Gregory Spears and Royce Vavrek at Johnson Space Center
Gregory Spears and Royce Vavrek at Johnson Space Center
Photo by Lynn Lane

O Columbia: A 70-Minute Chamber Opera Worth Exploring

When composer Gregory Spears (The Bricklayer) asked his cousins who live in the Houston area what stories they thought should be told, they kept returning to the space program, he says. He and librettist Royce Vavrek, both based in New York City, had wanted to work together and knew the Houston Grand Opera's HGOCo was accepting proposals.

The result is the 70-minute chamber opera O Columbia which not only tells the tragic story of the Columbia space shuttle that broke apart upon re-entry and resulted in the deaths of all seven crew members, but of the drive for exploration that preceded it (cue Sir Walter Raleigh), the account of a teenage Houston girl Becca determined to be part of NASA's space program as well as the journeys of astronauts and engineers of the future, pushing out ever farther despite the dangers inherent to space travel.

The pair met with astronauts at Johnson Space Center and listened to both their sadness about seeing colleagues die in the 2003 disaster and their determination to go on. “Listening to the astronauts talk, it's childlike wonder mixed with hard work,” Spears says. “It's very emotional to have an astronaut telling you about being in space to be in the same room with you.”

Vavrek, a Canadian who came at the project from a different experience, says he was especially caught by one account. “One of the astronauts talked about circumnavigating the Earth and that Africa is really dark and quiet; there's not as many lights.”

When he was determining the musical approach he should take, Spears said he used as inspiration Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey and the classical music that it employed. At one point, strains of “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean” can be heard in the opera, Spears says, although it is not till later that the actual word is spoken.

A mostly young cast of singers with Pureum Jo as Becca, Ben Edquist as Sir Raleigh/astronaut and Megan Samarin as Lady Columbia will be backed by an ensemble with Timothy Myers conducting and Kevin Newbury directing. There are also plans to have an event at NASA and Spears and Vavrek hope to have the music piped up to the International Space Station.

The public performances of O Columbia are scheduled for 8 p.m. September 23 and 24 at Revention (formerly Bayou) Music Center, 520 Texas. . For information call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $20. 

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