As of this week, COVID-19 cases in Greater Houston reached a record high, with Harris County’s positivity rate surpassing 34%, and on Monday Judge Lina Hidalgo raised the county’s COVID threat level to “red” (severe).
According to reporting by Houston Public Media, hospital officials say that omicron leads to infections that are generally less severe than those of the delta variant. However, it is highly transmissible, and hospitalizations have surged: “Daily COVID hospitalizations at Texas Medical Center hospitals also saw record numbers last week, with an average of 497 a day. That’s up from an average of 68 daily COVID hospitalizations in December 2021.”
Under these current circumstances, some Houston arts organizations – or their partners – have decided to cancel, reschedule, or reimagine upcoming performances and events.
Here is a list of recent announcements, compiled by Houston Arts Journal:
While its on-stage season is currently unaffected, the company is postponing its new touring series, Alley Transported, to 2023 “due to ongoing challenges with COVID-19 and in order to keep the cast, creative team, and community safe,” according to a press release.
Originally set to begin this month with a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Alley Transported is part of an NEA-funded initiative that aims to bring free, intimate performances of Shakespeare and other plays to neighborhood settings, community centers, and schools in order to foster a shared sense of community and a “transporting experience” of live theatre.
“I appreciate everyone’s understanding in this tough decision as well as all the hard work so many have already put toward making this a great show. It will still be great – a year from now,” said Rob Melrose, Alley Theatre Artistic Director, in a statement.
When the January 4th opening night of Hadestown was canceled because of both COVID and non-COVID-related illnesses, the company was hopeful that the rest of the run through January 9th would resume. However, all remaining performances were eventually canceled because of breakthrough positive COVID cases within the show’s company. Hadestown has now been rescheduled for October 4 – 9, 2022.
Catastrophic Theatre is postponing its production of Brian Jucha’s They Do Not Move to next season. The company released the following statement on January 4th:
We regret to inform you that Catastrophic’s upcoming production of Brian Jucha’s They Do Not Move, scheduled to perform February 11 through March 6, has been postponed until next season.
They Do Not Move is an original work created entirely during the rehearsal process by the Catastrophic ensemble and Brian Jucha. With Covid-19 rapidly spreading across our city, we cannot safely and successfully create, rehearse, and perform this physically intimate piece of work. There is a strong likelihood that we will each come into contact with the Covid-19 virus in the weeks ahead. We don’t want our rehearsal process or production to become a super spreader event.
Thank you for your understanding. It breaks our hearts that we cannot bring They Do Not Move to you at this time. We are moving forward with the rest of our season, with the assumption that we will be in a better place in the spring.
Fresh Arts, a nonprofit that provides resources and support to artists, announced this week that it has canceled its gala, The Unbelieve-A-Ball, originally scheduled for January 22nd.
While we were excited to be back together for the Unbelieve-a-Ball this month, our concerns for the safety and health of our community have to take precedence.
It is disappointing to announce that we will forgo the gala scheduled for Jan. 22 due to the recent Omicron spike.
In place of this year’s gala, Fresh Arts will now hold a reimagined Gala Auction, January 22 – 29.
According to Fresh Arts’ public relations partner Like Minds: “Galas account for a crucial 15-20% of the nonprofit’s revenue,” which is why the organization is moving forward with its fundraising through the auction –whose proceeds will support Fresh Arts and local artists.
In an email with Houston Arts Journal, Like Minds shared more about the Gala Auction:
“A So Unbelievable Auction Pop Up” will be a hybrid fundraiser where art aficionados can browse and bid on 50+ works of art and one-of-a-kind experience packages in all price ranges.
Those who wish to bid on the auction items can do so either online or in-person at participating exhibit spaces around the city, such as Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company, MKT Bar at Phoenicia Downtown, and the Arts District Houston Welcome Center at Winter Street Studios. More locations to be announced soon!
Art from local artists such as Outspoken Bean, Tony Paraná, Renee Victor, and more will be featured in the auction.
Founded in 2001, Fresh Arts also plans to host a 20th Birthday Party later this year “when it is safe to do so,” according to its website.
Houston Early Music, a presenter of historically informed performances of music from the Medieval through Classical periods, is postponing its January 22nd concert by Sante Fe-based Severall Friends to next season. The organization released the following statement this week:
Houston Early Music regrets to announce the cancelation of its Jan. 22 concert, The Shadow of Night: Mysticism and Magic in Renaissance Music, by Severall Friends. While Severall Friends was forced to cancel their performance because of COVID-19, the early music consortium is working with HEM to reschedule the concert for the 2022-2023 season. For information about ticket refunds, email email@example.com, or call 713-325-5377.
ROCO canceled its concert, Beer and Brass, on January 13th and has since rescheduled it to April 6th.
The annual family-friendly event features the ROCO Brass Quintet at Saint Arnold Brewing Company, with performances of traditional beer hall music and brass arrangements, along with craft beer, root beer, and food.
You can find COVID safety protocol for each arts organization on their respective websites.
