Almost anyone who's lived in Houston for a while probably has a storm story.
At a recent open-mic event, Houston-area residents shared entertaining stories of weathering some of the worst. It was hosted by the Houston Arts Alliance and Houston Grand Opera in advance of the premiere of After the Storm, a new chamber opera set in present-day Galveston during a fictional hurricane. The idea for the story came from composer David Hanlon, as part of HGO's Song of Houston program.
"And so I was trying to think of my own experience in Houston, what resonated, and what we all talk about together," Hanlon says. "And when I'd just started at the studio, we were one week into it when Hurricane Ike struck."
Last year, Hanlon and the creative team started researching Galveston's long history of storms, going all the way back to the Great Storm of 1900 that killed between 8,000 and 10,000 people. Then they set out to meet Galvestonians (including a ghost hunter) to gather stories.
One person they interviewed was Patricia Rennick, whose family has lived on the island for generations. "My great grandfather was one of the key documenters of the 1900 storm because he was a photographer in the late 1800s and 1900s," Rennick says, who, along with her family, runs the Mosquito Café on 14th Street. The fourth-generation Galvestonian has stayed through every storm she can remember. Even when Hurricane Ike destroyed their restaurant in 2008, they rebuilt it.
Alice Wygant was another major contributor to the research process. Now retired, Wygant used to work with the Galveston Historical Foundation and is an encyclopedia of information about the 1900 storm's devastation. "The water rose four feet in less than a minute," she says. "And so people that were okay, all of a sudden were under water." (Which is what happens during an intense scene of the opera.)
But how is a hurricane from 116 years ago linked to this fictional one? It has to do with the main character, Eliza Goodman, who lives in a beautiful old Victorian house on the island. Her family has been there for generations, even before the Great Storm.
"It's really about a relationship between the mother and the daughter," explains librettist Stephanie Fleischmann. "The daughter is in Houston and so it's about what happens when loved ones far away from us are caught in a natural disaster."
The opera's director, Matthew Ozawa, arrived to Houston from Chicago during the devastating floods about three weeks ago. Sitting in the airport while images of a city underwater flashed across television screens, he was questioning whether he'd make it here for rehearsal.
That's why this opera could really hit home for a lot of people in the area.
"It resonates on a very intimate and powerful level," Ozawa says. "Not only for people that are performing it, but I think it will for people that are watching it."
After the Storm premieres on Friday, May 13th at the Wortham Center, followed by a performance the following Sunday at the Grand 1894 Opera House in Galveston.