Making the Spirit Soar

By: Laura Chandler, Houston Grand Opera Director of Publications

“Music can change the world because it can change people,” said Bono, of the rock band U2. Famed cellist Pablo Casals called music “the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart,” and according to English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “Music, once admitted to the soul, becomes a sort of spirit, and never dies.” Most of us would agree that there is a relationship between music and our innermost selves, even if we don’t fully understand how it operates, and that’s why Houston Grand Opera (HGO) decided to explore these connections in depth.


Such a subject can’t be addressed easily or quickly, so HGO developed a six-year plan and inaugurated it last season, 2017–18, as the Seeking the Human Spirit initiative. The brainchild of HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers, Seeking the Human Spirit is truly groundbreaking—no other opera company has attempted a long-term emphasis on a subject so intangible. That meant there was no blueprint to follow, but HGO has always been in the business of leading rather than following.


And then, just as HGO was preparing to open the 2017–18 season and launch Seeking the Human Spirit, Hurricane Harvey came along. HGO’s home, the Wortham Theater Center, sustained devastating damage from the floodwaters. The company was uprooted for what turned out to be an entire year but presented every season performance as scheduled in a temporary theater, built in two weeks, in the George R. Brown Convention Center. It might have seemed like a bad time to begin a major initiative like Seeking the Human Spirit, but the healing power of music was needed more than ever. Each season of Seeking the Human Spirit has a theme, and last season it was sacrifice—how could we think of postponing when so many Houstonians had sacrificed so much?


These moving statements from two community participants in the 2017-2018 season, reassured us we had made the right decision: “With the personal turmoil that my family has been through because of Hurricane Harvey, the start of theopera season buoyed my spirits and helped me realize that suffering and sacrifice are part of the human experience. We will make it through as stronger individuals.” “I have always been of the opinion that music heals. As my first time seeing
opera in person, I felt this keenly. It was a truly amazing experience!”

Participants in the HGO–Sacred Sites Quest partnership built a
permanent labyrinth at Parco Miralfiore in Pesaro, Italy

Inside and Outside the Opera House


HGO is approaching this vast exploration through mainstage operas chosen for their diverse spiritual themes and through community partnerships that support the initiative’s goals: to better understand the connections we have with music and how they can help us understand ourselves, each other, and the world around us. One expression of the effectiveness of the initiative is this heartfelt sentiment expressed by an audience member who was profoundly touched by HGO’s presentation of Norma: “Seeing the performance of Norma pulled me out of a dark period of depression. Seeing the opera unlocked something within me. I woke up and saw a light and now am taking active steps towards my recovery. Thank you for giving me a voice to share.” Through this work, HGO hopes to change the cultural conversation about the role of art in our daily lives.


For the duration of the initiative, roughly half of HGO’s productions each season will be included under the Seeking the Human Spirit umbrella. These works will be related thematically, and the theme will change from season to season. While last season’s operas focused on sacrifice, the Seeking the Human Spirit operas for 2018–19 explore the theme of transformation and include Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas, and a world premiere opera by Tarik O’Regan and John Caird titled The Phoenix. New works will be an important component of Seeking the Human Spirit, as HGO reinvigorates the repertoire with works of our own time.

Rothko Chapel panel. Moderator David Leslie, executive
director of the Rothko Chapel; HGO’s Patrick Summers;
Debbie McNulty, director of Mayor Turner’s Office of Cultural
Affairs; and renowned stage director Peter Sellars

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in partnership with
HGO, offered docent-led tours of the museum’s permanent
collection, which were themed around Seeking the Human
Spirit

But to really achieve HGO’s vision for Seeking the Human Spirit, the effort couldn’t be limited to the main stage, and that’s where the community partnerships come in. HGO’s 2017–18 season partners included Houston Methodist Center for Performing Arts Medicine; Sacred Sites Quest; The Jung Center; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Women’s Home; and the Rothko Chapel. Each of these partners worked with us to develop joint programs that broadened understanding of how we relate to music on a spiritual level, and several will work with HGO again this season.


Hadia Mawlawi, a new staff member of HGOco, the arm of HGO that builds community partnerships, will lead all Seeking the Human Spirit community initiatives going forward. With fluency in four languages, Mawlawi came on board in August and has worked on community initiative programming for organizations such as the Arabic American Cultural & Community Center, the National Association for Latino Arts & Culture, and the Texas French Alliance for the Arts.


2018–19 Community Programs
“Each of our programs touches on the themes of transformation, renewal, and regeneration  within a variety of contexts and communities,” says Mawlawi. 

 

Some programs are open to the public, including a lecture at The Jung Center on October 17 at 7:30 p.m. titled “Der fliegende Holländer: Transformation of the Fallen Soul.” The lecture by Jungian analyst Dr. Ronald Schenk explores the concept of archetype and how it is reflected in great works of art, especially opera. HGO will present Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) this fall. 

 

The signature event in the spring, also open to the public, will be an exploration of creativity in collaboration with Houston Methodist’s Center for Research & Innovation under the leadership of Dr. Mauro Ferrari, a member of HGO’s Corporate Council.

Events with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will include docent tours of the museum’s permanent collection themed around Florencia en el Amazonas and the world premiere of The Phoenix. There will also be a book club focus on Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to tie in with the theme of magical realism prevalent in Florencia.


HGO continues to partner with The Women’s Home and the Center for Spirituality and Health–Texas Medical Center in a 14-week spiritual exploration program titled The Courage to Search. This program is tailored specifically for residents of The Women’s Home, a nonprofit that offers support to women and families. The Opera will work with Las Americas Middle School in a program titled Be the Peace—Be the Hope under a new partnership with The Texan French Alliance for the Arts. In early December, HGO will expand its partnership with Houston Methodist and its Center for Performing Arts Medicine with four music therapy residencies, following a highly successful mini-residency last season. The opera will provide artists to work with patients in the psychiatric unit over each four-day residency.


Other vital programs are being developed between the Opera and Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the Italian Cultural & Community Center, Discovery Green, and The Houston Public Library.


The Joy Is in the Journey
HGO’s greatest hope for the Seeking the Human Spirit initiative is that, in conjunction with our community partners, we can offer a forum in which probing questions can be asked and discussed. We will leave it to others—our community partners and those in the sciences, religion, and philosophy, and to each individual—to find answers. After all, when it comes to the big questions of life, there are often many answers. In the meantime, we are enjoying the journey, and we invite you to come along.


For more information about Seeking the Human Spirit, please visit HGO.org/HumanSpirit. For information about community partnerships, please contact Hadia Mawlawi at hmawlawi@hgo.org.

Rothko Chapel panel. Moderator David Leslie, executive
director of the Rothko Chapel; HGO’s Patrick Summers;
Debbie McNulty, director of Mayor Turner’s Office of Cultural
Affairs; and renowned stage director Peter Sellars

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in partnership with
HGO, offered docent-led tours of the museum’s permanent
collection, which were themed around Seeking the Human
Spirit

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