Director Matthew Ozawa (A Little Night Music, The Memory Stone) says that, if the world-premiering chamber opera After the Storm is a success, there will be no applause at the end. He might be on to something; those who previewed the beginning scenes last year were moved to tears.
Not much remained of Galveston after the Great Storm of 1900, upon which the opera is based, so librettist Stephanie Fleischmann (making her HGO debut) pored through special collections in Galveston's Rosenberg Library, as well as interviews, to create the heartfelt story that interweaves a storm from the future, and also scenes from 2008's Hurricane Ike.
“People are like weeping just from the prologue,” says Ozawa of those advance performances. “It's a very, very powerful story. In scene two, Eliza [performed by HGO studio artist Sofia Selowsky] is searching for these letters – the letters from her ancestors from 1900 that survived the Great Storm – and as she is searching for them, she realizes she has to go up to the second floor, and realizes they are destroyed.” As the hurricane storms outside, and as each letter succumbs to the water, the ancestors come alive, one by one, to retell their story. “Listening to them, she will only have the memory of what they wrote,” says Ozawa. “[It's] powerful, beautiful, also so poignant and heartbreaking. The idea of objects, memory, family, history is literally woven into this one moment.”
Producing a chamber opera in Houston and then, a mere 48 hours later, again in Galveston presented a few challenges, and many questioned how Ozawa would pull it off. “People have asked, 'How are you going to re-create three storms? It sounds like a movie,'” says Ozawa, who says the beauty of live theater and really great storytelling is to allow the audience to use its own imagination. “Nothing that I could do could ever re-create the imprinted memories. My goal is to create a visual landscape: open, abstract and empty, to allow their own memories to live onstage as they're watching.”
Ozawa had to dig deep into his theatrical toolbox of magic tricks, but he says he enjoys the challenge. A perimeter of rope defines the Victorian house, with a few articles of period furniture on wheels. As the storm progresses, the rope perimeter becomes the rapidly moving water line. “Floating above everybody in the sky is a sort of tapestry of debris. That will be lit. [Lighting design is by Michael James Clark.] It's very, very simple. There's not a whole lot out there. But with lighting, movement and the space, my hope is that it's very evocative,” Ozawa says of the grand piano, family portrait, lamp and door that will seemingly float through the space.
He says the composition by former HGO studio artist David Hanlon (The Ninth November I Was Hiding, Past the Checkpoints), who also is conducting, is both majestic and poetic. The cast includes HGO studio artist Mane Galoyan and, making their HGO debuts, Lindsay Russell and Mark Thomas. Cecilia Duarte plays Harriet/First Responder, and former HGO studio artist Mark Diamond is Cyclone/Wilbur.
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As the story jumps in time, costumes for the characters and ensemble have to transition from 1900 to 2008, back and forth. Ozawa says they're not doing millions of costume changes, just subtle differences to show the era. “You're a magician; very complicated scenarios,” he says. “It definitely is a little Project Runway.”
Ozawa feels that the story is universal, and not just relevant to coastal cities. “I feel on an even broader context that this relates to any person who is located in an area that could be hit by a natural disaster, like an earthquake, a blizzard or a tsunami. The communities who are bound together, who survive these traumatic events, demonstrate resilience. [They] come out stronger.”
As for that “no clapping” part? As the story unfolds for Eliza, who lives in Galveston, and her daughter in Houston, the daughter – who had turned her back on the past – discovers she's rooted and deeply connected to her home in Galveston. “Once an audience has gone through the journey, almost the best response will be no clapping, no applause,” says Ozawa. “People will sit there and will have gone through something, pick through the pieces, digest all of this. My hope is that the work resonates with people, weeks, months, years after they see the show.”
Performances are scheduled for 7 p.m. May 13 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas; and 7 p.m. May 15, at The Grand 1894 Opera House, 2020 Postoffice, Galveston. For information, call 713-228-6737 or 800-821-1894 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $22 to $30.