Jonathan and David’s biblical gay romance sparks the bonkers breakdown of the Old Testament’s King Saul in Houston Grand Opera’s October 25–November 8 production of Handel’s Saul.
“It’s a soap opera!” says HGO’s out chorus master Richard Bado, who traveled last year to the Glyndebourne Festival, an hour from London, to see the production that inspired HGO’s. “It’s a knockout that brings the work blazingly alive and transforms bewigged pieties into high human drama,” raved critic Rupert Christiansen, writing for The Daily Telegraph, a London newspaper.
Before the dramatic oratorio begins, we already know the Sunday School story of David, a poor shepherd boy who killed the Philistine giant Goliath with a slingshot. As the curtain rises on the opera, David arrives at Saul’s court as a conquering hero, with the king offering David his daughter Michal—in exchange for a bride purse of 100 foreskins of Philistine soldiers.
“But David falls in love with Saul’s son, Jonathan,” says Bado. “You see their romance onstage. It’s clear, although not graphic.”
Christiansen’s Daily Telegraph review called Jonathan “sweetly demure” and noted the couple’s “smackingly sexual kiss.” While bemoaning the Glyndebourne production’s lack of passionate love scenes, the critic cried “bravissimi” for the “stupendous” 40-person chorus in the show at Glyndebourne, which was directed by out Australian maverick Barrie Kosky.
In Houston, Bado’s job is to prepare the HGO Chorus for Saul.
“We have the same number in the chorus and the same number of costumes,” he says. “It is a huge chorus piece with a lot of music to learn, memorize, and perform stylistically. It is a very wild, fun production with a lot of dance. The music is sublimely exciting; it’s not stuffy at all.”
Bado hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he started taking piano lessons at age 6 when he was in the first grade. In high school, he played the piano for choirs and learned the clarinet and saxophone for concert and jazz orchestras. “I even played the tuba in marching band,” he says.
Bado earned music degrees from West Virginia University and the Eastman School of Music, where opera great Renée Fleming was his classmate. Bado often conducts Fleming in concerts.
After graduating from Eastman, Bado spent less than half a year in New York City before accepting what he thought would be a “short-term position” at HGO. That was in the mid-1980s, so he witnessed how AIDS ravaged Houston’s gay community. In 2013, he received HGO’s Silver Rose Award in honor of his 25th anniversary as chorus master.
“I have an equal number of gay and straight friends,” Bado notes. “It is not a defining part of my life.”
When Tropical Storm Allison flooded his townhouse in 2001, Bado moved to the 17th floor of a highrise in the Museum District. “I like it very much,” he says. “I can walk to Miller Outdoor Theatre and see a show.”
In addition to his chorus duties at HGO, Bado sometimes conducts shows, including eight upcoming performances of Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the Wortham Center. He also conducted future Oscar winner J.K. Simmons as Jigger in HGO’s 1990 revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Carousel.
“He was a great team player,” says Bado. “He was easygoing and low-key, but great, actually.”
What: Houston Grand Opera’s Saul
When: October 25–November 8
Where: Wortham Music Center
This article appears in the October 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine.