Opera With Porta Potties — Don't Say Houston Grand Opera Isn't Creative

With 1,500 bleacher seats and 250 premium floor seats all flanked by white porta potties on either side, the Houston Grand Opera is about to embark on a great adventure — opera in the redesigned Exhibit Hall A in the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The George R. Brown, more commonly home to conventions, exhibitions and Comicpalooza, has retrofitted part of its third floor — the new Resilience Hall — and opened up different rooms for rehearsal and dressing-room space, HGO officials said during a Monday-morning media tour. The emergency move, of course, was necessitated by the extensive flooding damage done to the Wortham Theater Center during Hurricane Harvey, and was made possible with the help of Houston First which manages the city's buildings.

"We pretty much lost everything we left down in the [Wortham] basement," Managing Director Perryn Leech said.

Opening with La traviata on October 20, followed by a Julius Caesar set in the 1930s, HGO has had to be very creative in how it is presenting these works in Resilience Hall, according to Leech and Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers. The orchestra will be placed behind the singers on stage, which means the conductor, who usually keeps his or her eye on everything that going on, will be losing a key sight line.

On the floor and in the bleachers seating, with porta potties on either side.
On the floor and in the bleachers seating, with porta potties on either side.
Photo by Margaret Downing

A shell has been constructed to “push the sound forward,” Leech said. "So we've kind of contained the room" and the acoustics are much improved. Leech says they won't have to use mikes in La Traviata, but they still don't know about the aria-heavy Julius Caesar. "We hope not. We think not."

"The biggest problem for us so far has been rehearsal rooms," Leech said. "When you are doing two operas in repertory you need two rehearsal rooms at least plus one for the orchestra. We have zero. So Houston First has been great. They've let us use one of the smaller halls and one of the larger halls here for some rehearsals and they're the halls downstairs."

Their goal is to get as close to “normalcy” as possible, Leech says, which is one of the reasons they decided the GRB was their best bet at offering opera-goers their usual chance to eat out before a performance, take advantage of valet parking and the opportunity to take in a pre-show lecture. The portable restrooms were brought in so that audience members didn’t have to sprint from one end of the convention center to the other looking for a short line in the 15 minutes allotted for an intermission.

"The company has risen to the challenge magnificently," Leech said. "Not one has ever questioned why we're doing this and why we didn't just cancel the season."

Get ready for a whole different viewing experience with the HGO at the GRB. Here, the scenery for Handel's Julius Caesar, set on a 1930s movie set.
Get ready for a whole different viewing experience with the HGO at the GRB. Here, the scenery for Handel's Julius Caesar, set on a 1930s movie set.
Photo by Margaret Downing

"In fact," Summers said, "The casts all of whom are from all around the world immediately sent messages of support and "let us know when we start and when to be there.' They absolutely rallied."

"All of the elements of opera and one of the great things about opera is that it's all of the arts combined. What we typically do is rehearse many of those elements separately for several weeks and then slowly bring them all together," Summers said. "And what we lost in losing the Wortham was not only a place to perform but a place but a place in which to separately put all those elements together. So we've very very diligently working all around the city to get the chorus, orchestra, solo singers everyone rehearsed."

Summers stressed that HGO never considered shutting down for the season. "An opera company is more than just a building. We knew that we had to find a place that would house us for as long as we needed it and we are particularly moved that we were able to bring our opera house into the George R. Brown which was itself such a refuge for so many Houstonians after the storm.

"This is going to be an incredibly intimate experience to have with opera," Summers said. "That is quite different from seeing it in a proscenium theater. Yet it has the grandeur as well."

Waiting for their big moment.
Waiting for their big moment.
Photo by Margaret Downing

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