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.
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.
Even as the pandemic continues and artists face challenges, the grants reveal that a wide range of art-making persists in the city, including efforts to work toward social justice, mental health, racial equality, and a greater engagement of local communities.
Grant recipients’ projects involve subjects and genres often rooted in Houston – including community storytelling inspired by the life and childhood of George Floyd, meditation through music in Indo-American traditions, performance art in Third Ward, pop-up theater in Acres Homes, and outdoor cinema showcasing works by underrepresented filmmakers, as well as land art and hip hop.
Seven recipients were awarded $2,500 each through Let Creativity Happen! Digital, a grant program that launched in April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It supports projects reimagined in a virtual format or that use digital technology to engage audiences.
Four recipients were awarded $10,000 each, and a fifth recipient awarded $5,000, through the City Initiative grant program, which is in its third round of the year. This program seeks to use the arts to strengthen the city, as it reopens from the pandemic. Projects support cultural tourism, sustainability, and community resilience.
“The arts helped the city flourish and enlightened the lives of our citizens during the pandemic,” said Necole S. Irvin, MOCA Director, in a press release.
“As we continue to recover, we know that the city’s continued support of the creative sector and communities’ support of cultural activities is integral to building back our economy,” said Irvin.
Houston Arts Alliance administers the grants, which are funded by a portion of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax.
The following list with descriptions of grant recipients was provided by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
The seven awardees for the “Let Creativity Happen! Digital” grants are:
George Floyd Childhood in the Cuney Homes By Crystal Toussant District B Mack Performing Arts Collective (MPAC) Children and residents of Cuney Homes will share stories of growing up in a low-income housing development where many deal with hard times and social injustice. They will explore the life and childhood of George Floyd and use him as inspiration. MPAC members along with the participants will be using texts, lighting, costumes, make-up, and scenery to bring their stories to life.
Online Classes Using Art to Support Mental Health By Andria Frankfort District C C G Jung Educational Center of Houston, Texas Unique in the United States, The Jung Center offers year-round, live-streamed and online classes that employ the arts in supporting the mental health of the community. Two-thirds of their programming is open to the public, while the other third is designed specifically to bring healing arts to support the mental health of social service providers, frontline workers, teachers, nonprofit employees, healthcare workers, and others. Their public-facing programming is taught by psychotherapists, book and film group facilitators, improv actors, musicians, a children’s art therapist, and others. The Online Activation Form includes an incomplete list of public arts programming currently scheduled for Fall 2021: times are to be determined. More classes will be scheduled for the fall as well as for Spring and Summer 2022.
Be-Longing By Mariela Dominguez District C Mariela Dominguez will choose an object to be the trigger for a story of a journey that evokes uprooting and regeneration. A set of four videos presents the stories between two speakers, one, the issue of a mother tongue as the other represents the mediator who personifies a new local generation that articulates the dominant English language. This material object evokes cultural ties that are seemingly enigmatic to everyone except those who retain their mother tongue. The development of a set of four videos with English subtitles is projected and additionally, various audiovisual resources will be included.
SUKOON: Tranquility Thru Music By Sheetal Bedi District C Indo-American Association (IAA) Sukoon is an Urdu/Hindi word which translates to calm, peace, relief, serenity, tranquility, and wholeness. Through this project, IAA will endeavor to bring great sukoon and tranquility to digital audiences. Patrons have come to deeply value IAA’s digital concerts at a time of tremendous isolation and loneliness. The Sukoon project will give an opportunity to emerging artists to showcase their ability to connect digital audiences to a meditative space where tranquility can be found at the individual level, even for a few minutes. This will be presented through IAA’s social media platforms.
The Sankofa Project and its Virtual Dialogues By Stephanie Mitchell District C Lawndale Art and Performance Center The Sankofa Project brings light to the events that have been censored or ignored in historical narratives and reinforced the racial oppression of Black Americans. A free Zoom conversation between the artist and collaborating scholar or historian will be held and deepen the conversation on race and inequality and educate the community. These dialogues will be available post-event via Lawndale’s website and social media along with exhibition documentation and materials for public accessibility.
Mindful In This Moment By Nathan Edwards District D On a clear morning in February 2022, Nathan Edwards will film a live installation around the theme of meditation. 50 black men and women dressed in monochromatic pastel colors will meet at a Houston park for a staged, live, one-hour installation/meditation that will be filmed, edited, and shared online.
Orange Show Media Project By Sara Kellner District I Orange Show Center for Visionary Art The Orange Show Media Project is a partnership with SWAMP and its young filmmakers to document five intimate performances by visionary Houston artists in front of live audiences at the Orange Show’s historic properties. These will be live streamed weekly starting July 4, 2022.
The 5 awardees for the “City Initiative” grants are:
Christmas in the 44: An Urban Christmas Tale By Norma Thomas District B Christmas in the 44: An Urban Christmas Tale (UCT) brings theatre to Acres Homes community in more ways than one. UCT is “takin’ it to the streets!” Staged outside local businesses along the 4 major Acres Homes throughfares, festive tableau style scenarios, much like department store holiday window displays and the live nativity scenes of old, will delight passers-by, create community celebration, and foster holiday spirit.
Scott @ X By Andrew Davis District C Scott @ X proposes a new way of engaging communities with performance art. Throughout November 2021, weekly Sunday performances will occur along Metro Rail stops in Third Ward; with the opening performance at the Leeland/Third Ward stop and closing performance at MacGregor Park/Martin Luther King, Jr. stop. The audience will be able to engage with the performance on site as well as virtually through Twitch using QR codes posted at the Metro Rail stops.
