Inside the MasterMinds

The Houston Press honors three local arts groups on the city's cutting edge.

The group's 2007 inaugural season, presented June 21-24 at Barnevelder Movement/Arts Complex, was a critical success. The Houston Press's D.L. Groover wrote: "One thing's certain: In the contemporary world of opera, the fat lady's still alive." Later that year, Opera Vista presented the Texas premiere of Amy Beach's Cabildo at Bayou Bend as part of the 50th-anniversary celebration of Ima Hogg's gift of the mansion and her collection of American decorative arts to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The Houston Chronicle's Charles Ward called the production "perfect for a warm southern night complete with the sounds of bayou critters in the background," and added that Opera Vista "served the goal of reaching a younger audience very well."

The buzz attracted the attention of the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans, and the group was invited to perform the piece at the actual Cabildo, the place where Pierre Lafitte was imprisoned during the War of 1812. It was a huge success and garnered rave reviews in New Orleans.

But the company's main focus is on its annual competition, and submissions have skyrocketed since that inaugural season. "The first year we had 20 entrants; last year we had 100 operas, and this year so far it's 50," says Subbaraman. "They send a full score, so we see the entirety of the opera, and whatever recordings they have. Then we have a panel that goes through them. You can imagine the time it must take to go through 40 two-hour works. And we literally sit in a room and hash it out. It's so subjective, so we have pretty intense arguments. It does get pretty passionate."

Opera Vista — with Viswa Subbaraman, Shannon Langman, Joseph Rawley, Sishel Claverie and Joe Carl White — was founded to bring a new kind of opera to Houston.
Jeffrey Myers
Opera Vista — with Viswa Subbaraman, Shannon Langman, Joseph Rawley, Sishel Claverie and Joe Carl White — was founded to bring a new kind of opera to Houston.
The SoReal Cru travels the country performing, making appearances at clubs and signing autographs.
Jeffrey Myers
The SoReal Cru travels the country performing, making appearances at clubs and signing autographs.

The styles and subject matter are all over the map. "We get some that sound like they could've been written 100 years ago; we have some that sound like they were written next year," says Joe Carl White, a baritone opera singer and Opera Vista's executive director. "One of the competitors last year was about alien abduction. Some are based on classic myths. One, Edalat Square, was based on the true story of two Iranian teenagers who were executed in Tehran in 2006 for being homosexual."

"We got a death threat on that one," says Subbaraman. "We got a bomb threat letter. I was thinking, 'Wow, I never thought we'd do a production that got a bomb threat, but here we go!' But it was an important production and one that the audience felt was important enough for us to put on."

For Subbaraman and White, the real reward of the competition is watching how pieces evolve and how composers process what they learn from the panel and the audience. "Every single winner has revised their operas after the competition because they hear things differently," says Subbaraman. And Opera Vista takes great pride in its direct impact on the creation of contemporary opera.

The world is taking notice, too. Opera Vista has been asked to present the world premiere of a new opera from Thailand, The Silent Prince. It will be the company's first performance at Zilkha Hall, followed by a tour to Bangkok. "It's about a Buddha who reaches enlightenment when he finally says his first words," explains Subbaraman, "so the entire time he's growing up, he's silent, he doesn't say anything; he just kind of processes everything, and then comes to enlightenment. And then at the end of the opera he sings this huge aria — as all good operas should end."

For Opera Vista, enlightenment doesn't necessarily mean reaching the ranks of, say, Houston Grand Opera. "I have such respect for HGO and Opera in the Heights, but we don't feel the need to do what they're doing," Subbaraman asserts. "They cover it so well and bring great opera to Houston. We're just filling in the gaps that they leave us. I enjoy that, and I think Houston really benefits from it."

White sees the company as a kind of creative beacon. "When you think of new film you think of Cannes or Sundance. I want people, when they think of new opera, to think of Houston."

We'll drink a pint to that.


Phillip "Pacman" Chbeeb was in the house, and the stylish teenagers huddled around the front desk at SoReal Dance Studio were antsy. Chbeeb, a former contestant on TV's So You Think You Can Dance, was teaching a hip-hop master workshop at the Bellaire studio, and it was about to begin. A young African-American man and a young Asian lady were intimidated. They tried to psych each other up to take the class, which would undoubtedly involve choreography reserved for the most superhuman of dancers. A crowd of friends and parents had gathered to sit and gawk at the brave 12 or so students assembled, and the two reluctant ones were worried about looking bad.

"I'll go if you go," the boy said to the girl, and she immediately headed in to join the class. Not expecting his bluff to get called, the boy hesitated, pacing the small reception room, until Chris Baterina, the man behind the desk, rolled his eyes and commanded the boy to just do it. He'd regret it if he didn't. The boy paid up, collected himself and strode in.

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