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By Josh Inocéncio
This month, the internationally renowned Houston Grand Opera will premiere a new piece, Some Light Emerges, in The Ballroom at Bayou Place. The chamber opera explores the power and beauty of Houston’s iconic Rothko Chapel, following five characters in Houston over several decades as they unexpectedly encounter the purple-and-black paintings that hang on the walls of the interfaith sanctuary. The creative team consists of composer Laura Kaminsky and co-librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, all of whom worked together on a previous opera entitled As One.
“Laura originated the idea to set the piece inside the Rothko, and Mark wanted to span the decades between the characters,” Reed explains, describing the development process for Some Light Emerges. “But we all wanted to make it as much about a place as about the characters. And by making [the opera] about the Rothko Chapel, we’re making it about art, the role of art, and why these different characters would be driven to this place.
“We’re focusing on characters who may not be the kind of people you think of going to the Rothko chapel to look at Rothko paintings,” Reed adds.
One of the characters is Alicia, who visits the chapel for a memorial service for her friend who had passed away from AIDS. During the late 1980s and early ’90s, the chapel was one of the few places in Houston that would host memorial services for AIDS victims as many religious institutions turned away their families. “While Alicia is reflecting on losing her friend, and the anger she has because her friend had been rejected by other places, the paintings slowly take hold and she becomes intrigued by them,” describes Reed.
Other characters in the opera have similar experiences that pull them toward the Rothko Chapel, including Tom, a construction worker repairing a nearby street who goes inside to momentarily escape the Texas sun. But there is also Dominique de Menil, the founder of the eponymous museum in Houston as well as the Rothko Chapel, who looms over the characters in the background. “De Menil comes and goes, like a one-person Greek chorus,” says Reed. “She hovers over the proceedings of the chapel, [and over the designers as they] implement the plans to make it happen.”
As for the process of researching material for the opera, all three creative team members spent time in Houston at the chapel. But they also have personal connections that inform their work: Kaminsky’s interest in the chapel stems from her love of artist Mark Rothko; Campbell’s relationship with Houston developed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as evacuees fled the destruction in Louisiana. (One of the characters in the opera arrives in Houston shortly after Katrina hits New Orleans.) Reed’s Houston connection goes back to her parents meeting here while her father was studying at Baylor College of Medicine.
But Reed also brings an outsider’s perspective to this opera libretto, since she comes from the world of filmmaking. To her mind, the genres are very similar, and she sees how her work in film has only enhanced her work as an opera librettist. “You know, in many ways, opera’s [presentation of] visual spectacles is a forerunner to filmmaking,” she says. Her experience in film has also influenced her commitment to “character-based” librettos that connects the audience more emotionally with the characters. But Reed also points out the main difference between film and opera: music serves the screenplay in film, whereas the libretto serves the musical composition in opera.
Reed, who happens to be transgender, has also used her experience in filmmaking and opera to create transgender stories that will hopefully humanize transpeople to the general public. In fact, the New York Times website has archived a short video essay that Reed produced with her iPhone, which is part of the newspaper’s Transgender Today series.
“It’s not unusual for me to be the first transgender person someone has known. I’m happy to be in that position, because the best way to dispel misunderstanding and increase empathy for “the other” is to simply get to know someone,” Reed says in the New York Times piece. “That’s how we’ve made progress in the LGB communities, and now it’s time for the T. This is something I aimed to accomplish with my film Prodigal Sons.”
As for her opera work, Reed aims to create stories with diverse characters that are more relevant to audiences today. While she is reverential toward the classics, one of her goals is to expand interest in opera through riveting contemporary pieces. “I hope people realize contemporary American opera is more fun and acceptable and easier to relate to, so that it can connect with what people are going through today.”
What: Some Light Emerges
When: March 16–17, 7:30 p.m.
Where: The Ballroom at Bayou Place, 500 Texas Ave.
Tickets/Details: Visit houstongrandopera.org/community-programs for more information. Tickets are $25 each.
Josh Inocéncio is a playwright and freelance writer. A Houston-area native, he earned a master’s degree in theater studies at Florida State University and has produced his first play, Purple Eyes.