Opera

Houston Grand Opera's New Executive Director on Challenges and Opportunities

Houston Grand Opera's The Snowy Day in 2021.
Houston Grand Opera's The Snowy Day in 2021. Photo by Lynn Lane

Khori Dastoor, who performed professionally as a lyric soprano and who now is the executive director of Houston Grand Opera, knows what the biggest challenge is for HGO right now.

Opera Interruptus.

Or in other words, people who for the last few years didn't go because of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey that moved the opera's base of operations from the comfortable Wortham Theater Center to folding chairs in a third floor, auditorily-challenged room at the George R. Brown followed by the complete pandemic-inspired shutdowns of all venue operations.

"HGO's biggest challenge is how many years of disruption we've had because once you break the habit it’s not a small thing to find other people who are willing to commit not just to one opera a year but to six or seven a year. It's been many sustained years of really catastrophic destruction from 2018 to the present," she says.

"We have a lot of learning to do as we rebuild around re-introducing ourselves to people who would have joined the Houston community in the last few years and also establishing which of our pre-existing customer base is still around to enjoy what we do."
Khori Dastoor - PHOTO BY HIERARCHY ADVERTISING
Khori Dastoor
Photo by Hierarchy Advertising

Obviously, however, hopes are high that Dastoor, said to be responsible for significantly boosting the financial fortunes of Opera San José, and someone who knows the art form from every angle, will be as able as anyone possibly could be to revive and re-engage the passion and fire for live performance opera from previous opera aficionados and to attract new audience members. She is the first female executive director at HGO.

The 2022-23 lineup of productions looks promising with certified crowd pleasers El Milagro del Recuerdo (the mariachi opera that wowed Paris, France), La traviata, The Marriage of Figaro and Tosca. Add in a new production of The Wreckers, and U. S. premieres of Werther and Salome and there's a lot to inspire people to drop their TV remotes and come downtown.

Although she comes from a family that listened to classical music, Dastoor says her parents weren't arts professionals. Her dad worked at NASA and her mother as a mental health clinician. What they did do was impress upon her that she do whatever she wanted if she worked hard.

Her love of music started at an early age with children's choir. "Through that I sang in many operas," she says. "I guess it was my first exposure to music and performing arts was being part of a professional opera company and the feeling of what that is backstage and the kind of virtuosity it requires from so many different people contributing to one larger picture. I suppose I fell in love with it very early."

She says her parents worked really hard themselves to help her achieve her goals, which turned out to be the New England Conservatory of Music for her bachelor's degree in vocal performance and UCLA where she received a master's degree in opera studies. "I guess that's the definition of privilege — was that my parents [both immigrants to the United States] worked really hard where I could chase something not out of necessity but kind of out of joy."

Working as an opera singer before switching over to management has given her a unique perspective.

"Certainly opera from the outside is a very glamorous endeavor. The reality of working in the field is really different.  No matter who you are whether you’re a stitcher or the diva who ends up dying at the end of the evening on stage you've made a tremendous sacrifice to be in your position.

"You've given up a lot of things most people would never give up. And ultimately my decision to stop performing had to do a lot with what I wouldn't give up — the opportunity to be a wife and a mom the opportunity to have some feeling of control over where my income would come from. The psychology of being an opera singer is a lot like being nun; you have to kind of give over not just your professional life but your whole life.  And trust that you're on a path that you're called to something higher and the world will make way for you and make room for you and value what you have to offer.

"It can sometimes feel like a double-edged sword. You have this talent and this gift inside of you that you have this obligation to nurture and to shine but the personal sacrifices are great."

"I also think that people don't know that opera singers aren’t paid to rehearse and so if an opera singer spends six weeks preparing a role and then were to catch bronchitis and not be able to sing at any of the performances, they would actually not receive any compensation. At Houston Grand Opera, I'm proud to say, we support our artists as best we can but industry practice is you're only paid the minute you step on stage with an audience.

"During the pandemic, I'm proud to say, we supported every single artist even though we canceled nine productions. I don't know of any other company that did that."  She attributes the loyal customer base and donors for their being able to do that. And it's not just Houston residents. "We do pull a national patron base. The Snowy Day premiere we streamed on the internet and was watched in about 40 countries around the world."

Which leads Dastoor to the changing way communication happens these days.

"Opera in general is facing a real shift in how people consume arts and culture. The devices that we have in our pockets and the way that we stay connected to one another has dramatically shifted the landscape," which, she says. puts  HGO is on a new playing field, she says.

"There are societal changes that make what we do a little more removed from modern life. And we have two choices. We can bemoan that and stick with our guns around the subscription model and the unspoken rules of what an opera's supposed to feel like or we can seek to be more adoptive and build bridges with people and challenge ourselves to become a company that can belong to anybody."

"We can bemoan that and stick with our guns around the subscription model and the unspoken rules of what an opera's supposed to feel like or we can seek to be more adoptive and build bridges with people and challenge ourselves to become a company that can belong to anybody."

