If they don't look closely, Heights Boulevard joggers will miss the white, wrinkled Opera in the Heights banner loosely hung in front of Lambert Hall's Performing Arts Center at the corner of 17th and Heights. From a distance, the sign is a cozy symbol of Houston Heights cohesion. Up close, it has the unassuming look of amateurs doing community theater. But that's not the story.

At Opera in the Heights, some performers are students. A few admit to being struggling professionals. But they've all got something over the rank amateur: They're being trained to sing by a guide who learned firsthand from Giacomo Puccini's collaborators and went on to coach the likes of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. The chorus is learning from a choral conductor who once studied under famed opera composer Carlisle Floyd. This troupe, barely three years old, will perform Puccini's Tosca with a 20-piece orchestra, May 20 through 23, in Lambert Hall's comfy auditorium.

William Weibel recently interrupted his retirement and signed on for three years as artistic director of Opera in the Heights after an impressive career in the Metropolitan Opera's upper echelons. He feels he was born at the right time. As a child, he heard Arturo Toscanini conduct rehearsals of Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff. He met Lauritz Melchior and other famous singers. On a Fulbright scholarship, he studied with Luigi Ricci, a lifelong friend of Puccini, Ruggero Leoncavallo and other Italian composers. He went on to weather the Met's golden age as assistant conductor and vocal coach between 1958 and 1971 (or 1970, he's not quite sure).

"I met people at the trough, drinking with the creators," Weibel says. "I was lucky that way." He wants Houston singers to benefit from someone who "touched the hand that touched the hand that touched the hand of Verdi." "Singers nowadays aren't learning enough from conductors because the conductors aren't experienced enough," he says. "They haven't been there and spent years in the opera learning from those who have preceded them."

Weibel isn't spoiled, though, not even by a past life spent collaborating with Maria Callas on EMI recordings or being a friend to Luciano Pavarotti. (The great tenor is godfather to Weibel's twin sons.) "I put the same effort into it," he says, "regardless of who it is." Weibel shies away from comparing Opera in the Heights with the Met, stressing that the opera mecca has been built with a deep pocketbook. In his partnership with John Jennings, Heights founder and general director, Weibel wants to be selective during auditions to build a reputation. "We're a stepping stone between school and bigger and better things," says Weibel. "I told Hyang Suk Shin [who played Mimi, the soprano in La Boheme, in February], 'When you get finished with me, you can go anywhere.' "

Roger Keele returns as chorusmaster for Tosca. The Moores Opera House coach inaugurated his Houston directing career in the recent production of La Boheme. Although he has studied with the composer of Susannah, he's happy to be in an intimate atmosphere working with local people. He believes Opera in the Heights is the place for young singers to build a repertoire and go on to international careers.

"There's something a little bit cold about the top echelon," Keele says, referring to grand operas like the Met. "It's a business. Here, it's a little bit warmer.... Grassroots is the word I'm looking for. We're filling a void in Houston. Singers are thrilled to have an outlet. Getting Bill Weibel on staff has really helped. He hasn't even opened the score. He just knows it."

Omari Tau Williams, who deftly played the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro in La Boheme, makes his choral directoring debut in Tosca. Though Williams plans to sing with the Des Moines Metro Opera Company in Iowa next season, he has performed with Main Street Theater, the Moores Opera House and Houston Grand Opera's "Opera to Go" while completing a master's degree at University of Houston.

As he did while directing La Boheme, Weibel brings firsthand knowledge of Puccini to his artistic direction of Tosca. He finds the one thing that drove Puccini and his music was typically an erotic desire for a woman. Weibel says he feels this moved the composer to create his great heroines, Mimi (La Boheme), Manon (Manon Lescaut), Liu (Butterfly) and Tosca. Weibel says Puccini was beset by la mestizia Toscana, the Tuscan melancholy, which is perhaps why he kept creating the same female character over and over. In writing La Boheme, Puccini identified so closely with Mimi as flesh and blood that when she died he couldn't stop crying. And only a man gripped by his own sexual instincts could create the powerful vision of a dastardly blackmailer who traps Tosca in Rome's Farnese Palace.

Love and death are savory themes in Tosca, realized at one level through Puccini's musical innovation but more elegantly through the drama. The master took a while to finish Tosca because he insisted on getting the local color right. In 1897 he traveled to Rome, where the story took place, and listened to how the church bells sounded at the level of the Castello Santangelo, the castle near St. Peter's that looms tall at the edge of the winding Tiber. He also consulted a priest about certain religious details in the story.

As Puccini did for the Italians, Bill Weibel plans to add a forceful personal touch to this already community-minded opera company. With his first season finale, he's just getting started. Look for him to rev up next season's repertoire by forging personal connections between the past and present.

Opera in the Heights performs Tosca in Italian with English surtitles at Lambert Hall's Performing Arts Center, 1703 Heights Boulevard, May 20 through 22 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 23, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $20. Call (713)861-5303 for ticket information.


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