HGO Explores The Homeless in Another City, A World Premiere

Exploring the other city within Houston
Exploring the other city within Houston Detail from poster art

In 2016, Houston Grand Opera issued a call for ideas for new operas and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann urged composer Jeremy Howard Beck to apply. He thought about it and submitted two proposals: one about famed artist James Turrell and the way he works with light, the other an opera about the homeless.

"I started reading Houston news and came across an article about an encampment under an overpass that had been cleaned out and people in it moved out just elsewhere," Beck said. "They contacted me and said that they couldn't think of anything more on-mission than the homelessness idea,"

The homeless proposal was given the green light in 2017 and the two, who had worked together before, began fleshing out their skeleton of an idea — one that became Another City, a 75-minute, one act opera that will be performed at the Christian community Ecclesia at its downtown facility on Elder.

Pulling together an opera takes time, of course, not aided by the height of the pandemic. Another City would have debuted in 2022, Beck said, but the first workshop was supposed to be in 2020 and that didn't happen. "Getting people into a room for singing was not something that people did for that year and some of the next."

Early on, both Beck and Fleischmann knew they needed more than a few newspaper articles to find the city within the city of Houston. They needed to do their own on-the-ground research which they did in 2018 two separate trips each lasting a week or more.

"We did some reading about the situation in Houston but we hadn't done any on the ground research when we made the proposal. I knew that there would be something powerful in there. I just wasn't sure what form it would take," Fleischmann said. "As soon as we got here we realized there was no way it was one story. It had to be many, many stories. Which poses a challenge."

Initially the parameters of the new opera were limited. They were supposed to have six or eight singers at the maximum and ended up with 12, Fleischmann said.

"There are so many aspects to it, so many layers, so many experiences and there's so many kinds of needs from the chronically homeless which often involves mental illness or deep addiction to a young mother who loses her job and her relationship and suddenly that scenario of being one calamity away from being on the streets yet having that ability through the housing support system to be temporarily housed and then moved within the space of the year to be able to manage on their own." Fleischmann said.

"And so many different kinds of cultures, so many different kinds of backgrounds. So many different issues. One person's story isn't going to hold all the gradations of the problems and the solutions," she explained.

There are three main stories involving couples with other more minor characters woven in, she said. A mother who lost her child to homelessness. A woman who is ambivalent about entering supportive housing that she's just been approved for. And one centered at non-profit The Beacon which provides homeless services involving Miss Violet who runs the laundry.

The pair recorded more than 60 hours of their discussions with the people they interviewed and Fleischmann used some of their exact words in her libretto.

Beck's part was to match those words with music appropriate to the stories being told. Asked how you write music about homelessness, Beck replied: "In a sense you can't. Because music is abstract. But you can write music about what it feels like. You can write music about people's experience of it and people have as many different experiences of it as there are people.

"Our first research trip we were talking to a lot of people, kind of getting the view from 30,000 feet. We talked to a lot of different people who have perspectives on policy and what's being done and what's working and what's not," he said. 

"The second research trip — and I think partly because we had earned the trust of the people that  we talked to on the first trip — we actually spoke with some of their clients. And that was just getting to know them as people."

Emily Wells, the director of the opera, asked them "How can we put a city on stage," Beck said. "In creating this ensemble story the different characters and different narratives work and are almost organized more like a symphony. The stories all connect to each other. Sometimes the handoffs will be emotional."

The orchestra is really more of a band, Beck said, with an electric guitar, a bass, two percussionists, two keyboards and two saxophones. "Which is already kind of an impolite opera orchestra.  I think that might give people an idea of that to expect.

"Each character had to have music that was kind of iconic so that you would remember them the moment that they came back," Beck said. "Most of it is quite tonal and  a lot of it is melodic and a lot of it is beautiful in ways that people will recognize. I think it's important that opera speaks to people in languages they will understand," Beck said.

"There are difficult moments because that’s the truth. But I always want to write music that allows people to kind of relax into it because they trust that I've got them. I think that my job is to be a guardian and guide for their attention.  I don't want to bring them to a difficult place and then leave them there.

Or as Fleischmann put it: "There truly is hope, I feel like there is actually oddly a lot of hope and a lot of reality at the same time. Houston is one of the model cities in America for actually making strides in reducing homelessness. And we also found when those solutions are implemented they are also invisible.

"You don't see the people who are housed because they are housed. They are not on the street anymore. You don’t really register that. And because there's so much development in Houston, the encampments that are out of the way are getting unsettled or picked up. Those people that were in an empty lot somewhere not near a neighborhood where people live, are suddenly much closer. There are hurdles that may never be solved.

"That is sort of the last frontier. The chronically homeless," Fleischmann said. "But yet there are amazing people working who are helping people."

Performances are scheduled for March 9-11 at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at Ecclesia Houston, 1100 Elder. For more information, call 713-228-6737 or visit hgo.org. $25.
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