It's been almost two and a half years since Robert Henry died. But the Houston Ebony Opera Guild is surviving, even thriving, despite the passing of its founder. And this year, the Guild opens its season at Miller Outdoor Theatre with a rarely performed one-act opera entitled Highway One, USA, by African-American composer William Grant Still.
Mary Marks Guillory, chair of the board of directors of Houston Ebony Music Society, is visibly excited about the new show. In a bustle of administrative energy, she fusses about the mahogany-dark and dusty rehearsal space at Christ Church, pointing out who's who. The big burly man over there, perched on the stool in rapt attention, is conductor Willie Anthony Waters. At the piano is Hal Lanier. And then there are the singers in the chorus, including Jan Taylor, Marsha Thompson and Imani Anderson, who sit in the afternoon shadows while they listen to baritone Randall Gregoire and soprano Geraldine McMillian rehearse a lovely duet from Highway One.
The rich, full sounds fill up the big room; the local singers are clearly in a little bit of awe over the enormity of McMillian and Gregoire's New York voices. But these sounds are not what some people think of as fuddy-duddy opera stuff.
This music is big, familiar and very American. In fact, Willie Waters notes that "Still wrote lots of scores for television shows, and [Highway One] is in that genre. A lot of composers at that time, including Aaron Copland and Bernstein, wrote TV and movie music. And Still did too.... So the style of this piece is ... very melodic. There's nothing really intimidating about this music. It's very American music. A lot of the sounds are in a popular idiom."
Still, considered by many to be the dean of African-American composers, wrote several operas over the course of his long life, including his masterpiece, Troubled Island, which premiered in the '40s. But what makes this composer even more impressive are the barriers he broke. Born in Mississippi in the 1890s, during the era of the Jim Crow laws, Still grew up to become the first African-American to conduct a major symphony.
Not only is Highway One full of American music, the story is a quintessential American tale. It concerns Bob and Mary, a couple who own a gas station located on Highway One, which runs from Key West up to the northern part of Maine. Bob has made a deathbed promise to his mother to provide for his younger brother Nate's education. The story picks up at Nate's graduation. Mission accomplished. All should be fine. But no one expects Nate to come home and start flirting with his sister-in-law, Mary.
Of course she has been neglected, what with Bob working so hard putting his brother through college and all. And she does seem to be sending out the vibe to Nate. So naturally, being the good-for-nothing he's become, Nate makes a play for his brother's wife. When she rebuffs him, he stabs her -- just your standard American melodrama. You'll have to see the show to find out how it all turns out.
On the double bill with Highway One, USA is a decidedly un-American tale, Puccini's one-act Suor Angelica ("Sister Angelica"), which tells the tale of a suicidal Italian nun who loses the love child she hasn't seen in years. Terrible, terrible. All tears and woe, just like a good Italian opera should be.
Waters chose this all-female opera because he did it a year and a half ago in Miami and "fell in love with the piece." Even better, says Waters, there are "a lot of wonderful female voices [at Ebony Opera Guild]. I wanted an opportunity to showcase them."
It's an unusual opportunity to hear both of these seldom performed operas. If the gorgeous sounds floating through the hallways and heavy doors of Christ Church are any indication, you won't want to miss them.
-- Lee Williams