2 Post Cinema By Britt Thomas District C 2 Post Cinema is a neighborhood outdoor cinema set to open in November 2021. It will showcase contemporary film and video art created by underrepresented artists and filmmakers. Utilizing the non-obstructed view, they have of T.C. Jester Park’s parking lot from their property, Britt and Prince Thomas will erect a large, retractable rear-projected film screen in their backyard while relaying sound via radio transmission to viewers’ car stereos. 2 Post Cinema is a free, publicly accessible catalyst for bringing together our diverse community via the arts in a safe, socially distanced manner.
Cindee Travis Klement: Symbiosis By Lawndale Art and Performance Center District C Cindee Travis Klement’s Symbiosis is a work of living land art in Mary E. Bawden Sculpture Garden at Lawndale Art and Performance Center, which introduces a variety of native plants to immerse the community in and educate them on the possibility of a more regenerative, sustainable future.
Swisha House: Rollin’ & Burnin’ Since ‘97 By Henry Guidry District D With millions of records sold, several Grammy nominated artists and the first record label/music genre to be archived in Rice University’s Fondren Library, Swishahouse has been a staple in the Houston hip hop scene since the mid-90’s. This event, held in East Downtown Houston at 8th Wonder Brewery, will exhibit items from the Rice archive, CD & mixtape covers and never-seen-before photos. The exhibit will simultaneously highlight the impact Swishahouse has made on the hip hop genre while introducing to many, and reinforcing to others, the significance of Swishahouse on the Southern hip-hop movement.
Now in his farewell season, Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s eight seasons as Music Director of the Houston Symphony have been marked by world premieres, multimedia presentations, recording projects, regular touring, and his appointment of 25 new orchestra musicians – including current concertmaster Yoonshin Song. He also carries the distinction of being the orchestra’s first Hispanic music director.
The two-week music festival will feature repertoire associated with the conductor’s time with the organization, according to a press release – including works commissioned by the Houston Symphony during his tenure, seven solo performances by Symphony musicians, works by two former composers-in-residence (Gabriela Lena Frank and Jimmy López Bellido), and an arrangement by Orozco-Estrada himself.
Musical highlights include the world premiere commission of Bruce Broughton’s Horn Concerto (with Principal Horn William VerMeulen), the Houston premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s Tuba Concerto (with Principal Tuba Dave Kirk), and the world premiere of Kyle Rivera’s arrangement of works by 18th-century composer George Bridgetower.
Concerts and program details will be announced in January 2022.
Orozco-Estrada’s tenure also notably overlapped with the pandemic. Though COVID-19 travel complications forced him to be absent from Houston for over a year during the pandemic, the orchestra continued its concerts through livestreaming and was among the first in the country to return to in-person performances.
Orozco-Estrada’s final performances with the Houston Symphony as Music Director will be April 29 – May 1. He will continue to serve as Music Director of the Vienna Symphony.
His successor, Juraj Valčuha, begins his role as the Houston Symphony’s next Music Director in the 2022-23 season.
Though gender equity in classical music has been an ongoing discussion, the recent appointment of Nathalie Stutzmann as the next Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra pinpoints how behind the industry is in hiring female conductors.
When she assumes her role in the 2022-23 season, Stutzmann will be only the second woman ever to lead a major, top-tier American orchestra.
This comes at a time when less than 10% of orchestra music directors in the U.S. are women, according to a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestra (the most recent industry study available).
In Houston, there are currently no female music directors at any professional orchestra in the area, though women hold other conducting positions in the city.
Among local professional ensembles, Mei-Ann Chen serves as Artistic Partner for ROCO, and Yue Bao was recently appointed Assistant Conductor of the Houston Symphony. Half of Houston Grand Opera’s productions this season will be led by female guest conductors, a first for the company.
Among local community orchestras, women lead the Conroe, Texas Medical Center and Fort Bend Symphony Orchestras – Anna-Maria Gkouni, Libi Lebel, and Dominique Røyem, respectively.
Last week, I interviewed conductor Jeri Lynne Johnson (Founder of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra) and Alecia Lawyer (Founder, Artistic Director, and Principal Oboe of ROCO). Johnson was in town to conduct ROCO’s A Stitch in Time concert, which has since taken place.
In a candid and ultimately joyful conversation, we spoke about gender equity in conducting, including:
Listen to the conversation (audio above) or read the transcript (below).
A portion of this interview originally aired on Houston Matters. It has been edited for clarity and length.
CATHERINE LU: Alecia Lawyer and Jeri Lynn Johnson, thank you so much for talking with me today.
ALECIA LAWYER: Yay! Thanks for having us.
JERI LYNNE JOHNSON: Thank you for having us.
LU: Welcome to Houston, Jeri.
LU: This is not only your ROCO debut that you’re about to make, but your first time in Houston.
JOHNSON: A lot of firsts for this concert, yes. The [Mark] Adamo premiere and my first time with ROCO, yes.
LU: I want to take us back even further, just in the spirit of getting to know you.
LU: How did you know you wanted to become a conductor?
JOHNSON: Oh, we’re going back that far? OK. [laughter] You know, I started piano when I was four. And even that was a struggle. You know, my parents just didn’t believe at four that I was really into this. And they heard me playing stuff that I’d heard off the radio by ear and they’re like, Where did you learn to play that? I said, I heard it off the radio. And so they consented to give me lessons. And I was really blessed to have – some family friends of my parents took me to my first orchestra concert.
At that time, we were living in Minnesota. It was the Minnesota Orchestra, and Neville Marriner was the music director at the time. And so I saw my first orchestra concert, and I just remember there was Beethoven. And I just was in awe of the music. I loved what I was seeing. And I noticed that there was no piano on the stage, so that if I wanted to make this music, I would have to do what the man with the stick was doing. And so I had to be a conductor. And that’s what I wanted, yeah.
