Opera & Musical Theater

HGO’s Anthony Freud and a 2007-08 Season Preview

Eric Skelly talks with HGO’s new general director and CEO Anthony Freud about the upcoming season and some of the new projects he’ll be working on in the coming years.

One very important aspect of motivation is the willingness to stop and to look at things that no one else has bothered to look at. This simple process of focusing on things that are normally taken for granted is a powerful source of creativity…

–Edward de Bono (Francis Charles Publius) Maltese Psychologist and Writer, leading authority in field of creative thinking. b.1933

Life among the embarrassment of riches that is Houston’s arts community can come to seem like an endless banquet, a cornucopia of art. But there’s a danger in knowing that the banquet will always be replenished: we can come to take it for granted.

HGO CEO and General Director, Anthony Freud
Photo by Bruce Bennett

In 2005-2006, one of Houston’s premier arts organizations underwent a transference of leadership for the first time in over thirty years, and in March 2006, Anthony Freud began his tenure as General Director and CEO of Houston Grand Opera (HGO). About to conclude his first full season at HGO, Freud now looks forward to 2007-2008.

An articulate and cordial British gentleman in his early 40s, Freud is already making his artistic presence felt in the current HGO season (as the head of Welsh National Opera he put together the co-production of La Cenerentola that he wound up later presenting as head of HGO this past January/February). Although not able to program next season in its entirety (in opera, season components are sometimes planned out a good five years in advance) Freud’s artistic guidance is very evident in his commitment to shine the spotlight on the company’s greatest artistic assets…assets which have long ensured a high performance standard at HGO…and assets which could all too easily be taken for granted.

Two of those assets are the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and the HGO Chorus. Without going into specifics, Freud alludes to projects beyond 2007-2008 that will showcase both. “Of course, the two great artistic pillars of HGO are the chorus and orchestra,” he says, “but it seems to me that in the relationships we build with our Houston Grand Opera Studio artists, which relationships continue in the years that follow their finishing their full time in the Studio, we have a third great artistic pillar.”

New HGO Studio artist Albina Shagimuratova

Performing arts seasons are notoriously difficult to qualify in terms of an overriding theme, but clearly the theme of HGO’s 2007-2008 season is “Yea, HGO Studio!” Current and former Studio artists hold principal roles in nearly every production next season, including current Studio soprano Albina Shagimuratova as both the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute and Musetta in La boheme, Studio soprano Rebekah Camm as Pamina in The Magic Flute, and Studio alumi Ana Maria Martinez (Mimi in La boheme), Heidi Stober (Blonde in Abduction from the Seraglio), Nikolai Didenko (Sam in A Masked Ball and Colline in La boheme), Daniel Belcher (the title role in Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd), Nicholas Phan (Pedrillo in Abduction from the Sergalio), Chen-Ye Yuan (Speaker of the Temple in The Magic Flute), Joshua Hopkins (Marcello in La boheme), Christopher Feigum (Schaunard in La boheme) and Joshua Winograde (Lieutenant Ratcliffe in Billy Budd). Even former Studio head and current HGO Artistic Administrator Diane Zola returns to her thespian roots to take on the non-singing role of The Duchess of Krakenthorp in the Donizetti comedy The Daughter of the Regiment.

Perhaps the most auspicious and eye-opening Studio assignment next year goes to soprano Tamara Wilson. In her first year as a Studio alumna she sings the First Lady in the The Magic Flute, but first, she tackles the daunting assignment of Amelia in Verdi’s A Masked Ball in October 2007 opposite the Riccardo of Ram?n Vargas and the Ulrica of Polish contralto sensation Ewa Podl?s.

Tamara Wilson in the 2006 HGO production of The Marriage of Figaro
Photo by Doug Opfer

Anthony Freud elaborates on this uncommon bit of casting: “To be honest we had a range of choices for Amelia, and the decision to cast Tamara was taken with great care and great caution because I realize that it’s unusual for a Verdi role of that weight to be cast with a singer as young as Tamara. But it was something that we considered and by we I mean Patrick [Summers], Diane Zola, Hector [Vasquez], Kathy Kelley and me very carefully in discussion with Tammy. We didn’t go for her because it was the quickest option. We went for her because we really believe in that piece of casting as something that is going to be extraordinarily exciting. If we did not have a Studio it’s unlikely that a company like HGO would hear a singer of Tammy’s age in audition and come to the conclusion that Amelia is a role that she should be offered at this stage. But we’ve known Tammy for two years. We’ve worked with her, extensively, carefully, so we know her strengths, her qualities, and we have gone there with her believing in her 150%.”

Not only is HGO looking inwardly for inspiration in ’07-’08, it’s also casting its gaze out toward another endlessly rich resource that again can be easily taken for granted: Houston’s diverse ethnic composition. “We’re engaging a composer Christopher Theofanidis, and a poet Leah Lax,” explains Freud. “We’re asking them to go into six ethnic communities, talking literally to hundreds of people, looking for extraordinary stories of individual journeys that brought people to Houston. In each of the six communities we’re doing parallel schools projects, quite diverse: one’s a poetry project, one’s a painting project, one’s a photography project in partnership with National Geographic. Parallel to that we are looking in each of the communities for individuals and groups of performers who are interested purely on an amateur basis in collaborating with us on this project. And the idea is that each of the six stories become a ten-minute-or-so movement of the big piece. We give the first performance of each movement in its own community. Then on the 10th of November, what by then will be I think the 3-or-4-hundred participants from across the six communities will come to the Wortham and join forces with the HGO Chorus and Orchestra conducted by our Music Director Patrick Summers. By then the composer will have composed a climactic 7th movement that will seek to encompass the combination of the individual journeys, and what we’ll give is the premiere of a giant Song of Houston…a portrait in words and music of our city.”

Lest anyone think that these commitments to spotlight HGO’s artistic pillars and to unprecedented community involvement are to last only as long as the 2007-2008 season…think again. Anthony Freud pledges long-term commitment to showcasing Studio artists. “As a newcomer to Houston,” he says, “I’m very excited by the fact that we’re lucky enough to have an audience that seems more excited by observing one of their artists growing and developing in new directions, than they may be by encountering visiting international stars. I find that artistically very satisfying and very exciting because it gives us the opportunity to develop exceptional young talent in a way that we can be confident will be supported by our audiences.”

Sandra Bernhard, Director of HGOCo

Freud is equally committed to breaking away from the old ‘If We Perform It, They Will Come’ model, and taking performances out to audiences in their own communities more frequently. To that end, he’s formed HGOCo, a new initiative that he’s appointed Sandra Bernhard (no, not the mouthy comedienne…the renowned opera stage director) to head up. Freud expounds: “HGOCo is an initiative that tries to really stretch and maximize the impact of the resource of a full-scale opera company on a city as diverse, as growing, as vibrant as Houston. If we are to earn a greater level of relevance towards hopefully becoming indispensable, we have to do so in a way that takes us out of the sometimes fortress-like walls of an opera house and work with communities.”

Future HGOCo projects in development beyond 2007-2008 include tapping into the Benjamin Britten series (which HGO embarks on next season with Billy Budd), and working with churches and synagogues throughout the city to produce the composer’s enchanting children’s opera Noye’s Fludde (pronounced “Noah’s Flood”). This is just a taste of things to come, as we rediscover Houston Grand Opera through the new eyes of its general director.