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Studying the data of the last ten years, Dastoor says looking at new, single ticket buyers — people who had never stepped through their doors before — they found that Showboat was the No. 1 draw, with the Mariachi Operas holding three of the top ten spots. Both Aidas, the most recent Magic Flute, and Traviata in 2013. "So there's a desire for new single ticket buyers who are younger to experience opera with a capital O and really go to something that is an event, something that is typical of the form, something tha tis new and excitingand as those Mariachi operas shows, somethign that really speaks to them and their experience.

"Houston is a young and vibrant place with people who are intellectually curious and people who have money to spend on self enrichment and intellectual pursuit and so we feel like there's a tremendous amount of opportunity for us to take those challenges and to use them as motivation to diversify our programming and be a model not just for the future of opera on the stage but the future of opera in the house."

In recognition of that approach, HGOco, which operated as an affiliated but separate entity has been reabsorbed into the mother ship along with its programs, which often focused  on underrepresented communities within Houston. But Dastoor says she is talking about more than just that when she mentions diversifying and includes "digital offerings, learning opportunities, courses, outdoors at the Miller. In the Cullen there's a tremendous amount of possibility in partnership with other organizations and in alternate venues that we're exploring."

The decision to fold HGOco under the master brand was sparked in large part because it has been the area where the opera has seen growth, Dastoor says. "Growth in philanthropy, growth in engagement, growth in audiences that reflect our community and there was some confusion I think with people who had touchpoints with HGOco not understanding that they had actually been interacting with Houston Grand Opera. It doesn't make sense for us to partition that part of the business where it has to fund raise for itself, where it has to market for itself or it needs its own board committees. "

"We should be supporting those programs the same way we support anything else that we do with the same rigor, and with the same quality and and with the same seriousness. That opportunity to expand HGOco thorugh the entire organization I think has been long overdue and now is the right moment.:

She points to her two young daughters attending one of the best elementaries in Houston ISD. "They don't have any music at school. We know that around 75, 77 percent of classical music patrons are musicians in some way in their own minds; they're in a choir; they play clarinet for their own enjoyment. So you can extrapolate if you're me, when you think about an audience pipe line, if my second grader doesn't have music class ... what do the audiences at HGO look like in a few decades."

If schools aren't able to provide that arts education then the arts organizations in the city need to fill that gap, she says. 

Another aspect of diversifying involves who and what's being but on stage by HGO, as in casting and selection of operas produced. Dastoor believes HGO has a good track record on diverse casting. She also points to efforts such as the Third Annual Giving Voice concert, a celebration of Black and Asian artists created by international star and tenor Lawrence Brownlee took place on March 19 at HGO.  HGO also knows, by talking with opera singers of color, that they don't just want to be typecast in minority roles but want to be considered for any role in the standard repertoire, or their careers won't go very far.

Of equal concern are the operas themselves and with their next opera Turandot, they have a lot to consider especially with modern audiences.

Written by Puccini in the early 1920s when white Europeans held a lot of misconceptions about China and other Asian countries, the opera, however beautiful the music, is laden with some pretty cringeworthy  gender and racial stereotypes. Turandot is portrayed as a stereotypical ice queen and dragon lady, the latter a common depiction in silent films of the day. She kills her would-be suitors if they can't answer her three riddles correctly and even when one does, she wants to renege on the deal. She resists Prince Calaf but when he forces himself on her, she falls in love with him.

HGO, like most modern opera companies, is well aware that the Turandot script offends more than a few people. According to Dastoor they have consulted with creative representatives from the Asian community on the best way to produce the work. And on Wednesday, April 6 at 7 p.m. Dastoor will moderate a panel entitled "Turandot and AAPI Representation in Contemporary Opera" at Asia Society Texas that will include Opera in the Heights Artistic Director and Principal Composer Eiki Isomura, Composer Shih-Hui Chen, opera bass Peixin Chen, HGO Studio artist and mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce and HGO Board of Directors Chairperson-elect Claire Liu.

As for digital content like The Snowy Day, Dastoor says that will continue but not as an instead-of (for live performance) but in addition to. "It’s not about filing the gap until we can get back to live performance. Only so many people can come to Houston for a new premiere. But if we can now share that with the entire world then we've expanded the audience and the impact." And with digital there's the opportunity to create supertitles in many different languages, she says.

"Of course we’re talking about a new direction because it's a new chapter in the organization's history. So much about our society has changed and continues to change, rapidly. The next chapter is about how do you meet the moment. We have an opportunity after having kind of pressed pause to take a look at everything we're doing: the number of operas, the number of productions, the number of performances, how our organization is structured, what our digital presence looks like.

"Houston has transformed tremendously since 1955 and it's my job now to anticipate not only what our public wants today but what they're going to want ten years from now — interpreting how arts and culture finds its way to the next generation of patrons."
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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.
Contact: Margaret Downing