Patrick Summers ascends to lead Houston Grand Opera
by Rich Arenschieldt
Photo by Chris Newlin
With the somewhat unexpected resignation of Houston Grand Opera’s general director Anthony Freud last spring, HGO’s board of directors wisely promoted their longtime music director Patrick Summers to its top post, naming him Artistic and Music Director. Since joining HGO in 1998, Summers has become well known to Houston audiences as the conductor for dozens of excellent mainstage productions.
Summers is an intensely private individual in a very public occupation. In spite of numerous accolades from his musical peers and a growing public persona, many of his activities are cerebral and solitary in nature—a daily routine of practicing piano, reading, writing, and somewhat surprisingly, physical fitness. His recent conversation with OutSmart gives readers a glimpse of the man responsible for creating some of Houston’s most impressive music.
Summers grew up in Loogootee, Indiana (population 2,751, according to the 2010 census), an hour south of his alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington. He recalls how almost everything about him was different from his rural Midwest surroundings.
“I was a late arrival in my family—my oldest brother is 21 years older than me,” Summers says. “I had a wonderful family; my parents were lovely people, sweet and very hardworking.” The youngest of three brothers, Summers, like many young gay children, was unique. “I was unlike my siblings in that I was artistic and started my musical life as a pianist. This, in and of itself, separated me somewhat from my parents. That said, they supported me in every possible way. They enabled me to study piano by driving me to Indiana University for lessons—something that most parents from a rural community would never have done. I’m sure it all felt a bit dangerous to them, like uncharted territory. Even though my intense interest in music detached us to some extent, I am immensely grateful for the sacrifices they made for me.”
When asked about his sexual awakening, Summers chuckles, “That’s something I haven’t actually thought about in a long time—it feels funny to talk about it after so many years. I suppose that everyone thinks their ‘coming out’ is unusual. I was ‘out,’ in some form or fashion, as a teenager. There was another boy who was slightly older than me—I guess we were boyfriends.”
One definitive experience helped Summers with his sexual self-realization. “My friend and I were at a party with a lot of other teenagers, and I repeated a homophobic joke I had heard. As we left he asked me why I had told the joke, saying, ‘Why would you do such a thing? That joke was about us.’ It was at that instant that I realized who I really was, and that it was something I had to come to terms with.”
It would be another decade before Summers shared this information with his family. As is often the case, his siblings knew long before he decided to disclose to them. “My brothers were very understanding about it. My father died before I was able to let him know. Initially, it was difficult for my mother to handle. Fortunately, she and I had an additional 10 years together—during which we were able to come to terms with each other about it. Though we rarely discussed the issue of homosexuality, my disclosure allowed us to know each other in a deeper way. I’m not sure if that was her or me, but there was an honesty that was present within the relationship. I treasure that we were able to know each other more profoundly before it was too late.”
Although an openly gay opera director shouldn’t shock anyone in Houston, Summers makes a startling observation. With a quiet intensity he says, “I am surprised at the amount of homophobia that still exists in the arts.
“If you’ve lived to a certain age, as I have, you have confronted homophobia in various guises throughout life. In an artistic endeavor, you wouldn’t imagine this would be the case, but I am surprised to find many of my fellow conductors and artists who aren’t forthcoming about their sexuality in any public way. We are in an era where opera companies are concerned about weathering the Internet age. In some ways, this lack of openness is a reflection of how arts organizations feel about how tenuous their level of support is.”
Summers’s musical résumé is impressive; in addition to HGO he is principal guest conductor at San Francisco Opera and a frequent guest conductor at New York’s venerable Metropolitan Opera. In spite of obvious success, he muses about the career cost of his openness.
“You will never know the opportunities that didn’t come to you for one reason or another. If there has been a cost to me for being out, and I’m sure there has, that price was certainly worth paying. I couldn’t live a life in which I was untrue. My sexuality is a part of me, but it doesn’t comprise everything that I am. It has taken me time to deal with the ‘morality of the mirror,’ whereby I say, ‘This is who I truly am.’ That ‘journey to ourselves’ involves both a private and public honesty.” This exact sentiment has been echoed by others in opera who are openly gay, including HGO favorites soprano Patricia Racette and baritone Patrick Carfizzi.
Artists who have worked with Summers praise his generous collaborative spirit. Composer Jake Heggie, whom Houston audiences know for his powerful contemporary opera Dead Man Walking, has known Summers for almost two decades.
