Consumed by Love: Houston Grand Opera’s New Season of Romance and Passion

“What is it about opera that keeps everybody thinking in a romantic frame of mind?” That’s a question Khori Dastoor, General Director and CEO of Houston Grand Opera (HGO), pondered while deciding the theme for HGO’s 2024-25 season. “People would come find me in the lobby to tell me their love stories.” First dates, proposals, wedding anniversaries—people have been making lifetime memories and creating their own love stories at the opera house to the soundtrack of timeless masterpieces. “That’s what next season is all about,” continues Dastoor. “Opera unlocks our biggest romantic feelings and we’ve decided to celebrate that.”

In contrast to the current season, which is loaded with the mature, final works of opera titans Verdi and Wagner (Falstaff and Parsifal) as well as Rogers and Hammerstein’s final collaboration (The Sound of Music) and Mozart’s late masterpiece (Don Giovanni), the upcoming season is giving youth its due. “When I’m looking at the next season,” says HGO’s Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers, “not only is the subject so much about young love, but the operas themselves were composed by youngsters. The boundless energy of youth runs through each of next year’s works.”

Looking at the six mainstage productions for next season, youth abounds. Il Trovatore, based on a play by 22-year-old Spaniard Antonio Garcia Guttierez, was a triumph for young Verdi. Rossini began Cinderella when he was only 23, although he already had 19 operas under his belt by then. Puccini’s La Bohème is the quintessential opera about young love. Stephen Sondheim was 24 when he signed on to be the lyricist for West Side Story, his Broadway debut. Tannhäuser was Wagner’s first defining grand romantic work. But the work Summers is most looking forward to next season is the Houston premiere of Breaking the Waves (2016), the thought-provoking, critically acclaimed opera by the exceptionally gifted young American composer Missy Mazzoli. “I think it’s one of the most brilliant of the 21st century operas that HGO has had the pleasure to do.”

The season of love, subtitled “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” opens with Verdi’s Il Trovatore (Oct. 18-Nov. 3, 2024). “This is not your grandmother’s Trovatore!” Summers declares. Acclaimed director Stephen Wadsworth’s brand new production of Verdi’s thrilling tragedy sets the piece in present day Europe where street art vies for public space with skyscrapers and cathedrals, and a turf war in a politically divided Spain serves as backdrop for the intensely romantic love triangle where the hero Manrico and the jealous Count di Luna battle for Leonora’s affection.

But it is Wadsworth’s conception of the role of Azucena, the Romani woman driving the action, that sets the production apart, shining a light on her humanity. “We are in Azucena’s world,” says Dastoor. “She runs a nightclub in modern day Spain. The envelope is a contemporary one and that really helps us understand we are in a changing landscape where the struggle for power and for ownership of this land has always been contested and always will be as the struggle between the marginalized peoples who occupy space and the more colonialist government structures that seek to control the stakes plays out. It unlocked the whole theme of it for me. If you are a Romani person, where do you belong? Where is your homeland?”

Costume designer Camille Assaf took the opportunity to showcase bold street fashion, inspired by a melding of avant garde contemporary silhouettes in the music and fashion industry. “Imagine Erykah Badu, with a palazzo feel. It’s an opportunity to interpret a modern-day Romani, what that person is wearing vs. the establishment characters,” adds Dastoor. “The clothes tell a lot of the story.” HGO is also partnering with local street artists to celebrate the rich culture of public art in Houston spaces.

The superstar cast of Ailyn Pérez as Leonora, Michael Spyres as Manrico, Lucas Meachem as Count di Luna, and Raehann Bryce-Davis as Azucena will be led by music director Patrick Summers, who, having already done this Verdi masterpiece three times in his 25 years at HGO, is ready to hit this Trovatore “out of the ballpark.”

“This is our Cinderella,” (Oct. 25-Nov. 9, 2024) says Dastoor of HGO’s production of Rossini’s delectable dramma giocoso. HGO gave the premiere of this colorful Joan Font production in 2007. Font is the creative genius behind the Barcelona-based theater troupe Els Comediants, and this ebullient version is full of whimsy and heart. “Every culture has a version of this story,” says Dastoor. “That’s one of the great things about Cinderella. This version centers on her graciousness in forgiving the wrongs done against her. It’s about this earnest humanity around finding your person.” It’s a family friendly production, and in line with HGO’s commitment to multigenerational programming, Isabel Leonard, the star of Cinderella, will make her directorial debut in a shortened version of the production for HGO’s inaugural Family Day (Nov. 9).

Rounding out the superb cast are Jack Swanson, a world class interpreter of Rossini operas, in the role of Prince Ramiro, Iurii Samoilov as Dandini, and Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico, taking on the buffo role with its tongue-twisting patter songs. “When you have someone like Corbelli who can do the Italian patter at that speed, hang on to your seats. It just flies,” says Dastoor. Add to that hilarious stepsisters and human-sized rats, delightful tunes and one of the best overtures in all of opera, the production promises to go down like a glass or two of the lightest, brightest champagne.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day (Jan. 24-Feb. 14, 2025), HGO will mount Tony Award-winning director John Caird’s intimate production of Puccini’s timeless and heart-breaking story of young love, La Bohème, set in belle époque Paris. “It’s the opera that simply has to be included if your theme is love,” says Dastoor. The star-studded young cast includes Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz making her HGO debut as Mimì, Joshua Guerrero as her Rodolfo, Grammy winner Edward Parks as the painter Marcello, and Juliana Grigoryan, the glamorous rising star and recent winner of the Operalia World Opera Competition, making her HGO debut as his lover Musetta.

