Opera in the Heights Can Take a Breath and Start its Season, Secure in Lambert Hall

Elixir of Love will be the first live performance by Opera in the Heights this season.
Artwork by Padrón & Co.
Elixir of Love will be the first live performance by Opera in the Heights this season.

This December, Opera in the Heights will open its 2022-23 season — a season that might not have happened if a number of people and organizations hadn't swooped in to work out a way to retain its home at Lambert Hall.

In fact, it isn't only Lambert Hall property that's being saved for the arts, but also the adjacent Heights Christian Church which will become home to any number of musical groups looking for a mid-size place to rehearse and perform.

Last February, Eiki Isomura, conductor and Artistic Director of Opera in the Heights, received notice that the church was selling its property on Heights Boulevard and as of last March, with no idea who the new buyer would be, chances were that the April production of Eugene Onegin was going to be the last opera performed in Lambert Hall.

But after months of waiting, a group of interested parties whose public face is the Houston Saengerbund — one of Houston's oldest musical groups dedicated to German music —  came forward and announced they were buying and investing in the property, hoping to make it even more of a center for the arts in the Heights neighborhood.

"They are very deeply invested and committed to our community of music lovers. They have been looking for a permanent home for themselves," said Isomura. "They had a very strong interest in the sanctuary part of the Heights Christian Church. Their wish was always to make their home at the sanctuary portion and to have Opera in the Heights be anchor tenants at Lambert Hall in the theater. So we're very, very fortunate to be able to call them not only our new landlords but our long-term neighbors," Isomura said.

Rodney Thorin, president of the Saengerbund, said the organization  has operated from several different locations since it was founded in 1883 and most recently has been meeting at First Lutheran Church in Midtown. "First Lutheran Church [has] been an absolutely wonderful partner in Midtown. But with renting a space within a church we have certain limitations. It was a great home but it wasn’t our home," Thorin said..

"When Heights Christian Church came up for sale. it seemed a perfect opportunity to begin the process to see if a move back to the Heights was possible. We put an offer in. it didn’t fit the church’s priorities but in cooperation with some partners who have an expanded vision of what the property can be, we were able to present a cohesive offer to the church, it was accepted and we closed on it on September 2."

That expanded vision came from Alecia Lawyer the artistic director and founder of ROCO, who thought any proposal should include the continued operation of Opera in the Heights out of Lambert Hall.

"She presented a vision to Opera in the Heights and supporters of Opera in the Heights and people who wished to see Lambert Hall preserved and not torn down and presented it to us as well. And we were completely and totally on board," Thorin said. "The intention is that this property will become a center  for musical arts that will cater to smaller organizations, chamber orchestras, quintets, smaller choirs, organizations that don’t really have a home because there isn't a home for them."

Since news of the sale, the first question Thorin says he has had from he public is "What's going to happen to Lambert?

"Lambert is going to stay exactly where it is. Its use is going to be reimagined for the long-term tenure of Opera in the Heights. They want to stay," he said. "We just want to bring it into the 21st Century, make it a venue that people look forward to coming to," Thorin said, adding that the limited parking is one of the items they hope to resolve in their master plan.

"The Heights is a whole different mind set in Houston," he added. "This is essentially the small town feel that most people want and they try to find in suburbs but they don't. In the Heights, people come out they walk they want venues they want places to go, they want restaurants, they want to go find the little neighborhood bar that they can go have a beer and let the kids play. So we think that this is a prime location to draw people in from all over Houston for the type of musical culture that is out there. It's just been there's not a central location for people to find it."

As Thorin stressed, Alecia Lawyer, has been and will continue to be an integral and essential part of the plan to renovate the property which a lot of fund-raising efforts ahead.

"I really want this to be something that everybody can have input on what they need," Lawyer said. "Having lived here so many years and having formed ROCO and been part of the MATCH building, just seeing this incredible dynamic and vibrant music scene in Houston is so exciting  and the possibility of having these two 250-seat venues being able to be renovated."

