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Perryn Leech on How HGO Plans to Pivot to Outlast the Plague

It will be a while before HGO will be back on stage as it was for La Favorite last January, but in the meantime, new digital productions are being explored.
It will be a while before HGO will be back on stage as it was for La Favorite last January, but in the meantime, new digital productions are being explored.
Photo by Lynn Lane

Houston Grand Opera is transforming from a company that put immense effort into its planning process, determining its seasons five years in advance or more and engaging performers years before they would ever take the stage.

Now, as Managing Director Perryn Leech puts it, they are all into pivoting. Pivoting from expensive productions with huge casts to more streamlined offerings. Pivoting from years to months (in some cases, to weeks) in terms of figuring out their next productions that will take them to April 2021, (when they will return to the Wortham to present their spring repertoire.) And, he says, learning in the process and getting better and better at what they are doing.

Pivoting from 95 percent live to 95 percent digital. And hoping that by doing so they can keep their connection with their audience and be able to survive the coronavirus, even if it takes a year or two.

HGO Digital had its first presentation Friday night with American soprano Tamara Wilson in a concert recital accompanied by HGO Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers on piano. It was the first in a series that Leech says will continue until April 2021. During that time, there will be no live opera from HGO at the Wortham.

As anyone who regularly attends Houston Grand Opera knows, Leech approaches his job with enthusiasm, greeting guests and making sure everything is running smoothly. During the post-Harvey extended season at the George R. Brown (when the Wortham Center was still recovering from flooding) he always seemed to be helping audience members find their way in their temporary quarters in Resilience Hall and resetting chairs and people if he thought it would help with sight lines.

So it's not at all surprising that he and Summers — also adept at survival skills in the face of adversity — see some positives in their new digital venture.

"Digital is a very different experience than in an opera house," Leech says. "We're not bound by some of those traditions. We can present in ways we wouldn't have necessarily done before."

He also says that HGO has no plans to abandon digital once live performances return. "As we look into the future of the art form once we dive so heavily into this digital world we're not going to just dive out of it again." The strategy for the future, he says, will be to figure out how to blend live with digital and in the process, broaden the appeal of opera to a larger audience.

And opera isn't the only genre that's going to be seeing lasting changes because of the pandemic adjustments, he says.  "You're now seeing extra cost effective ways of filming." Talk show hosts now operate from their homes, he says. "Is it really sensible to tie up all that overheard and cost?" by bringing these shows back into the studio. "Every industry being asked the same questions."

Some companies in Europe are doing live performances, he says. But these are with very, very small capacities that thanks to state subsidies allow them to retain staff during this time of social distancing and a reduced audience size. That's not the case in the United States.

HGO has installed strict COVID-19 testing protocols, which was something soprano Tamara Wilson said reassured her about coming in to rehearse and then record her concert recital.  In fact, the opera has established zones and assigned people to them — with no crossing from one zone to another allowed. In that way, if one person ends up testing positive for the coronavirus, they will know who was in the same zone who should be tested immediately.

This week, the opera plans to bring in some orchestra members for the first time. On Friday, September 25 they will present their annual HGO Studio Showcase, in which their aspiring stars of the future will have a chance to show their ranges.

And Leech says there are more ambitious projects in the future.

"We want to make sure there are opera companies once this pandemic is under control," Leech says. "So the plague is not disastrous."

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