World Premiere Opera in Houston: INTELLIGENCE

Matching La Scala in Italy (which began in 1788), Houston Grand Opera now ties the record of premiering 75 new operas. The latest entry on the list is titled Intelligence. It was created by Jake Heggie, who had led a renaissance in opera since his first opera, Dead Man Walking, in 2000. It has had more than 75 productions since then.

HGO was also the venue for the debut of his second opera, The End of the Affair (2004); and his third one, Three Decembers (2008). Both were commissioned by the HGO. His sixth opera, It’s a Wonderful Life (2016), also had its debut in Houston, so the ties between HGO and Heggie are the strongest possible.

In a pre-opera talk, Artistic Director Patrick Summers spoke about the state of opera in the early 21st century. “If one measures the health of an art by the creation of new art, then the centres of operatic creation are definitely in this country. I think not only of Houston Grand Opera but Philadelphia, Santa Fe, Minnesota, San Francisco and St. Louis. So perhaps 21st century opera is best described as a very vital  American immigrant, because opera in the last half century has done what immigrants have always done in this country, which is to retain elements of old-world culture while becoming something new.” Summers said just over 300 operas have been created in the U.S. since 2000.

By opening the season with Intelligence, this marks the first time an American work has been given that first pole position.  Even Summers is surprised by the vibrancy of American opera. “It seems somehow like a yesteryear activity, like being an expert at Morse Code.”

This opera, Summer explained, “aligns with several overdue cultural moments of reckoning in the United States – a movement that itself sits within very complex racial realities. No one opera is going to do anything but chip away at the immensity and importance of this subject. This is one story that represents millions of others in the American diaspora.”

Taking of synoptic look at this artform, Summers identified the ultimate subject of all great operas: identity: “Who I am as a character in the face of an adversary? Intelligence tells an American Civil War story, partly fictional, yet real at its most important points. Yet neither the Civil War nor slavery are its primary subjects.” While this could be considered a strength, a follow-thru of the spy story from the first act to the second is what the audience expects. Instead of fully justifying the title of the opera, this main plot becomes not just a sub-plot in Act II, but really disappears entirely.

In real life, Elizabeth van Lew ran an intelligence operation for President Lincoln. Located in Richmond, she gave his agents crucial information that led to the successful victory of the Union states. Her main agent was slave, a black woman named Mary Jane Bowser. In the opera, Bowser ‘explains’ herself as “She who cannot be explained.” Putting her life at risk daily, she actually got a job in the Confederate White House. Being fully literate, Bowser was able to understand and read secret war plans which were sent to the real White House in Wash DC. After the war, President Grant said the intelligence received by the organization run by van Lew was crucial.

As the story unfolds, much as in an ancient Greek drama, the desires of each character interact in multiple ways that lead to surprising results. Instead of a singing chorus, as in an ancient play, this opera features a dancing chorus: eight women from Urban Bush Women who made their operatic debut here. In the opera, the dancers represent the ancestors of Bowser but remain unseen by any other characters. As spirits, their presence in this production so close to Halloween was especially appropriate, and their solo spot swirling around Bowser with accompanying African-inspired music was the only real splash of colour in the opera. They did a superb job, but it only served to highlight the beautifully made but otherwise drab outfits and set design.

The singers themselves handled the sometimes awkward English-language libretto with exemplary professionalism. Barton and Brugger in particular were spot on, delivering powerful and heart-wrenching performances in the midst of intrigue and murder. HGO is to be commended for staging this thought-provoking opera.

A key element in the opera are quilts (two antique quilts are on display in the lobby at the Brown Concert Hall). In 1938, the famous textile artist Annie Albers wrote that “Anyone seeking to find a point of certainty amid the confusion of upset beliefs, and hoping to lay a foundation for a work which was oriented towards the future, had to start at the very beginning.” This was the meaning of her oft-quoted phrase “the event of a thread”; it represented an origin point. Perhaps Heggie was aware of it when he included this line in his opera: “A Quilt So Vast You Will See It From Heaven.”

It is from Albers’ perspective that we can best understand Intelligence. The Civil War was indeed the origin point for the entire future history of the country: if it had been won by the Confederates, the country would have ceased to exist. At no time up till then was the confusion of upset beliefs so starkly on display; in the past 2 years, which saw the storming of the Capitol itself by domestic terrorists, that confusion has once again descended upon the body politic. The intelligence operation run by Van Lew and Bowser was the event of a thread in the Richmond area, one of several across the South and North that eventually wove a quilt upon which the United States was born anew. Will the forces of evil that have taken over the party of Lincoln pull the thread so hard it unweaves the quilt in our own time?  


Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano): she plays Van Lew

Janai Brugger (soprano): she plays Bowser

J’nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano)

Caitlyn Lynch (soprano)

Nicholas Newton (bass-baritone)

Michael Mayes (baritone)

Lead photo of the curtain call: by C. Cunningham. Barton, at far left, Brugger at centre and three dancers from the Urban Bush Women, in colourful costume.

Second Photo: Janai Brugger and Jamie Barton in Intelligence at Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Michael Bishop, Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

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By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.