During his 33-year tenure at various media outlets and arts groups, Eric Skelly became a familiar and trusted voice to multitudes of arts-loving Houstonians.
After attending the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music master’s program in arts administration, Skelly came to Houston via San Antonio. “The program I was in required me to complete an internship, which I did at the San Antonio Festival,” Skelly recalls. “While there, I met Ava Jean Mears, the director of public relations for Houston Grand Opera (HGO). I’ve always related strongly to musical theater and opera, having discovered them at age 18. Both art forms speak to me in a profound way.”
Skelly’s goal was to work for a major opera company, so it was fortunate that HGO’s Mears needed an assistant. “I called her, and she essentially hired me over the phone.” That was the beginning of a mentorship that lasted nearly 10 years.
Although Mears died over a year ago, her influence is still omnipresent in Skelly’s life—especially when he works with younger professionals in his field.
“Ava Jean taught me to be authentic,” Skelly says. “She instilled in me the need to believe in the product that your organization presents, and additionally to possess a high level of expertise about it. This gives [the media outlets] you work with a high degree of trust that the information you provide them is unassailable. On a personal level, Ava Jean was everybody’s ‘Mom.’ She and I connected deeply; she made Houston ‘home’ for me.”
Skelly’s HGO tenure coincided with some landmark events in Houston, most notably the 1987 opening of the Wortham Theater Center with the world premiere of opera composer John Adams’ Nixon in China. “I was 27 when HGO opened the new house and presented a world premiere,” Skelly remembers. “While working with John Adams, we all sensed that operatic history was being made.”
“During my tenure at HGO, a local classical radio station, KLEF (and its successor, K-Arts) asked me to host an opera program,” Skelly says. This provided him with copious broadcast experience, leading to a post at Houston’s NPR affiliate KUHF, where he worked for 16 years. Many Houstonians will know Skelly from his on-air participation in Houston Public Media’s fundraising campaigns.
“I worked in public radio for 16 years,” he says. Hired as an arts underwriting account executive, he was uniquely qualified. “I knew every arts organization in the city. I spoke their language and understood how to promote their various offerings.”
Skelly’s management job soon expanded to include on-air work and podcasts, enabling Houstonians to become familiar with his trademark deep voice. Occasionally, Skelly’s listeners would surprise him while he was out in public. “I was at the Houston Zoo, and someone came up to me who recognized my voice from an ‘Opera Cheat Sheet’ podcast I had done,” Skelly says.
His kaleidoscopic arts experience makes Skelly an ideal fit for his current position as the Houston Symphony’s (HSO) director of communications. He took on this challenge during a period of unprecedented upheaval in the world of classical music, and just as HSO leadership was beginning to explore innovative ways to reach new audiences.
“Prior to the pandemic, at the beginning of the 2019–2020 season, we did our very first livestreamed concert,” Skelly says. “We had no idea that this would be how the symphony was to perform for the next four months.
“Our organization had to pivot repeatedly, innovating along the way,” Skelly notes. In the early part of the pandemic, this presented challenges: “As we pivoted to working exclusively from home, I had to record some of the HSO broadcasts on my iPhone while sitting in my closet.”
“It’s been a real privilege to work alongside our CEO, John Magnum—and everyone on staff and in the orchestra—to shepherd the Symphony through the [livestreaming] performance process,” Skelly adds. “We’ve had to program concerts within the pandemic limitations on spacing and attendance. Over the last year, HSO performed when no other orchestra in the nation was doing so. Our musicians have been playing together all year long, enabling them to maintain a very strong sense of ensemble.”
Skelly is proud of the fact that the Symphony’s livestreamed concerts have been an unqualified success. “We now have an audience that isn’t confined to Houston, but comprises a national and international following from 36 countries,” he says. “It’s not your grandmother’s symphony anymore. Livestreaming is an art form that is here to stay.”
Throughout his career, Skelly has witnessed industry-wide changes on the scale of a grand opera. Yet, amidst the current tumult, the words of his mentor and friend Ava Jean Mears still resonate: “Love the art form, the media, and the fascinating people in it. Follow your passion, and believe completely in every endeavor with which you are involved.”
For information on the Houston Symphony, visit houstonsymphony.org.
This article appears in the June 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.