes that look remarkably just like the one I grew up in, causes a very visceral reaction in me: this is just too close to home … I’m absolutely shaken, scared, and very concerned.”

Paintings by Rada Bukhman and Natalia Kachanova-Rhodes / Courtesy of Russian Cultural Center – Our Texas

Elsewhere in the Houston arts community, the Russian Cultural Center – Our Texas is holding a Charity Concert for Peace on Friday, March 11, 7pm and a Charity Art Auction for Ukraine on Sunday, March 13, 2pm.

Sophia Grinblat, the center’s founder and president, came to Houston in 1990 from Ukraine and “is devastated by Russia’s invasion of her home country,” as reported by ABC 13.

According to the organization’s website: “The Russian-speaking community in Houston supports the people of Ukraine, refugees, and would like to help providing them with the basic supplies.”

The concert will feature violinist Oleg Sulyga, clarinetist Alexander Potiomkin, and pianist Tali Morgulis.

Local artists Natalia Kachanova-Rhodes and Rada Bukhman are donating their paintings to be auctioned.

The center says it plans to donate all money from both charity events to Malteser International and Malteser Ukraine.

Art has also appeared on the streets of Houston in response to the war in Ukraine:

Photo by Catherine Lu

The mural #StandWithUkraine, located at 112 Travis Street downtown, was painted by local artist Shelbi Nicole. It was commissioned by Iryna Petrovska Marchiano, former president of the Ukrainian American Cultural Club of Houston, who also launched the website HTX4UKRAINE.

Photo by Catherine Lu

Houston’s iconic graffiti bridge on I-45 Southbound near I-10, which in the past has famously displayed “Be Someone,” was recently painted to read “No War Know Peace” in an anti-war sentiment by artist Chandrika Metivvier.

ROCO brings awareness to human trafficking, climate change through World Premieres

ROCO in rehearsal with conductor Sarah Hicks / Courtesy of ROCO Facebook

When I asked Alecia Lawyer if she sees herself and her orchestra as activists, she was quick to tell me, “No, there is no agenda,” while pointing out that music has always expressed things that are difficult to say or discuss.

The one-woman Founder, Artistic Director, and Principal Oboe of ROCO prefers to think of herself as a quilt maker.

“Everyone has their own squares they develop, and I try to stitch them together in a way that makes a beautiful whole,” said Lawyer.

The squares are the music – in this case, namely three World Premieres on the concert Canvasing the Earth, conducted by Sarah Hicks, on Saturday, February 26 at the Church of St. John the Divine and live-streamed.

Neither men nor money validate my worth – by Leanna Primiani, an award-winning Los Angeles and New York-based orchestral, film, and television composer – centers the stories and experiences of human trafficking, an issue of particular concern locally and regionally.

Texas reports the second-highest number of human trafficking cases in the U.S. after California, based on 2015-2019 data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline. A recent analysis from the Polaris Project points to human trafficking as a growing problem during the pandemic, citing a more than 40% increase in national crisis situations.

Houston has also witnessed alarming increases in human trafficking, with awareness efforts by local artists in place.

Passionate about bringing the issue to light and honoring survivors, Primiani has written an eight-minute tone poem that “chronicles the life of someone who has been trafficked,” as described in an article by the Houston Chronicle.

In concert, the work will be accompanied by photographs by The New Abolitionists – a group of social justice advocates, artists, entertainers, faith-based leaders, business experts, and survivors – working to end human trafficking.

Earth, a World Premiere by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis, tackles a story of climate change:

“Reflecting upon the fundamental environmental crisis of our time, and created in collaboration with poet and agricultural researcher Kai Hoffman-Krull, the work tells the story of a farmer’s life through vignettes exploring the incremental changes of the seasons and how those who depend upon the land must adapt.”

ROCO on “Earth” by Aaron Jay Kernis

Houston is well familiar with ongoing climate impacts, from flooding and hurricanes to, more recently, extreme winter weather.

Earth will feature tenor Nicholas Phan singing the farmer’s lyrics. Phan was nominated for the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album for his album Gods and Monsters. An alumnus of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, he has previously performed in Houston with Da Camera and HGO.

The third World Premiere on the concert – Score by Grammy-nominated composer Jonathan Leshnoff – is a fanfare, which Lawyer calls “a wonderful romp of a work.”

Lawyer, who is actively involved in the commissioning process, says that there is a thrill – and poignancy – in performing new music.

“I love discovering the Bachs and Beethovens of our time!” she said. “Being in dialogue with a composer who writes specifically for our ensemble makes it so very personal. And ROCO has always been based upon personal relationships.”

Lawyer says she thinks of ROCO’s concerts as the “soundtrack for Houston,” especially through its QR project, which has planted codes along trails, in hospitals, and in schools to give the public free access to their concert recordings all over the city – but it’s also an appropriate description, given the locally significant environmental and human trafficking issues at the forefront of its Feb. 26th program.

“A far as engaging with difficult topics, I think Houstonians are already fabulous at that, and if this concert inspires someone to get involved to make a difference, then that is a gift,” said Lawyer.