It can be hard for an organization to deal with the death of its founder -- especially when that founder not only came up with the initial idea, but has also been the main source of its energy. At the same time, though, when a driving force is gone, it can give a group a chance to reassess and determine whether it has any real reason for being, or was just one man's dream.
That's the situation that the Houston Ebony Opera Guild found itself in this April when, barely two weeks before a planned spring choral concert, former TSU and Prairie View A&M professor Robert Henry died at age 79. Henry, who founded the Houston Ebony Opera in 1984, two years after retiring as music department chairman at Prairie View, had been sick, but nobody expected that his illness was terminal. "In fact, we had him scheduled to conduct the concert right up until the last minute," says Clyde Owen Jackson, an Ebony Opera board member who stepped in to take Henry's place. "Nobody really expected him to die."
As a result, there had been few plans made for what to do when he was gone. One thing that became quickly clear, though, was that the Houston Ebony Opera would continue. Jackson stepped in as acting artistic director while the board looked for someone permanent to fill the position, and the late summer performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni that Henry had set into motion was kept in motion. Though Henry had only selected the opera and cast some of the principal parts before he died, to some degree, this weekend's performance at Miller Outdoor Theatre can be seen as a final tribute to him, and to what he brought the city and, for that matter, the region.
Exactly what that was -- aside from some memorable music -- was an organization that gave African-American singers an opportunity to learn and participate in an art where they're still a distinct rarity. "There aren't many groups like this in the nation that I know of," says Willie Waters, an opera conductor whose background -- former artistic director of the Florida Grand Opera in Miami, current music director of the Connecticut Opera, the first to conduct a performance of Porgy & Bess in South Africa -- puts him in a position to be familiar with what's available. Waters was first made aware of the Houston Ebony Opera by a friend who'd been cast in the role of Iago in the company's 1995 production of Otello. "He had Dr. Henry call me, and I thought it sounded interesting," says Waters. As an African-American who had himself worked to find and cast black operatic performers, Waters says, he found the Houston Ebony Opera particularly intriguing. So when Henry asked him to, first, conduct last year's Otello and then to conduct this year's Don Giovanni, he said yes.
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"I can tell you for sure that I didn't agree to do it because I like the Houston weather in August," he says with a laugh. "And frankly, a company of this size can't really afford me. But I did it, and I'm doing it, because I want to. For me, this is something important."
It was also important to Henry, though it took him some four decades to put into effect an inspiration he received while a young music instructor at New Orleans' Xavier University. While there, he ran across a nun, Sister Elise, who had been putting on operas using the university's African-American students. When Henry moved on to TSU in 1948, he put on a few operas of his own; meanwhile, Sister Elise had been acting as something of a Johnny Appleseed of black opera. After retiring from Xavier and teaching in Virginia, she had moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and formed Opera South, a company that featured black and Native American performers. She then moved on to Philadelphia, where she founded what eventually became Opera North, another African-American company. Finally, she ended up in New York, where she founded Opera Ebony, which has become the nation's best known black opera organization.
It was in honor of Sister Elise that, when he retired from Prairie View, Henry decided to use "ebony" and "opera" as part of the name of the company that he wanted to found. "I recall him saying that he was frustrated by the lack of opportunity for people who'd graduated with training and talent, often people he'd taught himself," says Mary Guillory, a board member of Houston Ebony Opera. "He wanted to give them a chance not only to perform, but to continue learning. And he was someone who could do it. He was the sort of person who could make decisions, and he was also an excellent musician. But what made it possible for him to get Houston Ebony Opera off the ground was that he was multifaceted, in terms of his training, in terms of his interest and in terms of his experience. He could do a lot of different things, which is important when you're starting without a lot of help."
Houston Ebony Opera's first appearance was in December 1984, when Henry conducted a performance of Handel's Messiah at Antioch Baptist Church. During the '80s, the "Opera" in Houston Ebony Opera's name reflected more desire than reality; in reality, what Henry had created was a group that would perform works from operas in a choral setting along with art songs and American folk music, particularly black spirituals. He'd also created a group that consisted primarily of his former students. But by the early '90s, what had started on a shoestring, and more than once had performed to crowds that were smaller than the number of singers on-stage, had become, if not exactly professional, at least semi-professional. In 1992, the Houston Ebony Opera began what has become a regular summer stint at Miller Outdoor Theatre, first performing Porgy & Bess and then moving on, in 1993, to Carmen and Il Trovatore; in 1994, to Gian Carlo Menotti's The Medium and Leonard Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti; in 1995, to Otello; and this year, to Don Giovanni.
Each year, the summer productions have become increasingly elaborate, moving from a simple concert presentation in black tie to fully costumed and fully orchestrated -- if only partially acted -- performances. And each year, more people have been drawn into not only the audience, but the organization itself, guaranteeing finally that, however important Henry was, Houston Ebony Opera could survive without him.
Talking with members of Houston Ebony Opera, one gets the sense that they're just starting to get comfortable with that fact, and with the notion that even in Henry's absence, the organization is ready to take a jump in quality. The performance of Don Giovanni, for example, attracted interest not only from singers who had proven themselves in the past -- most notably Dorceal Duckens, who's been an on-stage mainstay of the company -- but also new talent such as Phyliss Lewis, who was a grand prize winner in this year's International Monteverdi Vocal Competition.
And it's also attracted the growing interest of Willie Waters, who as a visiting conductor obviously can't step into Robert Henry's shoes, but who says he's found in the Houston Ebony Opera "a labor of love."
"The board has really made an effort to try and make this a professional company, although it still has a way to go," he says. "But they're doing something unique, and something I'd like to continue to be a part of, if possible. What they've already done is fairly impressive, but there's distinct potential here even beyond that. In a city like Houston, there's a place for a company like this."
The Houston Ebony Opera Guild performs Mozart's Don Giovanni at 8:30 p.m. Friday, August 30, and Saturday, August 31, at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, Hermann Park. Free. For info, call 520-3290.
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