A Coffin in Egypt: Horton Foote Put to Music AKA A Song Before Dying

Ricky Ian Gordon knew when he was 8 years old that he wanted to write music for voice. He'd accompanied a friend to his piano lesson and pulled down a book on opera and was sold on the whole deal.

Now, years later, Gordon has become recognized in the opera world and when Houston Grand Opera's Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers called him (Gordon was about to get on a plane) and said he thought a Horton Foote play was the perfect candidate for an opera, Gordon was immediately interested.

Myrtle is a 90-year-old woman, reflecting on a life that had its dark moments along with the brightness. A creation of the famed late playwright Horton Foote, Myrtle will be played by true opera royalty Frederica von Stade when Houston Grand Opera presents the one-act A Coffin in Egypt\ this month.

Gordon worked with librettist and director Leonard Folia to develop the 85-minute chamber opera, in the process increasing the number of characters from the one-woman play version.

"I love Flicka. I love writing for the voice. This particular script was so perfumed with rage and regret and disappointment and lost love. It was really something that you felt could lend itself to opera. And I also thought it was a really appropriate piece for Flicka. Because she's still an incredible voice and she's still singing."

He said he and Foglia met to discuss how to convert the play to an opera. "It's such a wordy play. So the question is: How to you reduce it to a manageable size for an opera? In opera, a page of words can be an hour of music. We talked about turning into manageable sections so it felt incremental instead of one long run-on sentence."

Myrtle looks back on her life with her husband Hunter. She hears gospel spirituals from a nearby church. "This is a woman who in some ways thinks she is rejecting the notion of faith and meanwhile the notions of faith and certainty are all around her right outside her window even in the voices of the gospel singers, in the wind on the prairie and eventually she lets it all course through her and bring her to a place of transformation."

Performances of A Coffin in Egypt are scheduled for March 14, 16 and 21. 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue. For information call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $40 - $80.

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