“Because it’s about the innocence of youth,” says Summer, “Bohème is best served by artists who are discovering the work through their own youth. And I think we have really achieved that with this cast.” Dastoor adds, “Our very good-looking, very young cast is just going to break everybody’s hearts!”  It will be HGO’s third time in recent years to stage this production, but as Dastoor emphasizes, “with 70% of HGO’s single ticket buyers being new after Covid, you have to give people the Bohème experience.”

Houston audiences will recall that legendary director Francesca Zambello’s production of West Side Story (Jan. 31-Feb.15, 2025) was performed in Houston at the George R. Brown Resilience Theater during the Hurricane Harvey season. “We could only do it with about 20% of the scenery,” says Summers. “You haven’t seen this production as it was meant to be seen.” HGO is assembling a superlative cast from the Broadway, film, and opera worlds, plus dynamic dancers from all over the map to realize the original Jerome Robbins choreography.

This tragic story of young love will play out with soprano Shereen Pimentel making her HGO debut as Maria, alongside tenor Brenton Ryan as Tony. HGO will host its popular High School Night for one of the performances. Dastoor relishes the opportunity to share with young learners this story of conflict, gang violence, and gun issues. “It’s an incredibly and sadly relevant story to tell as we look at this modern-day Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of an urban landscape, and yet at the center of all that drama, young lovers finding each other in a moment when time stands still.”

Perhaps the most electric and provocative offering of the HGO season will be Missy Mazzoli’s daring 2016 opera Breaking the Waves (Apr. 19-May 4, 2025), based on the art film of the same title by the Danish auteur Lars von Trier. “HGO has a long-standing commitment to new work and I’m so proud of our history of tackling pieces that are challenging, that are boundary-pushing,” says Dastoor. “This is a thought-provoking piece of art and it’s important that our audiences in Houston interact with it.”

Summers describes the opera as a religious, erotic journey of two characters, Bess and Jan. Two graduates of HGO’s prestigious Butler Studio return to portray two emotionally and vocally demanding roles–Jan (Ryan McKinny), who suffers an injury in an oil rig accident and is unable to be intimate with his wife; and Bess (Lauren Snouffer), who is encouraged to seek sexual adventures and ultimately goes on a spiritual journey that leads to shocking consequences.

“These are very sensitive and difficult subjects,” explains Summers. “You would expect that an opera with a subject matter as difficult as this to be discordant or somehow difficult to listen to, but they (Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek) do exactly the opposite. They make this into an incredible lyrical journey that makes us even more confused about what we are feeling.”

Houston audiences will be the first to see this new staging of Tannhäuser (Apr. 25-May 11, 2025) from creative powerhouse Francesca Zambello. Tannhäuser has one of the most recognizable and beautiful scores in all of opera. Heldentenor-du-jour Russell Thomas will make his role debut as the titular character, matched by two favorite HGO artists, Tamara Wilson as Elizabeth (love) and Sasha Cooke as Venus (lust), pulling him in opposing directions on a journey of love and redemption. Also watch out for Alexandros Stavrakakis as Landgraf Hermann. The young Greek bass made a big impression on Summers during an audition in New York. “Unforgettable, one of the greatest young voices I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Summers also points out that the stars of any Wagner opera are always the resident ensembles, the HGO orchestra and chorus. “It’s a choral spectacle beyond almost any opera besides Lohengrin,” he says. “The opera is also about the art of singing itself, which makes it just the right way to end this blockbuster season.” Erik Nielsen, the acclaimed music director of Bilbao Symphony Orchestra, will make his company debut at the podium.

Speaking of conductors, all four guest conductors next season are making their debut appearances at the Wortham: young Italian conductor Lorenzo Passerini for Cinderella, Grammy winner Karen Kamensek for La Boheme, Mexican-born conductor Roberto Kalb for West Side Story, and Erik Nielson for Tannhäuser.

The mainstage season is just the beginning of what HGO does in the community. Some of the most important work happens beyond the mainstage. Giving Voice, a celebration of Black artists in opera, is bigger than ever going into its sixth year. The Concert of Arias will finally join the ranks of other major singing competitions around the world that perform with a live orchestra. Joel Thompson, in the third of his five-year composer-in-residence tenure at HGO, is working on an oral history project that will culminate in the 2025 premiere of his new song cycle, consisting of 12 songs with text by Houston poet laureate Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton. The work will give voice to the oral histories of Black Houstonians, collected by HGO’s partners at the Emancipation Park Conservancy and the African American History Resource Center at the Gregory School.

Dastoor believes that each season is its own piece of art. “It doesn’t need to be anything else besides what it is at the moment. It will have authenticity in that way. We are better served by just saying, this is really special, and it’s never happened before quite like this, and it will never happen again quite like this. That’s the art we want to produce.”