LU: Wow. So you fell in love with classical music, and then fell in love with the idea of the orchestra being your instrument.
JOHNSON: Right, exactly. Exactly.
LU: You said “the man with a stick,” right? So in a way, that’s what I wanted to talk about today – sort of gender on the podium, and what we’re seeing. What we’ve been seeing and what we might see in the future … To put it into context, recently there was big news in the classical music world, about a month ago. It was announced that Nathalie Stutzmann would be the next Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, which makes her only the second woman ever to lead a major top-tier American orchestra, if you will.
And another sort of piece of context is that – that means there was a first, and the first was Marin Alsop. And she actually just recently stepped down from the Baltimore Symphony after a long tenure. Which means that when Stutzmann steps into her role next season, she’s really the only woman currently active as a major orchestra music director.
I would love to hear your reactions and how you’re following [the issue], especially as a female conductor yourself directly involved in the music-making and in the industry. Yeah, what are your reactions to these kinds of statistics and these kinds of headlines, and this news of Nathalie Stutzmann?
JOHNSON: Well, first of all, I mean, that’s awesome. Nathalie’s an incredible musician, and a singer! I don’t know if your audience knows that, you know, conductors are also musicians. And her instrument is her voice as well. And so … she’s just a wonderful artist. And so, you know, kudos to Atlanta for making the appointment.
There’s a lot of movement and conversations at this time, around a lot of the issues of not just gender inequity, but racial inequity. And for me, both of those things coincide.
I think there’s going to be more to come on the horizon. And that’s not like I’m giving away any kind of secret. Like, it’s not like I know some insider information, and there’s going to be another announcement. I just feel like there’s a lot of movement and conversations at this time, around a lot of the issues of not just gender inequity, but racial inequity. And for me, both of those things coincide.
For your listeners, I’m an African American woman, and so the intersection of race and gender affects me in particular ways on the podium. And so all of these conversations about agency, about not just engaging women as artists, but empowering women as artists, are beginning to be made in some really constructive and important ways at various levels and sectors of the classical music world.
LU: Do you think we’ve been making progress along the way? Like, has there been sort of slow but steady progress at all? Or do you think this is a unique moment where finally more active conversations are being had and maybe a turning point?
JOHNSON: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I think progress is being made in terms of just the sheer numbers of women entering the field. I think you’re seeing a lot more women.
It isn’t just women on the podium. I think women leading major orchestras is also an issue. When you have women in positions of power to make these decisions about including and empowering women, you start to see those changes being made.
And from a statistical standpoint, that 9.2% of music directors is music directors of orchestras of all sizes and music directors of a variety of different ensembles. And so, you know, once you get to the top-tier orchestras –and these are all based upon budget sizes, that’s how the tiers of orchestras are decided – and once you get to those top-level orchestras with multimillion dollar budgets and major endowments to support them, those numbers drop precipitously. And that’s why the announcement of Nathalie Stutzmann as the new music director for Atlanta, and Marin Alsop stepping down at Baltimore, is so incredibly significant. And so from that standpoint, there’s more work to be done, examining what are the barriers to having women, you know, participate at those higher levels.
And again, you know, it isn’t just women on the podium. I think women leading major orchestras is also an issue. I was just participating in a wonderful symposium sponsored by the Dallas Symphony called Women in Classical Music, and it’s the third year of the symposium. And one of the things that we all kind of spoke about and noted during the course of this symposium – and I know that Alecia has participated in and been a panelist in the symposium as well – is that when you have women in positions of power to make these decisions about including and empowering women, you start to see those changes being made. And so I don’t think we can talk about women on the podium without also women in the in the C-suites of these major orchestras.
LU: At all levels … of leadership, administration.
LU: Alecia, tell me what ROCO has been doing in terms of following and addressing this issue over the years.
LAWYER: Well, I’m a female. [laughter] Just stating the obvious. [laughter]
LU: For the record!
LAWYER: For the record. But yes, you know, it’s funny, my family is very matriarchal – from my great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, mother, me. Now I have two boys. So being in dialogue with diverse voices, and being in relationship with them, is the most important thing in all arts. It all comes back to relationships. And you’ve heard me pound that drum for 15, 17 years now that it has to be based upon that.
The fear of just having that one woman … be the only voice that has to represent every woman in the universe, that is really destructive … But having many voices in the room is what I hope is the legacy of what I can leave with what ROCO is doing.
And when you can actually kind of lead the quest, like in a really great Dungeons and Dragons game and you’re walking through the forest and you bring people along with you, the empowerment that can happen with women, which I don’t think – and the reason I brought up my family is, in prior generations, the fear of just having that one woman in the room who’s going to be cutthroat against other women, or be the only voice that has to represent every woman in the universe, that is really destructive.
But now having so many women, we have so many different – I mean, we’re half the population, good gravy, right? But just having that many voices in the room is what I hope is the legacy of what I can leave with what ROCO is doing. And I don’t think there’s any machination that’s happened. And I get asked this – especially this season, it’s all female conductors – I get asked it all the time, Oh, what are you doing there? I’m like, There’s no agenda. It’s that I’ve been wanting to work with Jeri for a long time, and that Mei-Ann Chen has been our first Artistic Partner. And these people are in relationship with me. And it just happens like that, right?
That’s what’s exciting to me. We were number one in the nation in programming women composers in 2019. I did not know that was a statistic that was achievable. Didn’t even think somebody was counting, if that makes sense. And that’s what’s important is – where it comes from has to be authentic. And hopefully people can recognize that even just by glancing at our website and coming to our concerts.
