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Opera & Musical Theater

Houston Grand Opera Finishes An Epic Production Of Die Walküre

HGO wrapped up their production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre over the weekend, but the impact on Houston’s cultural economy might still be resonating.


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The “wizard behind the curtain.” Dave Feheley, HGO’s technical and production director.


Over the weekend, Houston Grand Opera finished up their run of Wagner’s Die Walküre (Or Valkyrie, as it’s often called). It’s the opera of all operas, complete with Brünnhilde and her iconic horned helmet.

It’s safe to say that opera has a reputation: high-brow, opulent, and extravagant.

But it’s not all glamour. There’s a very different world on the other side of the curtain.

Many consider Walküre — and The Ring Cycle in general — to be the Mount Everest of opera.

 “The Ring is the most gigantic work of performance art that has ever been written in this medium, or any medium. And there’s a lot of obsession about the length of these operas,” said Patrick Summers, the opera’s artistic and music director.

Stephanie Wheeldon, assistant electrician, who’s been with HGO for about six years.

(In case you’re wondering,The Ring is a set of four massive operas by the 19th century German composer, Richard Wagner).

This is Summers’ first Ring Cycle, which is sort of like a conductor earning his stripes.

“I mean, everybody kind of marks themselves by whether or not you’ve done a Ring Cycle. So, to be working on my second one is fantastic,” said Dave Feheley, the technical and production director.

The impact of such a grand production can be felt beyond the opera house; as far as the union hall of stage techs, the people behind the curtain who keep all the moving parts in line. A production like this employs dozens of unionized stage hands.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the stage of the Wortham Theater is organized chaos as a couple dozen men move a large piece of the stage floor. This is the side of opera that doesn’t fit the stereotype: hammers, wood, sawdust, electrical wires, blue jeans, tattoos, dyed hair, smoke breaks.

So with an assorted group of people, one may think opera wouldn’t be high on their list of entertainment, right? Wrong.

Take Stephanie Wheeldon, assistant electrician. She has short, violet hair that’s shaved on the sides. On this day, she’s wearing army green cargo pants and neon sneakers.

“Some of the works that I’ve seen and that I’ve worked on, it’s hard not to appreciate it. You just end up loving it so much,” she said.

Matthew Farwell is the property master’s assistant. He and Sean Waldron are in the middle of what looks like a sci-fi operating room. They have a stuffed dummy laid out on a flat table and operating on its electrical innards.

Photo of prop doctors
“Prop doctors” Matthew Farwell and Sean Waldron perform “surgery” on the electrical bowels of one of the dummies used in the mobile scene.

Like so many other techs who’ve found their way in opera, Farwell has grown to love it.

“Absolutely, yes. Yes, I love opera now. I just enjoy the challenges that come up,” he said.

The “wrecking ball,” as it’s called, was suspended above the stage. It holds about 17 real people and three dummies, with a total weight of about 4,000 pounds.

The production challenges are often why stage techs are attracted to working in opera.  

That was the case for HGO’s Managing Director Perryn Leech. His career began years ago in England as a theater electrician.

He does confirm one common belief, though. Opera costs a lot of money.

“An average opera — and there’s no such thing — but an average opera is one and three quarters million to two and a half million (dollars). Each of these Ring operas is at least another million dollars on top of that,” Leech explained.

It also brings tourism, which is always beneficial to a city.

“Let’s say, conservatively, you’ve got 800 or 900 people coming to visit from out of town. You have whatever they choose to spend here during the course of the weekend. That’s certainly going to be one or two nights’ accommodation. That’s certainly going to be tickets to the show, meals out, etc. etc.,” he added.

Since the opening night on April 18th, Die Walküre sold well over 11,000 seats by its final performance on Sunday. People from 15 different countries came to Houston to see it.

Now they’re looking ahead to the third opera of the Ring Cycle, Siegfried, coming next year.


Related story: Opera Cheat Sheet: Die Walküre

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