Opera in the Heights Faces a Future With or Without Lambert Hall

Are we coming to the last time we'll see someone die on stage at Lambert Hall?
Are we coming to the last time we'll see someone die on stage at Lambert Hall? Photo by Pin Lim
Opera in the Heights is losing its home. No, it's not due to a hurricane's devastation or floodwaters wiping out its costume inventory.

It's another common precipitating event of modern times: a merger. Chalk it up to declining church attendance. Two congregations will unite and the one sitting on top of what has to be some very valuable property in The Heights is selling out and moving on.

The decision by the Heights Christian Church to sell its property on Heights Boulevard which includes Lambert Hall, used as home base by Opera in the Heights, has left Artistic Director and conductor Eiki Isomura and other leaders of the nonprofit group scrambling for a new venue, knowing all the while that in the next 2022-23 season, trying to book dates this late in the year (the opera received the news of the decision to sell the property via email in February) probably means they'll be roving players for a while.

Unless, of course, Heights Christian sells to a group that shares Isomura's belief that an opera dedicated to emerging opera singers, presenting affordable shows in a convenient area of The Heights is worth preserving. An arts group and a dance group also call Lambert Hall home. The church has stated it wants the next buyer to be someone who would continue to use Lambert Hall as a resource for the community, Isomura says.

But just in case, someone like that doesn't pop up among the people who are trooping through the property these days with an eye to possibly buying it, Opera in the Heights isn't wasting any time making its own assessments for the future — all the while going full steam ahead with their production of Eugene Onegin which starts this Saturday.

click to enlarge
Tuesday night's dress rehearsal for Eugene Onegin in Lambert Hall.
Photo by Pin Lim
"It's a strange feeling having this awareness that this might be the last opera that gets done at Lambert Hall depending on who buys this property," Isomura says. "There's just no way of knowing and we have very little control. So we're actively seeking out appropriate alternative venues that are a good size and fit."

At 10 a.m. Saturday, hours before that night's opening performance of the Tchaikovsky opera, the Houston community is invited to Lambert Hall for a town hall meeting.  Coffee and doughnuts will be on hand — to discuss possible solutions to their dilemma. No registration required. Just show up to listen and offer any ideas.

"We'd love to connect with our supporters and get their thoughts and see if we can come up with some solutions for our next chapter together," Isomura says.

One thing Isomura wants to stress is that any potential move — they've been told by the church they need to vacate by the end of July — doesn't mean dire circumstances for Opera in the Heights. Yes there will be change, but he fully anticipates being able to mount a respectable 2022-23 season wherever it plays out.

Lambert Hall was built in 1927 as the first permanent sanctuary for Heights Christian Church and named after its pastor at the time. Forty years later, the church put up a new building next door and began using the original sanctuary for community events.

Opera in the Heights began performing there in 1996 and since then has worked with the church to renovate Lambert Hall. Asked why Lambert Hall provides such a good home for an opera company, Isomura responded:

"Primarily what makes Lambert Hall a wonderful opera venue is it is only 280 seats," Isomura says. "Every seat is a good seat and when you’re there you feel connected to the action. You can see every expression on the face of the singers, you can see the [24-piece] orchestra in plain view which is very unique rather than under the stage. They are at the side of the stage and audience members always talk about how much energy they get from the orchestra's playing.

"Also the location is just terrific. We’re easy to get to, right in the heart of the historic Heights. There's plenty of street parking. Many of our patrons find that it's very convenient, not having to worry about parking challenges like in the theater district. We've always felt really fortunate about where we've been situated.

"The acoustics are terrific," he adds. "You can hear every detail and our singers whop are performing these heavy duty roles for the first time they're able to sing the roles healthfully without pushing, taxing their instrument as much as they would if it was a larger, traditional hall. And so it's the perfect place for giving these emerging artists a first crack at these large scale roles."

Opera in the Heights has one more show this season after Eugene Onegin, but it is Scalia/Ginsberg being presented at the Holocaust Museum Houston.

Saying that Opera in the Heights has "some really good options" in Montrose, the Theater District and the Galleria area, Isomura adds, "Lambert Hall is the only home we've ever known. We'd like nothing more than to be able to stay."

Still, he says, a search for a new home won't be all bad. "I think it's going to be a fun adventure. We'll learn a lot of things along the way about how to present the Opera in the Heights experience. in other places. I've always maintained that our venue Lambert Hall has been synonymous with that experience but what really makes us what we are is our mission which is being a platform for emerging opera professionals and that's something we remain committed to."

While acknowledging the positive aspects of a change in circumstances, Isomura also noted that without that office and storage area that they are probably going to have to cull the props and costumes they have amassed and their will be additional expenses.

"It will cost more. Lambert Hall was a unique arrangement because we were able to, out of one lease, get an office space, a rehearsal space, a scene shop and a performance venue all under one roof. And  we were able to be in residence throughout the year.

"What it will probably mean is we’ll devote a significant portion of our operating budget to renting new performances venues. It might mean we won’t hold a brick and mortar office during the next year; we might all work from home as we did during the shutdown. That's how we can offset the new expense. But it will challenge us because these are larger sums we haven't had to deal with before."

Isomura says one possibility is that they work with other performing arts groups to establish some shared storage, but even given that, he knows they'll have to jettison some weight to go on. "Likely we’ll be doing a good amount of purging and just hang on to the essentials. Some of those are like our pianos. We have four pianos on site. We'll have to find a place to house them for us."

In the 2022-23 season, Isomura says they plan for at least two large scale operas and a much-delayed 25th anniversary concert. At the concert they hope to bring back some successful opera singers who got their start at Opera in the Heights.

"We’re going to have a terrific season next year. We just don't yet know where."
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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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