And we are trying to be, you know, a collective. Not just ROCO, but I think us as the general movers and shakers right now of the classical world, really trying to be a collective of thought and dialogue. But I mean, let’s face it, no man who’s founded an orchestra would have had childcare-music education during and after concerts. It just wouldn’t be thought of. They wouldn’t be against it. They just wouldn’t think about it because it’s not in their zeitgeist to be like, What do I do with a child, right? And we do that during rehearsals. We have childcare for musicians during rehearsals. I mean, that’s just such a logical choice, but not something that – and I have three wonderful men in my life, and my dad too – but they wouldn’t have thought of that.
And I think that’s what’s important is having people who have different experiences, different priorities, different life-walks, to be able to have influence on how we then walk forward together.
LU: Now, I want to ask you, Alecia, you know, as an arts leader in our community, what do you think are the strides that we’re making here in Houston?
And just to set this up with a little bit of context – because these musicians aren’t in the room with us to speak for themselves – I do know that for example, at the Houston Symphony, Yue Bao was just appointed assistant conductor. And we also have Libi Lebel, of course longtime director of the Texas Medical Center Orchestra. The Conroe Symphony, a community orchestra in the Greater Houston area, announced a new director – Anna-Marie Gkouni, I believe. And half of Houston Grand Opera’s operas this season will be conducted by women.
So it seems like Houston is making strides, but as someone who was directly working in this field, what do you think?
LAWYER: Yes, that’s great. It’s something that’s needed to be done for a really long time. I’m glad it’s happening, however it’s happening. It doesn’t really matter the way it happens, it needs to happen. I do love the fact that HGO just hired, you know, Khori Dastoor, to come in as the CEO. That’s going to be impactful. Houston Grand Opera has been always a wonderful partner with us as far as promotions and different things that we do.
And I think that we just do a disservice in our arts, and this is a global conversation not just about women, it’s about – we need to thrive and not just try to get equal. That to me sounds like a mathematic transactional problem instead of a relational problem. So to answer that question, of course, that’s great and wonderful. I mean, whatever it’s going to take to get us all to the point where it just is not even commented on would be a wonderful space to be in.
LU: Jeri, you’ve had a really, I think, a very successful and interesting journey. In 2005, you made history as the first Black woman to win an international conducting prize when you were awarded the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship. You’ve broken barriers in Europe and the US as the first African American woman on the podium for many orchestras. You’ve conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra and orchestras around this country and overseas. And in 2008, you founded your own orchestra, the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra in Philadelphia.
So, I mean, those are wonderful sort of milestones, but I would love to hear what your experience has been as a female conductor. What sort of challenges – I mean, good or bad – have you have you faced and barriers that you think female conductors face?
JOHNSON: You know, I would say starting out very early on, as any young conductor, it’s always hard to get opportunities. You’re just always grabbing for whatever you can do, even if you’re not being paid. You just want the experience to just wave your hands around [in front of] anybody but the mirror. And so I never really had any problems early on in my career.
There was a general sense – from people who should have been mentors and champions – there was kind of a lackluster response to my interest in going into conducting, which at the time, I didn’t really think much about. Of course, now in retrospect, I understand why they had a lackluster response. And that was really put into perspective after I had won the Taki Alsop Conducting Fellowship, which was started by Marin Alsop to really provide expanded opportunities and exposure for young women conductors, coming up through the system.
And so after winning that, and conducting orchestras all around the world and really doing some great stuff, I went out – like all conductors do – on the audition job trail. And … when conductors audition for an orchestra, unlike musicians in the orchestra, we are not behind a screen. So in order to make sure the audition process is fair for, like, violinists and oboists, they’re all behind a screen, so you can’t see who they are and what gender or race or anything. You’re just listening to the sound that this person is producing.
LAWYER: Never thought about that.
JOHNSON: Yeah. And so conductors cannot conduct behind the screen because we’re using our bodies to communicate non verbally. And so the orchestra has to see us. So they know who we are when we get up on the podium.
And so I had taken the auditions to be music director of three orchestras at various places around America and made it to the finals of all of these orchestras, which means I was one of the three last candidates. And did not get the job at any of them – again, not unusual. There’s a lot of rejection in the business, you know, [and] kind of in the phrase of that great poet of our age, Jay Z, “on to the next one.” And so you just kind of pick up and dust yourself off and keep moving forward.
This one orchestra in California, very unusually, the search committee chair said, you know, you did not get the job … but said, if you would like some feedback, we’d be happy to offer that to you. And that, again, is very rare. Normally, sometimes you don’t even hear that you didn’t get the job. You just kind of see the announcement that someone got the job. You’re like, oh, well, that’s not me. So I guess I didn’t get the job! [laughs]
That’s when he … said, ‘You just don’t look like what the audience expects the maestro to look like.’ A really painful … moment in my life …because what it told me was … I was always going to be an outsider in classical music because of my race and gender.
So for them to reach out was a rare opportunity to get some feedback. And so I contacted the gentleman at the time. He was the search committee chairman. We had a lovely conversation. And he was very complimentary of my work and said, ‘Look, the orchestra loved your conducting and the board thought you would be wonderful to work with, [you] had some great ideas, wonderful musicianship.’ I said, ‘Oh, okay. That’s very nice.’ He says, ‘Yeah, we just didn’t know how to market you.’
JOHNSON: Yes, wow. And, you know, being young and naive at the time, I didn’t really understand what he meant by that. And so I asked – you know, I didn’t understand. And so that’s when he kind of cleared his throat and said, ‘You just don’t look like what the audience expects the maestro to look like.’
A really painful, eye opening, perspective shifting, paradigm shifting moment in my life. Because what it told me was that no matter how good a conductor I was, no matter what my resume was, I was always going to be an outsider in classical music because of my race and gender.
