Some might say that opera is a dying art, but when Stephanie Helms thinks of Opera in the Heights, she sees a young, uncommon life form. As OH’s new executive director, Helms intends to engage the community more than ever and build the company while maintaining its distinct identity: “We are not HGO. We are not the Met. We are Opera in the Heights,” Helms said this afternoon in her new office on Heights Boulevard.
Helms is in the unique position of fostering the small-town atmosphere that sets OH apart while also focusing on development. From 2006 to 2011, Helms worked for Houston Grand Opera. She returns to Houston from OPERA America in New York City where she oversaw the design and construction of the National Opera Center. “I loved my time at HGO, but I like being a part of this smaller organization,” Helms said. “Singers have this language when they’re on stage with each other…if you’re in a big house, in the audience, you don’t see that, but in a small house you get to see…that chemistry that happens between singers on stage then extends into the audience and everyone is having this experience together.” Although much of what she has planned will take time to implement—music classes and choirs for children and adults—Helms is enthusiastic: “I get so excited about it I can hardly speak coherently about it.”
As Helms begins her tenure at OH, her cohort is preparing for the final show of the season: Gaetano Donizetti’s tragic Lucia di Lammermoor opens this Friday, March 28. You may know the murderous tale from Walter Scott’s 1819 novel The Bride of Lammermoor, from which it was originally adapted. But the opera’s literary influence has lingered—it is also the opera that overcomes Flaubert’s fated Emma Bovary and acts as a turning point in E.M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread when uptight Philip dives from his box seats in ecstasy while the biddy Harriet exclaims “Call this classical! It’s not even respectable!”
Although she describes herself as a theatre nerd with a soft spot for Puccini’s La Boheme, Helms uses what she called “normal people language” to discuss Lucia. Even though Lucia boasts perhaps the most famous mad scene in all of opera, Helms said she is enchanted by the music: “I think people will say, well, this is Lucia—isn’t that the one where she kills people or she’s bloody? And you think, oh, dark, depressing….Yes, she has a fantastic mad scene at the end. But it’s not terribly hard to digest. It’s nice, it’s light, it’s beautiful.”
Lucia also has a reputation for being a coloratura soprano’s dream: the score offers countless moments to show off. It is common for a singer to write in her own cadenzas or flourishes. The renowned mad scene can be astonishing when it’s done right. The Met’s stunning 2011 production with Natalie Dessay in the title role stands as remarkable proof that this long-awaited scene can make or break the whole opera.
And the intimate setting of Lambert Hall could make the mad scene positively scintillating.
“The times I’ve been most moved by opera have been at HGO” Helms said. “I love that they’re able to bring a perspective to art on a national and international scene….There’s real huge value in that…but there is real huge value in packaging it in a way that is very accessible…to people who might not otherwise even think about attending the opera,” Helms said. “I don’t know if I could do this any other way.”
Lucia di Lammermoor runs March 28 – April 6. For tickets and more info, check out their website.