"I believe there's a huge need and desire to have this happen."

"We all know that Houston is the largest small town in the world and in some ways that's brilliant  and in some ways that's hard because it has to be word of mouth too much. This will hopefully shine a real beacon of light on the vast talent that is here. for chamber music," said Lawyer, adding that ROCO itself being a 40-piece professional chamber music group is too big for the space. "But we do support chamber music and we do so many collaborative concerts."

And passing our her own round of compliments, Lawyer said, "There's so many people who've been involved in this," Lawyer said, naming Opera In the Heights Board Chair Elise Bungo and Thorin who she said "is kind of the landlord until professional staff can be hired. He believes in the full vision of what this can be. All the right people are on the bus to get this to happen."

"A civic group like Rotary, a cultural heritage group like Saengerbund and two performing arts groups like ROCO and Opera in the Heights have come together to create a space that is for everyone," Lawyer said.

Opera in the Heights will start its season later than usual starting with a world premiere of DOC the Halls: Holiday Songbook on December 1, a continuation of the collaboration with the Decameron Opera Coalition, Donizetti's Elixir of Love from December 3-11, Verdi's Rigoletto on March 25 through April 2, 2023  and a 25th Anniversary Concert featuring some previous performers at Opera in the Heights on May 20, 2023.

The delay was caused, of course, because they only were able to get their lease agreement recently. There was also the transition back from the reduced programming during the height of the pandemic, Isomura said.

Their first live performance of the season will be the comedy Elixir of Love in collaboration with stage director Josh Shaw, artistic director of Pacific Opera Project and one of Isomura's favorite collaborators, who worked with him on the first-ever Japanese -English production of Madame Butterfly.

"The first time Josh saw the little proscenium in Lambert  Hall and the dimensions, he immediately saw his 1950s diner and jukebox-inspired set," Isomura said. Setting it in that time period made sense given the Elixir story, Isomura said "because it is about young love — thinking teenagers and they games they play and those themes work really well with 1950s pop culture in the U.S. whether it be the rock and rock songs popular at the time or the dance fads and the TV shows and movies that have drawn from that period, they all feed really well  into the energy of the piece."

It had been a while since Opera in the Heights has done Rigoletto, Isomura said. "For one thing we always like to have a Verdi or Puccini opera in our season if it fits well. I didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to program it. Also, it fits our mission well in that we try to showcase talent who have a unique opportunity to make an important role debut in an iconic role."

As for the online film that will premiere December 1 and be available on demand after that, this will be the third in a series presented in association with Decameron Opera Coalition. The first had themes related to the pandemic, the second featured heroes. The third is a collection of holiday songs from different companies including Opera in the Heights.  It will also give Opera in the Heights an idea of how much appetite audiences have for continued digital content, Isomura said.

Opera in the Heights commissioned Alejandro Basulto and Bruno Rios to write the song which will be performed by baritone Octavio Moreno.  The song deals with being away from loved ones during the holidays but nonetheless feeling connected over that distance," Isomura said. It is told in English and Spanish from the perspective from the grandfather who exchanges letters across the distance with his granddaughter.

"This is a theme that was  on my mind and weighed on my heart a lot during the shutdown. I thought a lot about grandparents who were at the highest risk level and who were not able to travel to see their grandchildren. I  thought that was one of the hardest and saddest things about the holidays. So when the idea to write new holiday songs came about among the coalition,  I knew I wanted it to be about that."

For the 25th Anniversary celebration, Isomura said, "We’re inviting some of our alumni singers who might have made role debuts who have gone on to sing at the highest level and feature them and celebrate them as part of our legacy and take the moment to reflect on our history as a platform for these emerging artists,"

"I’d love for there to give some context to our future with Lambert Hall. There is the immediate future (cosmetic and functional improvements) and then there is the long term future (Houston Center For Musical Arts) becoming "the next great music destination.," Isomura said,.

And the fact that Opera in the Heights remains at the heart of the long-term vision for the property is a dream come true," Isomura said.