It's a question composer Laura Kaminsky challenged herself to answer for the Houston Grand Opera's 63rd world premiere Some Light Emerges, which immortalizes the Houston landmark and patron Dominique de Menil in chamber opera.
When HGO invited her to submit a new work relevant to the Houston community in the fall of 2016, Kaminsky says wanted to do something “original, to create a story from scratch. So, I thought about an opera that would take place in the Rothko Chapel [with] these different people who all were in the chapel because they had different issues in their lives and different stories to tell.”
Kaminsky turned her admittedly broad ideas over to librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, who together created five characters, each representing a different moment in American life from the 1970s to the present day: Margie, a lonely housewife in the early days of feminism; Tom, a country boy whose imagination is opened by the chapel’s abstract art; Alicia, a Latina lesbian activist during the AIDS crisis; Albert, an Algerian immigrant experiencing a crisis of faith after 9/11; and Cece, an African-American teenager displaced after Katrina.
"All of these stories weave together with this overlay of Dominique de Menil relating the story of why she wanted to make this building – how it came to be, the struggles between Mark Rothko and the architect Philip Johnson, how she navigated that, the whole construction and making the place become real and then her own,” says Kaminsky. “We see both her practical side – the doer – and then we see her deeply spiritual side, about her love for art and her need for a spiritual sanctuary for all people.”
With the characters and story set, Kaminsky set out to create a large sound world with a small ensemble of seven musicians, using different sub-groupings of instruments to create a language for each of the characters, ensuring each has his or her own music – including the chapel, which she considers the piece’s seventh character.
"There's a lot of times where there may be one character singing and having an engagement with the chapel, and then there’s instrumental music, which is the chapel singing back. It’s almost like a duet,” adds Kaminsky.
So, what does the Rothko Chapel sound like?
“It’s always the most beautiful music,” explains Kaminsky. “It’s got a golden quality and a shimmer to it, because if you sit there, it is so tranquil – some people find it somber when they first come in. But if you sit there and just be in that space, and accept the peacefulness of it, it becomes very alive. It vibrates.”
Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. March 16-17 at the Ballroom at Bayou Place, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-288-6737 or visit hgo.org. $25.