Caught Dead In an Opera

Houston's beleaguered arts community talks to itself about Harvey Milk

According to the public notices, the gathering at the Contemporary Arts Museum last week was convened to discuss the Houston Grand Opera's premiere of Harvey Milk, a production based on the life of a gay politician who was assassinated by a fellow member of San Francisco's board of supervisors.

A publicist later explained that the panel discussion was intended to make Harvey Milk "safe" for mainstream opera fans who might be put off by the subject matter. But the conference, which attracted about 300 people, was actually more like an emergency meeting of the city's beleaguered liberal arts establishment, hunkered down in the CAM fallout shelter to contemplate the rising Christian right, homophobia, Newtmania and the status of the National Endowment for the Arts as an endangered species.

Among the panelists considering the open-and-shut question "Is Houston Ready For Harvey Milk?" were onetime gubernatorial candidate Sissy Farenthold, Montrose state Representative Debra Danburg and Houston Post columnist Juan Palomo. HGO general director David Gockley and CAM director Marti Mayo provided the representation from the arts, while Central Houston Inc.'s Bob Eury and Houston Chronicle gossip mistress Maxine Mesinger were the tame cards.

Mesinger was recently twitted by a team of diversity auditors from her newspaper for relegating a lesbian affair to the category of "other unpalatable matters" in her column, but judging by her comments at CAM she's had a political awakening, at least concerning homosexuality. "It's a matter of civil rights," she declared. "We need more education to find out what these people are really like ... there's homophobia in this town and I guess there always will be ... people who are not going to accept anything that has 'gay' attached to it."

But Mad Max averred that things are getting better in terms of public acceptance of gay people, and as evidence she cited the movies La Cage aux Folles (released some 16 years ago) and Philadelphia ("What could be more wonderful?"). That brought forth pained chuckles from the crowd -- the sort of reaction you might expect from black sharecroppers in the '30s who'd just been told that Al Jolson in blackface and the production of Porgy and Bess signified social progress for African-Americans.

Mesinger commended Gockley for backing HGO's staging of Harvey Milk over the opposition of some members of the opera's organization, presumably the socialites on its board.

Gockley acknowledged there was opposition to HGO's decision to produce the Milk opera, though he said it was in the form of "a sheaf of hate mail, mostly Christian-based." But, Gockley asked rhetorically, "How can I turn my back on a great heroic, operatic story about Harvey Milk? Good stories make good opera. They inspire artists to do great work."

The panelists got their own inspiration from a surprise visit by new U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who swept in from the wings to warn that "some very strange political winds" were blowing in from Washington. She urged that supporters of public funding of the arts mobilize to counteract busloads of NEA opponents who, she said, were drowning out other opinions on Capitol Hill.

Of course, there were no other opinions to be drowned out at the CAM chat-fest. "What are my chances of finding someone here who's not in favor of the opera?" muttered a TV newsman who had interviewed several enthusiastic supporters and was looking for a counterbalancing point of view. After scanning the audience, the conclusion was inescapable: man-on-the-street interviews in Pasadena or The Woodlands seemed the only way to go.

The futility of the arts crowd talking to itself was underscored by Mayo's observation that those in the audience needed to take their message "beyond the choir, which is in this room."

But the best lines came from the audience. Stephen Stein, conductor-in-residence at the Houston Symphony, suggested that before the religious right gets uptight about an opera about Harvey Milk, there were more controversial and established works for it to go after. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Stein observed, is about two 15-year-olds in bed. And then there's La Traviata, which he described as "Heidi Fleiss contracts tuberculosis."

Philanthropist and longtime opera supporter Sue Pittman pointed out that since the audience "is not the people you need to reach," a more sensible approach would be to force Mayor Bob Lanier, the Houston City Council and Police Chief Sam Nuchia to attend the Milk opera and listen to a discussion of the issues it raises. (Maybe a seminar on police chase policy could be thrown in as the encore.)

As the crowd filed out, longtime Houston gay activist Ray Hill, who had actually met Milk and once helped him organize a protest march, was unimpressed.

"Most of the gay people here would not have pissed on Harvey Milk's leg when he was alive," opined the crusty Hill, explaining that Milk had crooked teeth, wore the wrong clothes and had to weather "more openly gay opponents" in his runs for office. And the flesh-and-blood Milk, said Hill, would not have been caught dead at an opera house.

"He hated the opera," laughed Hill, "and he loved country-western music.

 
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