HGO Merges Improvisation and Opera in Cross Cultural Chamber Piece

It is an endeavor both exhilarating and confounding in its scope. When the Houston Grand Opera presents its world premiere of Your Name Means the Sea, it will be putting together U.S. opera performers whose every note and word tend to be scripted with "mugam" musicians from Azerbaijan whose music is by its very definition: Improvisational.

Making it even more interesting, the musicians and singers have been practicing in their home countries and are only now rehearsing together in time for their first free performance at the Cullen Theater in the Wortham Theater Center on May 21.

"Mugam music is very like jazz," says Tara Faircloth, the director of this cross-cultural chamber opera written by Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Alizadeh.

Faircloth has some experience picking things up as they go along - she works in baroque music, which has an element of improvisation - but she readily agrees this isn't something that often occurs in operas.

Or as Sandra Bernhard, the HGOco director put it: "Both [sides] are outside their comfort zones. If mugam is done well, it is different every time."

Bernhard and HGOco program director Evan Wilderstein said this latest offering was commissioned as part of the HGOco Song of Houston : East + West project. They went to Mayor Annise Parker for help in identifying cities to partner with. Chosen areas had to have a representative population in Houston, had to be emerging communities with a geographic center and had to have significant business ties to Houston.

Baku, the oil capital of the former Soviet Union, fit, Bernhard said, since because of the energy business, "many families from Houston settle in Baku and a lot of people from Baku come to Houston."

HGO believes this opera will appeal to "Russians, the Turkish and Persian populations between Europe and what we call The East," as well as Americans eager to hear the merging of two different styles of music, she said.

Faircloth said composer Alizadeh has experience with Western music and writes a lot for the piano. In this opera, the Azerbaijani musicians will be playing the tar, which looks like a lute, and the kamanchaa stringed instrument. Faircloth said the music will probably sound faintly Indian to many people. "And then the singer holds this round thing they use to amplify voice," she added.

As for the opera's plot, it's a love story: Denise, a young American painter and Seymur, a young singer from Baku, overcome the the barriers of time, distance and culture to forge a bond. Houston soprano Laura Botkin sings the role of Denise and American baritone John Packard sings her father's role. Traditional mugam singers, tenor Babek Niftaliev and mezzo-soprano Malakkhanim Eyubova, sing the parts of Seymur and his mother.

This is a relatively short piece and will be proceeded by compositions by Alizadeh as well as some traditional mugam music by musicologist Jeffrey Werbock. There will be three more free performances on May 23 at Discovery Green, on May 24 at the Turquoise Centre, 9301 West Belfort Avenue and on May 26 at the Rothko Chapel, 3900 Yupon Street.

"The main thing I wanted to put across is that art shows us we are more the same than we are different," Faircloth said. "Even in a secular Muslim country, the things you hear are different but things are also strangely the same, especially when we have the touchstone of music."

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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