As the nation's premier African-American opera house, the Houston Ebony Opera Guild is known for making accessible what is usually, shall we say, an acquired taste in music. The current presentation of Mozart's fairy tale The Magic Flute, for instance, is designed for the whole family.
The opera tells the story of two young lovers who must overcome tremendous ordeals, including trials by fire and water, before they can be together. Luckily, the prince has a magic flute to help them along. The guild has moved the opera from the pyramids of ancient Egypt to tribal Africa, but despite the change of scenery, most of the tale's magical elements didn't need to be adjusted. Designer Toni Whittaker's costumes draw from every region of the continent, utilizing lots of color and bold forms, which compliment the music.
The production was the brainchild of Talmage Fauntleroy, a founding member of the guild who passed away in July. It's now up to stage director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer to carry on. Nationally known for her work with many major opera companies, she is the founder and director of FBN (Fly By Night) productions, an opera touring company based in Columbia, South Carolina. This marks Schlaefer's first time directing in Houston, but she admires the work of the guild.
"The Houston Ebony Opera Guild has really come a long way," she says. "From starting out just doing concert operas, to now doing a fully staged opera, it's really just phenomenal."
Director Willie Anthony Waters, who has served as the guild's conductor and artistic adviser since 1995, also has developed a reputation outside Houston, with the Connecticut Opera. Schlaefer says he brings a professional's eye to the piece and tries his best to keep such a fantastical story as The Magic Flute as "real" as possible. "We make a great team," she says. "This is our eighth opera together, and we really enjoy it."
That's good, because they have some mighty big shoes to fill.