For years, playwright Catherine Filloux has also worked on refugee issues on the side. So the daughter of an Algerian mother and a French father was the perfect fit when Houston Grand Opera's HGOCo began looking for someone to write the libretto for an operetta about Cambodians coming to Houston.
"French is my first language. I have always written from the point of being an outsider," Filloux said in an interview. "I am a citizen of the world."
Houston already has a famous Cambodian in Yani Rose Keo who came here after fleeing her native country after the onslaught of the Khmer Rouge. In 1975, Keo left Cambodia with her youngest child and her husband - their three oldest children were already studying in Paris - to get away from Pol Pot's regime.
Filloux, who lives in New York City and who has written two other operas, came to Houston and talked with Keo and visited her refugee center here, and while the operetta she wrote is not a strict biographical accounting of Keo's journey, it does absorb not only the emotion, but some of the key points of that move.
Keo, who came from an affluent family, was able to leave on a private jet, something most Cambodians with far fewer resources weren't able to do.. She described to Filloux how empty the jet was. In the years to come, more than two million people would die in Cambodia during its re-education campaign that targeted especially the educated.
"That metaphor of so many empty seats on the plane was so theatrical - her being able to transform her pain and anger and all her feelings into helping other people, which has been the grand story of her life," Filloux says.
The result is New Arrivals, the next installment in the Song of Houston East + West series, the outreach program that HGOCo has undertaken that is apparently a one-of-its-kind effort in this country.
With a score by American composer John Glover, the operetta begins in the mid-1970s, when Pol Pot became the head of the Cambodian government, looking to destroy anyone who opposed him and continues to present day.
"This piece honors people who come to this country in terms of how they learn to survive and how they are so resilient," Filloux says.
Performances of New Arrivals -- all of them free -- are as follows:
Saturday, June 16 (world premiere) 1 p.m. Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center (6500 Rookin St.) Part of Houston's World Refugee Day
Sunday, June 17, 4 p.m. Rothko Chapel (3900 Yupon St.)
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Tuesday, June 19 at 7 p.m. Baker Ripley Neighborhood Center (6500 Rookin St.)
Friday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m. Asia Society Texas Center (1370 Southmore Blvd.)
Saturday, June 23 at 2 p.m. Asia Society Texas Center (1370 Southmore Blvd.)
For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit the opera's website.