And so that sort of put me on the path to Black Pearl, which was starting my own [orchestra]. And I kind of took that statement of ‘you don’t look like what the audience expects the maestro to look like’ – I turned it on its head. And so on a lot of our programs, I turn everyone into conductors. [laughs] And that was kind of how I addressed that.
My experience on the podium is very guided by the joy that I feel in being able to exercise my own agency, but also empowering the musicians that I’m honored to lead and work with.
And so my experiences on the podium have been, since that time, really deeply empowering – because when I conduct and when I teach other people to conduct, the lesson that that I learn, and that they learn, and I continue to love to feel, is the lesson of agency, of people having the clarity of knowing who they are, knowing what they want, communicating it effectively, and getting it from the world. Whether it’s an orchestra, whether it’s the medical institution, whether it’s a banking institution, whether it’s a legal institution, an educational institution. But that power of having agency over our world is something that is desperately missing now because of COVID. It’s something that communities of color have been desperately missing for any number of years due to systemic inequalities in a number of ways.
And so it’s a powerful lesson for everyone to have. And so my experience on the podium is very guided by the joy that I feel in being able to exercise my own agency, but also empowering the musicians that I’m honored to lead and work with, and allowing them to engage in their agency as creative people as well.
LU: So this may seem like a very – I mean, it may seem like a silly question, but why not ask sort of point blank. Why is it important to have more female conductors? What is at stake?
JOHNSON: Wow. I find that question so incredibly loaded, given that we’re in the state of Texas, which –regardless of your stance on the issue – is systematically eroding women’s constitutional rights. Again, I’m not taking a stand on the issue one way or another, that’s not it. But the ability for women to have agency –
LAWYER: There’s that word again. Yeah, “agency” is an important word.
JOHNSON: It’s an important word. And so, any way that we can remind girls and women that they have agency and to help them learn to develop it and display it in authentic ways – and that doesn’t mean you have to pretend like you’re a man in order to take up space in the room. You as a woman can take up exactly as much space as you need to be who you are authentically, and that is enough. It’s more than enough. It’s a lot.
And so, it’s important to model that and demonstrate that truth because talking about it isn’t enough. We have to model that not just, I think, for young women and girls, but we need to model that for all generations, because I think we have to think about the generations of women who did not grow up with that. We have to think about the women coming to America from other cultures who are not demonstrated that in wherever they’re coming from.
To the extent that conducting and classical music can play a small role in upholding American democratic values and embodying those democratic values, we are remaining true to this country and what it was founded on.
And so, you know, to me women’s rights is a fundamental American democratic issue. Because despite the practical imperfection of how the Founding Fathers executed those democratic values by owning slaves, and by not giving the women the right to vote, and all those kinds of things, the foundation was set by the concept of the inalienable rights of all humans.
And so we are a work-in-progress as Americans. And so to the extent that conducting and classical music can play a small role in upholding American democratic values and embodying those democratic values, we are remaining true to this country and what it was founded on.
LAWYER: You gotta write a book. That’s gorgeous.
JOHNSON: We’re going to do the podcast! Should we announce the podcast right now?
LAWYER: Yes, the podcast right now!
LU: You heard it here first. [laughter] Podcast coming from Jeri Lynne Johnson and Alecia Lawyer!
LAWYER: Yeah, that’s really a fabulous word, the word “agency.” I love that. I actually auditioned to be a conductor in undergraduate. Well, sort of. But the guy who was there, I won’t name him, he basically said, ‘You know, women can’t conduct. It’s too bad, so sad.’
JOHNSON: That’s actually a common theme, especially with Beethoven as a particular composer that women are simply – even physically, not just emotionally – incapable of interpreting and performing. So when I started Black Pearl, the first concert we did, of course we did Beethoven Five. Just ‘cause.
LAWYER: High five on that! Loud high five, yeah! [laughter]
JOHNSON: And we’re doing Beethoven Eight at ROCO!
LAWYER: Which, we don’t do a lot of Beethoven! [laughter]
JOHNSON: And so I always try to incorporate Beethoven, just personally, wherever and whenever I can … I think, you know, art and politics are very closely aligned in people’s minds right now.
When we talk about women composers and conductors … and why is it important to see that agency, the political statement almost becomes that our existence on the podium is our resistance.
Now, the truth of the matter is that they’ve always been aligned, so that’s a fallacy that they’re separate. But, you now, the way people use music to maybe relax and maybe take their minds off mundane things, I respect that and I do the same thing. But that doesn’t mean the composers who wrote these works felt the same way when they created them.
And so, you know, for me when we talk about women composers and conductors on the podiums, and why is it important to see that agency, the political statement almost becomes that our existence on the podium is our resistance.
The existence is the resistance.
Yeah, write that one down, Alecia. That’s really good.
LAWYER: I’m writing it down, my friend. I’m taking notes!
JOHNSON: That’s, like, the tag line for the podcast. Anyway, you’re hearing it here, Houston. [laughter] You’re reaching into the podcast creation process! [laughter]
LU: Magic is happening right now. [laughter]
LAWYER: That’s awesome.
LU: Jeri Lynne Johnson and Alecia lawyer, thank you so, so much for coming in to have this conversation with me, and also to, you know, spread the joy of this concert too – and your debut, Jeri, with ROCO!
JOHNSON: Yes, thank you! Thank you for having us. This is so much fun. Really appreciate it, Catherine.
This summer, Mouton was selected from hundreds of applicants to be one of six resident artists – and one of only three librettists – in ALT’s Composer Librettist Development Program, said to be the only full-time training program for both composers and librettists in the U.S.
With simultaneous projects in the literary, classical music, and theater worlds, Mouton has also written a one-act play, The World’s Intermission, which has its World Premiere on November 12 and 13 at Jones Hall, as part of Society for the Performing Arts’ Houston Artist Commissioning Project.
