Opera Vista's Elephant-Sized Risk

Since winning a Houston Press MasterMinds Award in January , OperaVista (a group that specializes in new, original compositions for opera) needed to make a decision: Move to the next level or fold.

"We sat down and decided we didn't want to keep trudging along anymore," says Viswa Subbaraman, Opera Vista's co-founder and artistic director. "Every arts organization that starts from scratch, you eke out an existence for a while, because you've got to get an infrastructure together. Initially it's hard because you don't have the funding to do what you want to do."

That's when you take a risk.

Since January, Opera Vista is already raising more money than it did in the entirety of its last season. It has to, because its current production alone costs more than its entire last season.

The success in fundraising comes largely from the announcement that the group would produce the original Thai opera The Silent Prince, which has its world premiere this Friday at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall.

While the piece is short by opera standards (95 minutes!), it still makes technical demands. "It isn't a production you can do with video backdrop, says Subbaraman. "We needed a set; we needed a nicer hall. It couldn't stand on a miniscule budget. It needs singers and dancers in full costume."

And then there's the elephant.

Two key scenes in the story, about a reincarnated Buddha who refuses to speak, require a singer to perform an aria while riding an elephant. "The composer [Somtow Sucharitkul] thought we were going to construct an elephant of some sort," says Subbaraman, "and we thought about that. But it just seemed cooler to have a real elephant." The group will have one dress rehearsal Thursday with the animal, borrowed from a friend at the Renaissance Festival, before the one-night-only performance Friday night. The beast passed weight inspection for the Zilkha Hall stage. "It's a smaller elephant; it's not huge," Subbaraman assures. "It's a midsize."

Subbaraman has been describing The Silent Prince as a "Bollywood opera," since it combines Western and traditional Indian music. "You can tell the composer has grown up with Eastern and Western music," he says. "There are moments that sound like Leonard Bernstein, moments that sound like an Indonesian gamelan concert, moments that sound like Wagner, Sondheim, Bollywood film music. And it works; it hangs together really well."

The performance is this Friday, October 15, 8 p.m., at the Hobby Center's Zilkha Hall. Purchase tickets at Opera Vista's website.

Check out a couple videos of Opera Vista on the next page.

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