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Ars Lyrica Commits to Curating

Our Cultural Heritage through Opera

By: Kathleen Staten

Photo Credit: Pin Lim

Ars Lyrica NYBDC Dancing at the Palais Z

A scene from Ars Lyrica’s production of Dancing at the Palais

Ars Lyrica Houston is celebrating 15 years of providing Houston audiences with world-class historical performances of beloved Baroque favorites alongside rare gems that transport us to another time.  For ten of those years, opera has been a growing highly recognized portion of their offerings. Their first step into the field yielded a Grammy-nominated recording of Hasse’s Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra. Our own Houston Chronicle affirms that, “...Theatrical works have become the calling card of Ars Lyrica.” 

Ars Lyrica’s first fully staged opera production, Handel’s Agrippina, and the launching of the fundraising initiative “Opera Circle” were important milestones for the organization during the 2018-2019 season. Agrippina’s performances in November 2018 featured several young stars of the international opera world, including countertenors John Holiday and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, and were enthusiastically received by the critics and audiences alike. Critics called the production “utterly magnificent, wildly successful, and one of the most fun shows of the season!” With plans already taking shape for next season’s full-scale production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, there are many important aspects for all of us to consider.

One of the biggest questions in historical performance, and especially historical opera, runs parallel to our own dilemmas in everyday life: how do we make decisions that are informed, relevant, and yet reverent to the people who laid the foundation on which we build our lives? It’s not just a question of gut versus steel strings, vibrato or straight tone, or having read the most recently discovered treatise on stylish ornamentation (of notes or hair pieces). Historically informed performance (HIP) carries with it the same burden as  #metoo or whether Ellen and George Bush can sit in the same box at a football game. Can we, as artists, find a way to bridge the authentic interpretations of cultural reflections from centuries past in a way that not only enlightens our audiences but is also a catalyst for introspection and reflection? This question is the topic of international debate in opera companies around the world as they try to preserve a cultural legacy of human expression.


A scene from Ars Lyrica’s production of Agrippina

This tightrope walk is managed in part by one of Ars Lyrica’s long-time collaborators and inspired interpreters of historical dance and staging, Catherine Turocy. She suggests that “one of the reasons composers went back in the Renaissance to the (Greek) classics was that they felt that was the root of civilizations, and that combining the past with what is going on in the present can engage the audience in a deeper way.” Turocy believes deeply in transporting her audience in a universal way by not limiting the specific context in which we can explore the humanity of the art form. When asked if Greek classics can still be considered universal and relevant, she answers, “There is enough that is coming out in popular art and television and film that people can relate to these shows. Good versus evil, love versus duty, the vices of man punished by the gods. Just look at Dr. Phil—you see these characters on these reality shows. I find this period fascinating to understand that this is a way of claiming your own humanity.”


Dr. Phil as opera: relevant? The answer is yes! The Hero’s Journey, a classic story structure coined by academic Joseph Campbell in 1949, refers to a wide-ranging category of tales in which a character ventures out to get what they need, faces conflict, and ultimately triumphs over adversity. It is the ultimate distillation of the human journey. Ars Lyrica offers it with a side of spectacle on stage in lieu of green screen and special effects. Their next production, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, is one of the most monumental theatrical works from the Baroque. War, greed, unions for power, suffering, and love are all intricately woven into this story for the ages.


So why opera? The art form itself was one of compounding brilliance. It was an evolutionary genre that was inherently designed to harken back to a more illuminated era: a daydream type of diversion that conjured thoughts of better times. Don’t we all wish to escape the rigors of life, if only for a few hours? The difference here is that it’s more significant than a sports game, a carefully curated Instagram post, or even a trip to someplace outside our daily orbit. Turocy says that opera performances are “…about the teamwork between the stage director and the performer to bring out the details of a past time. It’s not always spelled out, but it is felt.”


Feeling a connection to people reacting to their life is something that we do every day. It does not feel sensational. However, when you consider that art is a uniquely human expression in reaction to the world around them, the products of our labor become more important. To what are we reacting? What were the circumstances? Do the circumstances define or inform the art? 


A scene from Ars Lyrica’s production of Agrippina

"Without context, 
we lose our compass. 

Without context, 
we lose our history. 

Without context, 
we lose ourselves."

Ars Lyrica NYBDC Dancing at the Palais Z

A scene from Ars Lyrica’s production of Dancing at the Palais

Opera is a unique art form combining spectacle, dance, drama, and music into one singular and life-reflecting experience. A movie or a book limits you to the specific perspective of its author and creator while restaged operas allow you the autonomy to make your own personal connections. This is vital for our audiences to experience. In an age where imagination and exploration are quashed by the demands of reality, Ars Lyrica offers an informed escape that not only preserves history but also perpetuates the human experience through storytelling. This mission is exactly what led an orchestra on a ten-year journey towards producing opera. Houston philanthropist and avid supporter of Ars Lyrica, Connie Kwan-Wong, says, “The importance of Ars Lyrica Houston cannot be overstated. Because it delivers Baroque music played on per-iod instruments by musical virtuosi, its audiences receive an authentic listening experience. Not only are they gifted with gorgeous music from the 17th- and 18th-centuries, they hear it almost exactly as its original audiences heard it. There is no other venue in the city where Houstonians are exposed to such artistic accuracy.”

Producing fully staged, full-scale Baroque operas with many of the leading musicians and stage directors of our time is the culmination of our artistic journey. Become a curator of our shared human experience and join us on the journey by becoming a member of the Opera Circle. This is more than just sponsorship. It’s membership! Members of Ars Lyrica’s Opera Circle guarantee that we can keep our cultural stories and history alive. Opera Circle is a community of like-minded people who share a passion for what we do: learning new things and meeting new people on this journey of discovery. 


Opera Circle supporters enjoy an exclusive VIP experience and access to the artists, including invitations to opening night dinners, cast parties, and backstage tours. Your gifts allow us to make opera resonate anew through imaginative staging in collaboration with the world’s most respected experts in dance, theater, and music. For more information on how to join, please contact Ars Lyrica Executive Director, Kinga Ferguson.


A scene from Ars Lyrica’s production of Agrippina

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