Recently, I interviewed Deborah DEEP Mouton about:
Listen to our conversation (audio above) or read the transcript (below).
This interview took place in October, and a portion of it originally aired on Houston Matters. It has been edited for clarity and length.
CATHERINE LU: Deborah DEEP Mouton, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. Congratulations as well on your new residency, which we’ll be talking about – your residency in New York.
DEBORAH DEEP MOUTON: Thank you.
LU: You know, I want to start off with talking about your evolution as an artist because you have very strong roots in the performance poetry world – as a world champion slam poet, who then went on to become a Houston Poet Laureate.
You’re also an accomplished published poet. Your recent collection Newsworthy has received honors, and it was translated into German recently as well.
And in recent years, you’ve become a librettist. You’ve written two librettos for Houston Grand Opera, including Marian’s Song, which made a splash right before the pandemic as a world premiere. And then you’ve written a storybook opera called Lula, The Mighty Griot just last year.
So I want to say, because I have interviewed you and followed your career, this journey makes complete sense to me [laughs]. But I would love to hear you, you know, talk about it in your own terms. How did this evolution happen? And how do you sort of explain and understand your own journey thus far? How did you get interested in writing librettos?
MOUTON: Yeah, I think you may be the only person that this makes sense to you – I’m just saying [laughs]! You know, I see myself as a literary artist. And in the way that painters have paint and may have, you know, different kinds of paint, I think words are my medium. And so, I’ve really started to embrace that working across multiple genres is kind of what I was always made to do, you know.
I think from a very young age, I was always a storyteller. I would have crazy, little mini books that I would write in middle school that had like, clowns attacking people and all kinds of fictional things. So I think I always wanted to be a fiction writer. I then went into poetry, and that made total sense because it was kind of the same palette, but maybe a different – a different base. And so I really fell in love with poetry. And I think I stayed so tightly wound to poetry for so long because, you know, I kind of was getting praised in the way that people were really resonating with the work. And I found that it was also transforming me in a lot of ways, and making me very specific and very detailed, and think through the emotional timbre of the work more.
And so now I think that this next iteration – or this next experimentation in a new base – is leaning more towards stage work, you know. I was a young actress, you know, and worked in community theater for a while, and always kind of had an idea that some stories were just made to be told in the physical body as well. And I did play classical piano, and sang and traveled with a few gospel choirs and things. And so, I think that song has also been really heavy in my work and rhythm. So for me, opera kind of is the place where all of those things converge – where you can start thinking about the physicality of the work, as well as the, just, amazingness of the human voice and how it bends and moves and holds emotion.
And so I think I’m playing right now, you know. I have some straight theater coming out as well. I have a production going up at Jones Hall [on November 12 and 13] called The World’s Intermission. People can buy tickets if they’re interested on the [Society for the Performing Arts] website, SPAHouston.org. But for me, it’s really just thinking about, as I consider new stories, what do I feel like those stories want to be? How do they need to be told? I think some need to be told through movement, and some need to be told through a poem, and some need to be told through a song. And the more that I really listen to the work, the more that I’m able to really tap into what, you know, the broadness of maybe what my career will end up being.
LU: I want to ask you specifically – I mean, we can go in so many different directions with your artwork and and your projects right now – but to focus specifically on your evolution toward libretto writing. You were recently selected for a two-year residency at the American Lyric Theater in New York City. This is kind of a prestigious incubator program, if you will. It’s called the Composer Librettist Development Program. So tell me what this residency, which has begun, what does it mean for you in this chapter of your journey as an artist?
MOUTON: Absolutely. You know, I think that as we play [as artists] there’s a tendency to kind of, like, be self-taught in a lot of ways. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think a lot of my career has been self-taught. I mean, my first libretto was definitely taught from pulling libretti examples from Google, you know, and trying to learn the form. And so there’s nothing wrong with that. But as I really started to play more and more, I realized that there was a vernacular and a way to communicate with my composers that I was missing. And I really wanted to just take the time to dedicate to that …
I think what it means the most for me is just the time to focus fully, you know. Someone said to me one time that the root word of “amateur” is the same root word for the word “amour.” And the idea is that to be an amateur in something is to be in love with it all over again. And I think that I wanted to fall in love with opera in that way. I wanted to understand it in-and-out. I didn’t want to have happy accidents that were just successful, but I wanted to be intentional in what I was creating and putting on stage. And the only way for me to really be able to do that is to know what came before it, and what’s being worked on in the field and, you know, who are the people who are making noise – and how can I be one of those people that continues to kind of move the artform forward.
LU: You’ll be traveling back and forth between New York and Houston for this residency over the next couple of years. We’re talking on October 7th, so I know the residency has begun. The first part of it was in New York, and you just got back. Tell me a little bit about that experience – and what kind of creative juices and experiences are you already starting to have?
MOUTON: Yeah, I mean, it kind of was a whirlwind, to be honest with you. We landed one day, and then I think we were in class the next morning and kind of just ran it all the way to the last day. We had a nice option of things to do. We went and saw Come From Away on Broadway, which was nice. It was my first theater piece that I actually got to see on Broadway, even though I’ve seen some Broadway productions here in Houston when they traveled and toured. But just to be there on Broadway and be able to see that work was really inspiring, and kind of kicked up for me all kinds of things that I could even do as a director with limited space – and thinking about, you know, limited props, but how do I transition characters and things of that nature.
We also got to see Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which is historically the Met Opera’s first piece that’s been composed by a Black composer and Black librettist team. Terence Blanchard is the composer [and Kasi Lemmons is the librettist]. And just to be able to see that moment where Black people were standing on a stage that, you know, historically we wouldn’t have been able to enter the building. And we got to hold up two and a half hours of an audience’s attention. I think that showed me that there’s space in this world that’s moving forward at least, if temporary or not, you know, that’s allowing us to have permission to create things that show our lives and our stories on stages that are that large. So that was really huge.
