Cultural Warrior: Sandra Bernhard

HGOco director Sandra Bernhard.

Sandra Bernhard is the engine behind such ground-breaking HGOco/Houston Grand Opera programs such as Song of Houston and Home and Place. She also is the lead on numerous other projects that bring HGO into Houston’s multi-cultural communities in a way that sets the standard for how a major organization sources its own people. She came to Houston after a two-decade career at the San Francisco Opera and five years as Chair of the Opera program at CCM (College Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati). In addition, she has directed many operas. Bernhard discusses her passion for music, meaning, and making her mark on Houston with A + C editor Nancy Wozny below.

A + C:  You have such a highly nuanced position at HGO that really grew out of your history, experience, and passion. What’s your elevator speech when people ask you what you do there?

Sandra Bernhard: HGOco stands for company, community, and is Houston Grand Opera’s unique initiative that connects the company to the community through collaboration through new works, residencies, and storytelling projects with music. We define opera as telling stories with music and explore relevant stories of those who call Houston their home. HGOco is a “lab,” a “center for creativity and exploration,” and a “playground for the curious.” Yes, this is the Houston Grand Opera – a cultural resource for the City of Houston.

I usually follow this speech with: Have you seen any of our works, such as Opera to Go!, East + West:The Bricklayer with a libretto by Houston writer, Farnoosh Moshiri, or New Arrivals, the story of Houston’s local hero Yani Rose? Perhaps, you’ve seen a concert of works of Houston artists through our program Houston Artists Respond…let me tell you about that…(once the on button has been pushed it sometimes gets stuck!)

A + C:  I’m not surprised, because you are behind so many projects, yet, you don’t use the word, “outreach”, a word that has frankly lost it’s punch in art education circles. How do you differentiate the work you do from traditional outreach?

SB:  Anthony Freud and I share our phobia for the word “outreach”. Let me quote Anthony to define an example of “outreach”: “For HGO as an opera company to go to a community and say ‘this is La Bohème and you should like it, seems arrogant.” I couldn’t agree more. Our job is to provide awareness, education, and relevancy for opera (as defined as storytelling with music) at the Wortham Theatre Center and anywhere else we can be heard. Our job is not to tell people what 19th century opera is and “why they should like it.” Our job is to provide a way to understand the chaos of the world and the human condition through an art form that allows people to feel and reflect.

A + C:  There was a time when HGOco’s image was a little unclear. The entity has a solid presence now, in large part to your steadfast devotion and the work that has come out of it. What other factors have been involved?

SB:  I’ve been there when people have been moved to tears, laughter, anger, and community conversation. I’ve stood on Ellington Field watching our brave heroes before the Heroes Run. Listen to a song from Pieces of 9/11, or attend a performance of The Bricklayer at the Arab American Cultural Center, or attend – or instigate a community conversation about the good, bad, and ugly about our communities and how we can make change. I’ve watched Houston artists through our Houston Artists Respond program become inspired by a senior writing class run by WITS or a poem created by an immigrant mom. I’ve watched people be transformed through the power of art as presented by kids, teens, adults, and artists of all ages. Every day, I am renewed by the power art provides to move people to action.

A + C:  Christopher Theofanidis‘s ground breaking opera, The Refuge, felt like a HGO milestone to me. For you too?

SB: The Refuge was the first of its kind: seven communities in Houston, from which stories were shared and premiered in those communities, from which they came and finally brought together on the Brown stage at the Wortham Theater Center, and then at Miller with the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Chorus, Children’s Chorus, Studio members, and community musicians from around Houston. The Refuge was a game changer: how HGO uses resources, what we stand for as a company, how we are a cultural resource to our city, how we create, and who we are.

Bray Wilkins in Gregory Spears’ The Bricklayer.

A + C:  Opera To Go! (OTG) is getting some legs these days, You have been instrumental in developing local talent. Fill us in out what’s in store for us there.

SB: OTG has always been committed to telling stories in a relevant way – whether that be Cinderella in a more contemporary and fun setting in Spanish and English in Cinderella in Spain, or creating new tellings of old folk tales such as The Clever Wife – A Chinese Folktale. These stories are presented in schools, community centers, libraries for young audiences, and new audiences to opera – storytelling with words and music. These stories are presented by a talented group of Houston artists who audition for Opera to Go! each year. HGO is committed to providing opportunities for Houston artists. OTG is one of those ways through which Houston Artists can perform for nine months.

A + C:  You confessed to me that you were a musical theater geek in high school, with high hope of being the next Broadway “side kick.” I loved hearing youropera baptism story. Can you share the highlights of that story with us?

SB: I sang for a chorus job – for money with the brand new company Opera Colorado, then saw Francesca Zambello assisting Nathaniel Merrill (director of La Boheme and Opera Colorado) – I never left. The drama, the music, the storytelling…I realized singing was not going to pay the bills, but assisting and then directing would be my path into the world of opera. I built my home in this world and have happily tended this garden forever.

A + C:  Last season you directed a rather controversial opera, Powder Her Face, for Opera Vista. Any other plans to direct outside of the mothership?

SB:  Yes! Opera Vista has invited me back in the fall. More on this soon.

A + C:  In looking at the trajectory of your career from San Francisco Opera to HGO, you have really carved a completely unique path in the opera world. At HGO, it seems you have been able to have programs emerge from your vision and not the other way around. Do you see it that way?

SB: Yes. This is not only a playground for the curious, but a playground for my soul. Vision is a funny thing. You can see it in your head, but it’s only a fuzzy dream until the right team steps up and plays with that vision. That team is here at HGOco, and are making visions a reality. Otherwise, visions remain a dream.

A + C:  Lead us into next season from where you stand. What projects can we look forward to?

SB: Next year’s commissions will include: East + West Korea and Japan, OTG Trumpet Opera (working title), and Houston Artists Respond. Additionally, we will be working collaboratively with HGO to connect themes, ideas, and community conversations with the mainstage repertoire, commissions, and symposiums. I aim to live my elevator speech: to connect the company with the community through collaboration through the universal and powerful language of storytelling with music.