“We were both at the San Francisco Opera and became friends,” Heggie recalls. “I was working in administration at that time. Patrick heard some of the music I had written and suggested to then-general director Lofti Mansouri that I compose a new opera in 2000. As a result, librettist Terrence McNally and I created Dead Man Walking. This was a huge project for me, and Patrick was extremely supportive. Additionally, he comprehends my heart and soul as a creative artist and he works hard to understand the nuances of my music, and conveys that to singers and audiences. Any composer who gets to partner with him is very fortunate. As a collaborator, interpreter, and leader, he inspires everyone he works with, and that speaks volumes about the kind of person he is. He constantly draws out the best that you have to offer—a rare quality.
“Since we have known each other so long, I get to see a lighter side of Patrick,” Heggie says. “He has a marvelous sense of humor—we joke and laugh a lot. Patrick has been the conduit for lots of music, lots of adventure, and lots of fun. He’s a great, great friend.”
Singers who work with Summers share the same opinion: they trust him. Sarah Billinghurst, assistant artistic manager at the Met, clarifies what this means: “Patrick is very good at keeping things steady in performance and in rehearsal. Some conductors, many of them very well known, will suddenly speed up or slow down from one performance to another—something that can be very challenging for singers. When Patrick is in the pit, singers know that they are in very good hands. He brings forth incredible performances, supports his singers, and simultaneously keeps everything under control.”
“Opera is the most complicated thing in the world to conduct,” Summers explains. “Part of my job is to instill confidence in singers. This isn’t something that can happen quickly—it’s a process that collects itself unconsciously over time.
“In the orchestral world, a conductor arrives three days before the concert, has rehearsals, and then performs. Some conductors are very good at that kind of immediacy. Singers are different. It’s a scary thing to rely solely on a very fragile vocal mechanism while simultaneously performing difficult music in a performance situation that possesses theatrical and musical variables.”
Billinghurst and others also comment on Summers’s expansive knowledge of operatic repertoire. “Many conductors will opt to perform only music from a certain period. Patrick does not. He’s conducted early Baroque operas as well as newly composed works, and is equally comfortable in either setting.”
Those who have known Summers since his first days at HGO are now seeing a much slimmer version of the man, thanks to his physical fitness routine. “I was in an accident four years ago and suffered significant damage to my leg,” Summers recounts. “I’d never been physically incapacitated before, and at that time I was overweight.” Like many men approaching 50, Summers was forced to reexamine his physical condition. “I wanted to live a healthier life—I didn’t want to approach getting older in a diminished capacity, and decided to make a change.
“I do spend time doing things that are solitary in nature. I still practice the piano every day. I am an avid writer and I’ve kept a daily diary for years. Occasionally I will read an old one from years ago and am sometimes horrified at what’s there. When I was 20 I had viewpoints that I was certain were absolutely correct. Now every one of those opinions has completely changed.”
To some degree, this deliberative and thoughtful personal transformation also translates into Summers’s professional life at the helm of one of the premier opera companies in the nation.
“Many of the new young conductors are ‘firecrackers.’ I am, by nature, ‘a slow-burning fuse’ with a longer view. My primary objective is to maintain and build HGO over the longer term. The kind of quiet, private work I do with composers, singers, and most importantly the HGO Orchestra, will help us to accomplish that.
“When David Gockley asked me to come to Houston, I reminded him that the building of an opera orchestra can take a decade to accomplish. [So we started by choosing operas] that would give this orchestra a foundation in the standard repertoire. This was necessary to achieve the orchestral texture and confidence that I was striving for. The players have moved forward in great leaps, as evidenced by their performances. They are dedicated to the process and bring a great deal to the table—an enormous amount of talent.
“Ninety percent of our success relies on the casting, which includes choosing the entire creative team for each production. HGO is committed to discovering the next generation of stars and developing them over the long term. We mix young talent and established artists. Our goal is to have a ‘family’ of singers who appear at HGO during several seasons.
“What I’m looking for during my tenure here, besides holding fast to HGO’s mission and vision, is to present visually and sonically inventive operatic works. Dynamic productions created ‘our’ way, in an environment where artists know that we will do everything possible to empower them to perform at the highest possible level.
“Artistic expression teaches us to think with nuance and to approach things with innovation.” Summers says. “Unlike historical events, nobody can look at a single work of art and say that it dramatically changed the world. Yet [without the things that art can teach us], we know that the world would be a drastically different place. I think it’s vital that we at HGO approach our work with the seriousness that it demands.”
HGO closes the season with two works: Giusepe Verdi’s sweeping royal masterpiece, Don Carlos, and Gaetano Donizetti’s regal rivalry, Mary Stuart. Out at the Opera performances for LGBT audience members are April 28 for Don Carlos and May 4 for Mary Stuart.
For tickets and information, call 713/228-OPERA or log on to houstongrandopera.org.
Rich Arenschlieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.