LU: I want to get your thoughts on the future of opera – both as an art form but also as an industry, in terms of representation and inclusion. And you gave that sort of, you know, powerful memory of going to the Met – I mean the Met itself, finally in its history performing Fire Shut Up in My Bones, an opera by a Black composer for the first time.
I want to set up this question with even a little bit more context because, interestingly, with this residency that you’re in with the American Lyric Theatre, they themselves have changed a few things about this residency to make it more accessible and to reach out to a wider range of voices – by, this year, for the first time not requiring residency in New York City so that artists from all over the country can apply, as well as offering a $20,000 stipend for each year of the residency, again, to reduce barriers to the participation in the program.
And as a result, according to their press release, the applications increased by 53%. Fifty percent were women, 40% were BIPOC artists this year, applying for it … and that percentage doubled, in terms of BIPOC applicants. And of the six new artists selected, five are BIPOC artists and three are women.
Another sort of fun fact, if you will, that I’ll throw in is – here in Houston – Houston Grand Opera, just to give one local example, has announced a new general director, Khori Dastoor, the first person of color to lead that company in that particular position. So given these kinds of headlines and statistics – as an artist actually working in the field, how do you feel that is actually translating for change in the opera world? And what do you think is the future of opera in terms of diversity?
MOUTON: Yeah, I think, you know, the more that I learned, the more that I’m realizing that opera has had some really problematic roots, right? I mean, I think all of us kind of probably come to opera with an understanding – or an expectation more – that it has had, you know, a certain feeling of elitism, a certain feeling of classism and inaccessibility, especially when it comes to people who don’t make a certain amount of money.
And, you know, I think that opera really is on the cusp of a very large change or a very large decline. I think there really has been some genuine effort to figure out, how do we invest in the new generation of opera lovers? And for a lot of people that’s going to have to be including voices of people of color, of women, of LGBTQIA-identifying folks. You know, there’s going to have to be kind of a reckoning of their own in opera. And I think that’s really what we’re seeing, you know. A lot of ALT and the staff has said they feel like we’re at a point of a renaissance in opera where, you know, almost anything is possible now. We have to figure it out. There’s been a large thrust of new commissions that hasn’t happened in decades in opera … a lot more companies are actually commissioning brand new works that are more representative of the people who would be watching opera now.
So on the inside of it, I think that there’s always a push and pull between that. It’s always, you know, being grateful for opportunities opening, and grateful for new people letting you in and wanting to praise you and teach you and lead you. And in the same breath, it’s the skepticism that comes with being an artist of color on the back end of what happened last year, and really thinking about, you know, people’s intentions – and those are things that we can’t control, nor can we always understand. But I think, as an artist of color, when I walk into an opportunity, I’m always interested to find out how much of it is leaning towards using me as the face of a change that they don’t really want to have happen, but they know is trendy, and how much of it is real change.
And, you know, from what I’ve gleaned from American Lyric Theater, this has been a big step in the direction of real change. And for those of us who are willing to kind of walk those steps with them, and kind of push this in a new pioneering way to kind of reclaim opera for the people, I think that there is space for us. It just may take some resistance, and so we have to be ready for that.
I think another really great point about this residency is that, you know, even though they opened the field to the whole nation, three of the people they picked are from Texas. So I think that it also says something for Texans, right? That we are, you know, the home of major opera houses like HGO, which I think is the fifth largest opera house in the nation. And every major city in Texas has an opera house, which is not what can be said about everywhere. And so I think there are some roots here that, you know, Texans can kind of latch onto, that people of color can latch onto. It really is a great vehicle for storytelling. And I think that as we tap into it more and more, and as new audiences start to see new works come out that defy their expectations, I really do believe that opera is kind of perched to make a really big change and a really big statement when used right.
LU: And that potentially Texans and Houstonians are helping lead the way.
LU: The future is Texas [laughs].
MOUTON: Yeah, the future has always been Texas, right [laughs]?
LU: What kind of stories do you want to tell?
MOUTON: You know, it’s funny. I think that my answer to this has changed in the last week, so it’s interesting that you’re asking me this now.
I think a week ago I would have told you, definitely I just want to tell authentic Black stories. I think that’s true, but specifically in opera with some of the practices that have happened in the past – and for those who don’t know, there have been performers that have performed in blackface in opera, there’s been quite a bit of misogyny in some of the pieces – and so I think, you know, as a Black woman, I definitely have a heart to kind of right some of those wrongs in some of my writing.
I think right now I’m really addicted to the idea of Black joy and finding spaces where we get to be victorious and redeemable and valuable, you know. It is easier to write about Black trauma because I think sometimes that sadness is a more universal emotion than some others – or maybe more accessible than others, especially in times of trial. You know, we’ve had a few hard years, and I think everyone remembers sadness and despair a little bit more than we would like to, and it’s easy to write and stay there.
But I want to play with nostalgia, you know, I want to play with joy, I want to make you smile. And it’s okay to have a contrasting, sad moment. But I think I want pieces that live in the full spectrum of what it means to be Black. And that’s something I think I’m still striving to pin down exactly, but it’s something that I want to investigate.
LU: So what are your thoughts on the future of opera as an art form? And ask you that partly because I know that you, yourself, have combined spoken word with opera in Marian’s Song, for example. But how else do you see the art form evolving around you? And how are you, yourself, maybe experimenting and hope to shape it?