“These National Endowment for the Arts grants underscore the resilience of our nation’s artists and arts organizations, will support efforts to provide access to the arts, and rebuild the creative economy,” said Ann Eilers, NEA Acting Chair, in a press release.
“The supported projects demonstrate how the arts are a source of strength and well-being for communities and individuals, and can open doors to conversations that address complex issues of our time,” Eilers said.
Among local grantees, Young Audiences of Houston will receive $50,000 for its Neighborhoods, Identity, and Diversity Project, which aims to increase arts access and equity. By providing free programs across 10 communities, the project works to amplify youth voices, infuse local cultures and traditions into arts-based learning, and collaborate with teaching artists and schools.
“We look forward to sharing over the next year the progress of this exciting project, unique to Houston and the communities that create our region’s vibrancy,” said Mary Mettenbrink, Young Audiences of Houston’s Executive Director, in a statement. “This project will support Acres Homes, Alief-Westwood, Fort Bend Houston, Gulfton, Kashmere Gardens, Magnolia-Park Manchester, Near Northside, Second Ward, Sunnyside, and Third Ward.”
Houston’s Discovery Green Conservancy will receive a $15,000 NEA grant in support of its project, Tejas Got Soul: Celebrating Houston’s Tejano Roots Music Legacy.
Initiated by East End residents Pat Jasper, Nick Gaitan, Isaac Rodriguez, Robert Rodriguez, and Angel Quesada, the project includes 3 free concerts in fall 2022 that feature traditional music genres popular in the Chicano community, from orquesta to conjunto and Tejano to Brown-Eyed Soul. There will also be panel discussions about the history of the local Chicano music scene and a social media campaign to add historical and cultural context about the music, musicians, and the community.
“Part of Discovery Green Conservancy’s mission is to shine a light on the diversity of traditions that exist in Houston,” said Barry Mandel, Discovery Green Conservancy President, in a statement. “The Conservancy is very proud to work with talented Houstonians to present these concerts and is very grateful for the National Endowment of Arts support.”
A full state-by-state listing of grants is available here.
Society for the Performing Arts has announced that it will expand its COVID-19 safety requirements from masks to proof of a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination for all patrons ages 5 and older, starting in February.
“With the amount of travel [SPA touring artists] are doing, more and more are requiring increased health and safety protocols,” the organization stated in its January newsletter as the impetus for the change.
Beginning next month, all audience members ages 5 and older will be required to show proof of a negative PCR or rapid antigen COVID-19 test, taken within 72 hours prior to the performance. SPA also requires that that the negative result be from a professionally administered test, not an at-home self-test.
Alternatively, patrons may choose to show proof of vaccination in the form of either 1) a CDC designated vaccine card that has two vaccine dates for the Pfizer/Moderna vaccine or one vaccine date for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with the date of the final dose at least 14 days prior to the performance, or 2) a photo or digital copy of the card.
Patrons also need to present ID that matches the name on the test or vaccination card. Children may be accompanied by an adult who can provide identification.
Masks will continue to be required inside the theater for all attendees ages 3 and older.
According to SPA, current ticket holders who cannot or do not wish to participate in these guidelines may contact the box office or email firstname.lastname@example.org by January 28 to exchange their tickets for credit, to donate tickets, or to request a full refund.
Here’s a look at current COVID safety protocol for 8 major arts organizations in downtown Houston’s Theater District, subject to change:
This article has been updated to reflect developments [12/22/21, 9:30pm]
As the U.S. faces a new wave of COVID – fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant, making up 73% of new infections last week, according to the CDC – NPR reported via The Associated Press:
Many stages on both Broadway and the West End have been forced to go dark once more as the live theater community grapples with backstage outbreaks of the coronavirus and its variants, temporarily closing everything from London’s revival of Cabaret starring Eddie Redmayne to mighty Hamilton in New York.
At one point last week, according to the report, five of 32 Broadway shows were dealing with canceled performances. This week, producers of the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pillannounced that it would close that show because of multiple positive COVID-19 cases within the company.
Here in Houston – where hospital officials say that positive omicron cases are doubling every two to three days and the Harris County threat level has been raised to “orange” (significant) as of Monday – local performing arts groups have been impacted by COVID. So far there have not been a large number of canceled performances or productions, though the situation is developing.
The only production that has closed, based on Houston Arts Journal’s review of local companies, is Disney’s The Little Mermaid by Theatre Under The Stars.
Originally scheduled to run through December 24 at The Hobby Center, TUTS announced on December 20, that it would cancel all remaining performances due to COVID among cast and crew:
Update: This evening, the Ensemble Theatre announced that breakthrough COVID cases have forced the company to cancel the December 23 performance of A Motown Christmas – with remaining performances in the run to be determined.
Last week, Stages Theatre canceled performances of Panto Little Mermaid because of a positive COVID test in the cast, according to an email from Dancie Perugini Ware Public Relations. That production has now been cleared to resume on December 22 and will continue, with additional shows scheduled, through January 2.
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.
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.