A Houston Opera About the Unhoused, Inspired by the Streets
Drawing on 60 hours of interviews with homeless residents, the production transmutes daily life and hardship into art.
Ecclesia Houston—a multi-denominational church on a ragged edge of downtown—would seem an unlikely place to find the Houston Grand Opera (HGO) in performance. It is housed in a cinderblock-and-brick former paper warehouse that once also served as the Houston Police Department’s storage for recovered stolen vehicles. Two highways swoop down over the building as they converge on the business district, cutting a diagonal across the skyline and separating it from the so-near downtown neighborhood. The land between Ecclesia and downtown should be quite valuable given its location, but because of the overpasses, it’s a no-man’s-land.
For all that, the Ecclesia building is attractive and comfortable, but nothing about it or this jumbled corner of the city sings Opera! But HGO’s production, Another City, which ran March 9 to 11, is not a typical opera. Part of the HGO’s Song of Houston series—in which the company uses small-scale, “chamber” operas to tell Houston stories ranging from life at the rodeo to Black neighborhoods resisting gentrification—it tells a very Houston tale of homelessness. Tales, rather, as it follows a day in the life of 10 unhoused characters, almost all of whom are haunting and memorable.
Another City also tells the stories of those people who serve the unhoused such as Miss Violet (soprano Emily Treigle), who runs the laundry operation at the Beacon, a downtown homeless services center. (The opera’s locations are all real places.) When a first-time volunteer (soprano Sarah Tucker), overwhelmed by the human need she’s experiencing for the first time, asks, “What good does it [doing the laundry for a small number of people daily] do?” Miss Violet answers, “a small stack of clean, dry clothes could transform a soul.”
Exchanges like this, scripted by librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, are part of what makes Another City memorable. Throughout the 75-minute work, straightforward, plainly articulated observations by both the homeless and the people who serve them are elevated to the level of art by Jeremy Howard Beck’s engaging but unobtrusive score—and by the superb voices of the performers. Because these artists are dealing with the essentials of life, almost every line sung is charged with both significance and gut-level credibility.
I’ve performed laundry duty at the Beacon just a few times, and written about homelessness a few times, and I felt jolted again and again by the accuracy of the writing. For example, one of the eight musicians performing Beck’s score told me that, because of uncontrolled drinking, he nearly became homeless 12 years ago. During rehearsals, he kept being distracted from his own work when he heard tenor Norman Mathews, as an Alcoholics Anonymous participant at the Beacon, sing about addiction recovery: “Take your time and do it right—or you’ll wind up dead.” “Those were very familiar stories,” the musician said.
Another Beacon storyline develops when Langston Rodriguez (tenor Joshua Blue) arrives after spending his first night ever on the street. Something of a philosopher, he lugs a bag of books, “heavy as bricks” he’ll later sing, and keeps apart from the others until Dexter (bass-baritone Nick Davis), also newly unhoused, asks him to explain how the system works, as if Langston would know.
We see Langston in other settings as well. In one scene, he can barely find the strength to carry his books to a bus stop. He becomes “so thirsty I thought I would die,” and collapses onto the sidewalk, where he cries powerfully, “Help, help! Water, please!” But Another City is more a study in hope and strength than despair, and when he is ignored by passersby, Langston convinces himself that he’s strong enough to stand on his own—“You have enough strength to stand up!”—and make it to a water fountain.
When Langston visits the Quaker meeting house in the Heights, he marvels at the “Skyscape” artist James Turrell has built into its ceiling. It’s hard to explain the effect of the “Skyscape” briefly, but Turrell’s skylight, as you might call it if you didn’t know better, allows those inside the Quaker house to experience the change in light from day to night in a way that feels metaphysical. Musing over the fact that the sky itself is now his ceiling, Langston engages with Skyspace Woman (soprano Meryl Dominguez). Searching for inner peace, Skyspace Woman is a regular at the Friends house. She tells Langston, “You remind me of my son,” whom she lost to homelessness and addiction 10 years before.
The strongest of the storylines follows the Navigator (tenor Travon Walker) as he tries to track down homeless veteran Cassandra (mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen) to make sure she takes possession of the apartment he has found for her. (Those who work to help the unhoused “navigate” the social services maze are called “navigators.”) She’ll lose the apartment by the end of the day if she doesn’t claim the keys. But after living alone on the bayou for months, the reclusive Cassandra, (performed with anguish by Larsen,) isn’t sure she wants to move back, so she avoids the Navigator. Driven to get Cassandra a home, the committed Navigator searches for her among the homeless hangouts, including Market Square Park downtown. (It’s a jolt to hear him announce Houston street names as he searches: “Chartres and Pierce across Wheeler, under 59.”) While Cassandra contemplates moving in, she remembers the story of Tent Man (also Nick Davis), who lived alone for nine years because “he didn’t want to give up the home that he had made.”
The storylines come swirling together at the climax as Cassandra and the Navigator share the stage with Skyspace Woman and Langston. Cassandra hesitantly accepts her new home, while still worrying that it’s too quiet, because she needs the sounds of the Bayou. “Just open your window,” the Navigator sings. At the same time, Skyspace Woman and Langston deepen their emotional connection as the music swirls fugue-like around them. The creators would’ve been well served to trim the number of characters—during this same climax, characters I had lost track of reappear, diluting the effect. But this is a quibble. Fleischmann and Beck worked for years on Another City (they were interrupted by COVID), conducting 60 hours of interviews with unhoused people and walking the streets of Houston to record their sounds, which Beck worked into his score. They were after a level of authenticity not usually associated with opera. Together with director Emily Wells and conductor Alex Amsel, they got it.