MOUTON: Yeah, I think a lot of what is to come really was reflected last year [when] Opera America started articulating a new definition of opera, which was a narrative set to trained voices. And while that seems broad to some, I think that it really does shift what’s accessible, because those trained voices could sing jazz, right? Those train voices could be beat boxers. I think that there’s just so much room to play that some companies are really making room for us to just experiment and see how far we can push the envelope. And I’m sure that there will be some people who say that’s not opera. And that’s okay. They’re imagining some woman with a Viking hat on singing, you know, over Bugs Bunny or something.
But there really is a place to show authentic and beautiful stories in opera, and I’m kind of excited about that. And I think that’s what really draws me to the field is the fact that I don’t think that what I want to do has been done yet – and the fact that there is room for the musicality of the voice, even in spoken text. I think those things make me excited that this might be a space that I can do something revolutionary and something inventive, and blaze a new trail for people who are looking behind me.
And so, you know, when it comes to the future of opera, I think it’s bright. And I think it’s bright as long as we continue to move into the direction of progress. I think last year, at the end of the summer, we had a lot of companies making statements that were pro-Black and pro-AAPI and pro-insert other oppressed group that they felt was trendy enough to talk about. And I think that when those sentiments are really taken to heart and really chased after, then opera has a long life ahead of it. And so I’m hoping that those things are true. My inner optimist wants to believe that the world is changing, and I can’t wait to see how it changes even in opera.
LU: I want to end with this … I know that you have another dream, which is to get to Broadway someday.
LU: So, tell me a little bit about that dream, and what that would mean to you and how that fits in your journey that you’re in the midst of?
MOUTON: I love that you asked this question. Let’s go [laughs]!
So I’ll take you back a little bit. I think in my late 20s, I was a very big “list” person … of creating goals for myself that I wanted to accomplish. And I told myself by 40 I wanted to be the Poet Laureate of Houston, Texas. And at 32, I was the Poet Laureate of Houston, Texas! And I really kind of was at a point where I was very confused. I was very happy, but also I felt like this thing that I had been kind of chasing for the last five years of my life, it happened. And then what, right? There’s this thing when you when you reach your goals, it’s like, well, what do I do now?
And I started thinking about the things that I wanted even as a small child, and the things that I wanted to see, and falling in love with pieces like The Whiz … thinking about creating musicals or creating theater that lived in bigger spaces. And I think when all of us think of, you know, the epitome of theater, it’s Broadway in some sense.
And so for me, the older I’ve gotten, the more that I’ve realized that really is a goal that not only in some fantastical place in my mind I’m like, that might be amazing to do one day, but that it’s maybe closer than I imagined it is. Many operas actually had runs on Broadway, you know, earlier in the history of opera. And I think there is a place for work that’s so accessible that it can live there.
I also think, though, that it totally might not be an opera, right? It might be something that is just more of a theater piece that people really connect to, you know. I’m currently working on a choreopoem centered on the life of Lauren Anderson, the first Black prima ballerina of the Houston Ballet. And I think of pieces like that, I think about their universality and how people can take away things from them without ever needing to know Lauren personally but being able to feel her experience. And I think that’s something that I want to offer the world. And so, you know, where does it fall in my canon? You know, it falls wherever I get the opportunity.
I don’t think I’m so much of a stickler to goals as I was before, even though I may have them in my head. I think for me now, it’s a little bit more about enjoying the journey, you know. I’ve definitely crossed some things off of my literary bucket list of things that I wanted to accomplish. And now I really do feel like I’m living kind of in the sprinkles part of the sundae – where, you know, I kind of did the ice cream and I’m looking forward to all the extra flourishes that life gives me. And I’m kind of really hoping that Broadway is one of them.
LU: The cherry on top [laughs], to finish the metaphor .
MOUTON: Yeah [laughs].
LU: Well, Deborah DEEP Mouton, thank you so much for, you know, talking with me about your hopes and dreams, honestly, and art and opera and the future – the future of diversity and and art in this country as well. Thank you so much for talking with me.
MOUTON: No, thank you for having me. I always enjoy talking to you, Catherine.
Local and national headlines are covering the tragic events at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival at NRG Park on Friday, November 5.
Eight people, including a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old, died and dozens were hospitalized.
According to reporting by the Houston Chronicle, “Stunning accounts of people gasping for air and being trampled in a raucous crowd of 50,000 surfaced Saturday as Houston’s first major music festival since the pandemic turned into one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history.”
Much is unknown at this time, and the Houston Police Department’s homicide and narcotics divisions are conducting a criminal investigation. City officials and concert organizers encourage anyone, who attended the concert and has any information about the crowd surge, to contact police.
To help you understand and follow what has happened in the past 48 hours, I’ve rounded up the following articles:
The Houston Symphony has appointed Yue Bao as the orchestra’s new Ting Tsung and Wei Fong Chao Foundation Assistant Conductor – promoted from her previous position as Conducting Fellow, which she had served since fall 2019.
During the pandemic, whose lockdowns and travel complications forced Vienna-based Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada to be absent from Houston for a year and half, Bao played a prominent role on the orchestra’s podium. She conducted several concerts, including livestream performances, subscription series concerts, and notably the 2020-21 season Opening Night Concert.
“We’re grateful that she was here in Houston to help us make the 2020–2021 Season happen when few American orchestras were able to do so, and we’re so happy and pleased to have an Assistant Conductor whose career is so clearly on the rise,” said John Mangum, Houston Symphony Executive Director and CEO, in a press release.
Her new role with the Houston Symphony will include education concerts at Jones Hall, performances at Miller Outdoor Theatre, and continued support with Classical Series concerts, according to a statement from the orchestra.
Bao was also featured in a recent New York Times article, which examined the hiring of assistant conductors among top American orchestras in recent years, and found them to be a far more diverse group than reigning music directors – indicating their potential to change the landscape of classical music leadership in coming years.