Houston Grand Opera

Under the deft direction of Sandra Bernhard and program director Evan Wilderstein, the community outreach arm of Houston Grand Opera takes opera far beyond the confines of the Wortham Theater Center — to the streets, to schools and to the diverse ethnic communities that make up Houston. It is an effort apparently unparalleled in the opera world. As part of its Song of Houston: East + West project, HGOCo has commissioned several operettas involving the lives of immigrants to the Houston community, from Mexico to Azerbaijan to Cambodia, combining not only the different cultures' stories but their musical instruments and methods of singing as well. For its Home + Place program, HGOco and its partners go to schools and community centers in each of three areas — the Gulfton/Sharpstown area, Hobby and Northside/Second Ward — and work with students and adults. Kids are introduced to opera through Opera to Go! and Story Book Opera. The risk is enormous — opera for the masses, opera blended with other forms of music — but somehow with great goodwill and carefully crafted programs, HGOCo has soared along with its arias while persuading hundreds to drop the notion that opera is stodgy and something only consumed by the tuxedo and ballroom set.

Nestled between Crawford Elementary School and the Eastex Freeway's Lyons Avenue off-ramp, the "Fruits of Fifth Ward" mural is an impressive tribute to both the Fifth Ward dwellers enshrined on it and the neighborhood they all helped to blossom. Seeded by a $10,000 grant from the History Channel and composed of more than 1,500 mosaic tiles, the 50-foot mural was constructed by students at nearby Wheatley High School under the auspices of Museum of Cultural Arts Houston co-founder and Executive Director Reginald Adams. It honors 21 former residents, an array of famous musicians (Lightnin' Hopkins, Joe Sample, Illinois Jacquet), politicians (Barbara Jordan, Mickey Leland), local educators (Nat Q. Henderson, Phillis Wheatley herself) and many more who took what they learned here to achievements in all walks of life. "It tells you that you matter, where you live matters," Adams told KUHF's Laurie Johnson when the mural was dedicated in October 2006. "What we hope is that the mural becomes a landmark." Indeed it has.

Walter's Downtown
David Rozycki

At this point Walter's seems almost invulnerable. Pam Robinson's club spent the last half of 2011 in limbo as Robinson had difficulty moving into her new quarters near UH-Downtown. But now that it's all smoothed over, the newly rechristened Walters Houston (no more apostrophe) is even more of a melting pot of music that's beloved but not popular, an array of subgenres from thrash and hardcore to shoegaze and emo. The former auto showroom is bigger, but with the same open-door booking policy and endearing "don't be a dick" attitude. DIY to the last, Walters still doesn't have a Web site, but updates its Facebook page often enough to keep up with what's going on. One of the most fun events is turning out to be Walters Bazaar, a combination concert/swap meet on the last Sunday of the month, where people are welcome to bring old records, clothes and anything else they want to sell for a sort of flea market while enjoying some late-afternoon live music.

Houston Dance Factory

We don't know what we want to learn first — swing? Salsa? Bachata? Ballroom? A bunch of others? Well, whenever we decide, we're going to bachata over to the Houston Dance Factory, whose top-notch instructors teach everyone from toddlers to seniors. They offer private and group classes, and they can also help even the most uncoordinated klutz with a wedding first dance, quinceañera, sweet 16 or whatever other special events might be coming your way. If we see you there, don't be surprised if we ask if we can have the next dance.

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston - Brown Auditorium Theater

Like the New York Yankees, the only word to really describe the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is "powerhouse." True, it has the kind of deep-pocketed endowment that attracts top-dollar traveling exhibits like the recent "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," but it concurrently showed its annual collection of Third Ward photography taken by Jack Yates High School students. Besides the two architectural marvels of the Caroline Wiess Law and Audrey Jones Beck buildings, the other buildings scattered around the MFAH campus are themselves models of styles ranging from neoclassical to Southern antebellum to postmodern contemporary. Their contents are equally spectacular, with permanent collections of art and artifacts from every continent except Antarctica and rotating exhibits that could include war photography, Dutch masters or Scandinavian design. MFAH also conducts a renowned art-education program through the Glassell School, contains one of the area's few true art-house movie theaters and includes works by Rodin and Matisse in the sculpture garden out back. It's a lot to take in.

The Usual

Since the demise of Lower Westheimer mainstay Chances, the Usual has been Houston's only lesbian bar, so luckily it's a good one. Not exclusively for ladies who love ladies, the Usual sports an inviting front porch with a sweet view of some nearby train tracks, great deals on wine, and frequent raucous karaoke nights. After an evening so close and yet so far from the Usual, in the vast valet-bedeviled douchatoria of the Washington Avenue strip, the Usual's laid-back neighborhood vibe will restore your faith in the human race.

Fresh Arts

The Fresh Arts Coalition-Spacetaker merger is a solid illustration of one team being stronger than two individuals. In April, the ten-year-old Fresh Arts Coalition (a marketer for select art presenters) and the nine-year-old Spacetaker (an established support system for creative types) made the tying of the knot official. Headed by Jenni Rebecca Stephenson, a longtime arts advocate and Spacetaker's executive director since 2009, the new organization has continued to present sweet events such as Cultured Cocktails, artist talks and workshops.

Down House

With the perfect mix of fancy and casual, this eatery/drinkery in the Heights is a dynamic spot to take a first date for caffeine, a kickback lunch or a romantic dinner. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m., the coffee/restaurant/bar — decked out in Victorian decor in some spots, modern industrial hip in others — delivers with amazing coffee, salads and grass-fed Texas beef burgers, lots of local beers on tap and a no-joke cocktail list that includes barrel-aged Manhattans and bourbon Mai Tais. Predictably, it's often busy on weekend nights, but not enough of a zoo to make you change your plans. Plus, the spot is a good launching pad for the next bar, a movie or a show at nearby Fitzgerald's.

DiverseWorks

After making an international name for himself as a graffiti artist and leader of Aerosol Warfare, GONZO247 branched out into new territory and began curating shows for other walls. Most notable was this year's "Grandalism" series at DiverseWorks, a program of commissioned works by individual artists who, in turn, each showed oversize works outside the DW building. This summer, Article (Phillip Orlando Perez) was in the spotlight. His work included the colorful Mayan Day of the Dead, a stylized version of the traditional Mexican Día de los Muertos skull with glowing orange eyes, wearing a green and turquoise headdress and flanked by lush red roses. In case you're wondering, the series takes its title from the combination of the words "grand" and "vandalism," both words sometimes used to describe the work of the artists involved in the series.

TC's Show Bar

The favorite drag bar of a certain member of the Houston talk-radio community, TC's in Montrose is the first drag haunt that many curious Houstonians will find themselves in once they get bitten by the fabulous bug. The club features full-on shows five nights a week. Leave your inhibitions at the door and sit back and enjoy a 300-pound man singing "Bad Romance."

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