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The Making of The Refuge
Laura Chandler, Editorial Director, Houston Grand Opera
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EducationLink11/19/2007

Editor's Note: This article describes Houston Grand Opera's journey towards the creation of The Refuge, the first work commissioned as part of their community-involved partnership entitled Song of Houston. Song of Houston is a program that connects Houston Grand Opera's creativity with the vibrant history of Houston's communities. This piece was originally published in the October 2007 issue of Houston Grand Opera's magazine, Opera Cues.
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The best ideas arrive on butterfly wings; they alight for a moment and then they are gone, unless they are captured, thought about, mulled over. They are not sharply defined at first; rather, they take shape gradually. They don't always bend to the will of the captor; instead they escape, fluttering and sometimes soaring above. They don't always bend to the will of the captor; instead they escape, fluttering and sometimes soaring above. HGOco, Houston Grand Opera's (HGO) new initiative for creating partnerships within the community; Song of Houston, HGOco's ongoing project to tell Houstonians' own stories in music and words; and The Refuge, the first work in the Song of Houston project all began with a flutter, but they have already taken HGO in directions the company never dreamed.

Shortly before he assumed the general directorship of Houston Grand Opera in March 2006, Anthony Freud had dinner with an HGO patron who described the experiences of a friend who had immigrated to Houston under extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps because he was a new arrival in Houston himself, it struck Freud that Houston is a city "full of people who have come here from somewhere else and many of whom also came here under extraordinary circumstances. It seemed to me that if we could find a selection of stories of journeys to Houston, from a wide range of communities around the city and tell them as music-theater, then we would be achieving a whole range of things. We would be using the resources of HGO, a world-class, full-scale opera company in a new way. We would be building bridges to a range of communities around the city with which we have had little contact, in a way that perhaps would earn for HGO a sense of relevance. And in creating a wonderful new piece, we would be helping opera and music-theater evolve as an art form."

"'Epiphany' may be too strong a word, but if you think of an epiphany as an event that changes everything after it, then this is an epiphany for HGO," adds Music Director Patrick Summers. "This represents a different way of thinking about what an opera company's activities should be. We want to take a musical look at what's happening around us every day."

Freud and Summers had given a lot of thought as to how the art form could be made to resonate more powerfully in a vibrant, diverse city such as Houston. They knew that HGO needed to strengthen existing partnerships and create new ones in order to connect with the city of Houston and they knew that the task of creating a new work such as they envisioned would be impossible without these partnerships. So they and HGO plunged in.

Soon after the idea began to grow, Freud shared it with Mayor Bill White, who was "very receptive to the whole concept of HGO telling a story of contemporary Houston immigration," says Freud. In the early stages, knowing that by the very nature of the project choices would have to be made about which communities to focus on initially, White provided guidance and assisted HGO in making contacts within those communities. He and his wife, Andrea, recently recorded a public service announcement for The Refuge, and Mrs. White dedicated one of her "We're All Neighbors" luncheons to the Song of Houston project. The Whites's support and enthusiasm, Freud says, has been vital.

As the idea for The Refuge, although it was as yet untitled, began to gel, Freud approached a composer and a librettist. "HGOco and its projects represent something that is central to the culture of Houston Grand Opera. I passionately believe that when we mount community- or schools-based projects we should not compromise our artistic principles," says Freud. With that in mind, he spoke to Christopher Theofanidis and Leah Lax.

"Leah Lax, a remarkable writer and poet, was introduced to us by Inprint and it was great from the start for the company to be collaborating with such a distinguished literary organization. Christopher Theofanidis is an internationally renowned, prize-winning composer. He's received major commissions from major orchestras all over the world," says Freud. Both of them, importantly, were native Houstonians for whom the project was of more than academic interest.

Freud says his earliest conversations with Theofanidis and Lax were "just like the rest of this project's: way out of the box, in that I didn't really know yet what I was asking them to do. I didn't want to compartmentalize this project too soon. I remember very well the first meeting I had with Chris. It was in New York, in a little cafe on the corner of 7th Avenue and 57th Street. I said to Chris, 'This is going to sound very bizarre to you, but what I would like you to think about is writing a giant musical work that tells stories of a number of individuals who have immigrated to Houston. And I need you to find a musical language that is both true to your own artistic identity and to the individuals and the communities whose stories we are telling.' That's a very complex brief for an artist. I wanted every note of this score to be identifiably by Christopher Theofanidis. I wasn't asking him to create a pastiche of specific community music traditions. And I wanted him to create music that would resonate truthfully with the people being portrayed." Happily, says Freud, Theofanidis immediately got it and embraced the project.

Freud had a similar experience with Leah Lax. He was already familiar with her Mikvah Project, centered on the Jewish ceremonial bath for women. (The Mikvah Project, a collection of photographs, some with text taken from interviews, has been touring nationally since October 2001.) Freud recalled that at his first meeting with Lax, she asked numerous questions, to which he answered repeatedly, "I don't know." Lax welcomed the sense of adventure inherent in the project right away, says Freud, pointing out that while Lax is a distinguished poet, this was the first time she had been asked to write text to be set to music. Her artistic output would ultimately have to fuse with the music of the composer.

While much was initially undetermined, there were some points about which Freud and Summers were clear from the start. Summers would conduct and the performance would involve not only the HGO chorus, orchestra, children's chorus and studio artists, but also community-based performers. Yet, even in certainty there was uncertainty: Freud says he told Theofanidis and Lax, "I know I want community performers involved, I don't know who they will be, I don't know whether they'll be instrumentalists or singers or groups. We need to keep the creation of this piece open for a sufficiently long time to allow us to get to know the communities and whether individuals or groups of performers exist within those communities who might be interested in working with us on this project." Two performances were planned to ensure that friends and families of the participants would have an opportunity to see The Refuge.

Another point that was clear from the beginning was that the process leading up to the creation of The Refuge would be much broader than simply finding stories, setting them to words and music and giving a performance. Because Freud and Summers wanted every step of the process to be as inclusive as possible, they decided to mount multi-disciplinary, schools-based projects through the communities, including painting and poetry projects. HGO's 2006 holiday card emerged from a school activity. One child made a painting of Cinderella; coincidentally, HGO was soon to stage a new production of Rossini's La Cenerentola. "To find a wonderful painting of Cinderella created by a child
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