By Rich Arenschieldt
From the Act One synopsis of Houston Grand Opera’s 1995 world premiere of Harvey Milk: “Young Harvey, standing at the old Metropolitan Opera, wonders about the ‘men without wives.’”
Indeed, men with men at the opera has been the case for decades. Fast-forward 20 years, and some of those men are now married . . . to other men!
Such is the current social libretto as Houston Grand Opera (HGO) entertains an audience partially composed of LGBT patrons and their friends. In a universe where everything is obtainable virtually instantaneously in digital form, opera companies worldwide struggle to address a triad of core elements needed to perpetuate live-performance art: relevance, accessibility, and sustainability. HGO has attempted to tackle all of these through various initiatives and the formation of groups like Overture that target specific markets.
David Krohn, associate development director for HGO, and Beau Miller, a local attorney and founding member of the Overture group, have a shared mindset: “It’s a more inclusive, broadly based entity than our previous endeavors,” Krohn says. “We’ve regrouped, and in so doing have reached out to a number of different leaders in Houston’s LGBT community. We wanted to gauge their interest in supporting a group such as Overture and, more importantly, determine what we could do to foster relationships utilizing this art form. Beau and others hosted roundtable meetings where we discussed HGO’s previous efforts and formulated some new ideas. Of course we want people to attend the opera, but we also wanted to develop a sense of community—creating something where people could experience HGO, but be motivated to [attend] as the result of a personal connection; one where friends invite each other to participate.”
Similar groups in other arts organizations work to coalesce patrons who already attend the performances. “However, Overture differs slightly,” Krohn says. “We wanted to focus our efforts on people who weren’t already attending opera—those new to this music.”
In order to maintain its status as a world-class opera company, HGO is constantly seeking to broaden its subscriber base, which is its core source of ongoing support. “We wanted to create a forum that would achieve that, and simultaneously create a welcoming environment—a place where people would feel comfortable knowing that an evening at the opera doesn’t require a huge monetary investment and a tuxedo rental.”
“We started with a core group of individuals that had two things in common: they loved opera, and happened to be integrated into Houston’s LGBT community in various ways,” Krohn says. “We sought out not only music lovers, but people who were active in other local LGBT endeavors [such as The Victory Fund, Human Rights Campaign, and Lambda Legal]. What we found was that many of those people attended HGO performances, but had no idea that others did as well.
“We had begun working on this in 2015, and had planned a kickoff event in early 2016,” Krohn continues. “However, one of the main supporters of this endeavor, [community leader] Tony Carroll, passed away quite suddenly this past December. Since Tony and his partner, Bruce Smith, had been part of this since its first incarnation and had agreed to host our initial event, we respectfully postponed.” (In keeping with Bruce’s unfailing commitment to a variety of LGBT endeavors, he did open his home just a few months after his partner’s death to host a very successful kickoff party.)
“Though I had a musical background, through my association with HGO over the last few years I’ve developed a deep appreciation and love for opera.” Miller says. “A group such as Overture, which provides an introduction to opera in a social setting, has given me the opportunity to introduce friends, colleagues, and associates to what HGO has to offer.”
Given that the Wortham Theater Center is one of the world’s best venues for opera, it’s a natural assumption that Overture would find its home there. However, both Miller and Krohn don’t want to be hamstrung by the claret-colored concert hall. “Much of the feedback we received centered on the types of interactions and activities that Overture should foster,” Krohn says. “We found that people didn’t want to attend events solely connected to HGO performances. They wanted to do things at other times and in other venues—rehearsals, backstage tours, gatherings in private homes; anywhere that people socialize. Additionally, many HGO supporters typically only see each other on specific evenings, depending on their series subscription. Overture provides an opportunity for our entire LGBT audience base to meet and know each other. This creates a more cohesive community, as opposed to several smaller, separate groups.”
Along with facilitating interactions among attendees, Overture hopes to dispel some prevalent myths about opera in Houston. “We want people to know that our productions are affordable,” Krohn says. “You can attend a show for $15—the price of a movie ticket. Additionally, everything associated with Overture is free.”
“We are in the midst of planning next season’s events, the first of which will be in September,” Miller says. “We’ll be focusing on a combination of interesting content—artists, directors, or members of a creative team—along with a great mix of people in unique venues. When you join us, expect to see a diverse group of LGBT folks, their friends, and fellow music-lovers.”
You can follow the group on Facebook at facebook.com/HGOs-Overture-289085914763050.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.
From Houston Grand Opera’s artistic and music director, Patrick Summers:
“An overture, in opera, is an artistic introduction to the unique world of a particular work, a menu of the feast to come! In that spirit, I am thrilled to welcome this new audience initiative for HGO. It is the perfect place for the LGBT community to unite in a love of opera and the inviting and fun social world that surrounds it. And it is particularly symbolic and personally moving to me that the cultural strides toward equality made in recent years mean that this group is inclusive and inviting to all who might want to give this overwhelming and enriching art form a try.”