Arts patrons don’t have to travel to Broadway, the Met or Museum of Modern Art to catch premiere performances or new works of art. Instead, fans of theater, music, art and opera can head directly to Cougar Country to experience fresh works delivered by artists on the rise.
Each semester, local, regional and world premieres emanate from the University of Houston’s arts units. With the launch of the College of the Arts this fall, audiences should expect even more new work to make its way to campus.
This is good news for audiences and the city, said Andrew Davis, interim dean for the college. Many of the University’s first look performances bolster Houston’s already noted arts scene. Offering new, innovative works also reinforces UH’s commitment to the arts. It takes a particular mindset to produce new works, he said. More than anything, it takes a firm knowledge of the basics of one’s discipline.
“You can’t produce new, good work until you have the fundamentals down,” Davis said. “There’s a balance between being creative and understanding the foundations of your discipline, whether it’s art, music or theater. Our faculty strive to inspire a sense of adventure in our students while ensuring they have the basic skills required of an artist or performer. ”
Davis will no doubt have a hand in bringing new works to campus or to the city. Fortunately, many faculty and students already are leading the charge to present works never performed in the city or at a university.
Buck Ross, director of the Moores Opera Center, is among those who consistently seek out bold new works. His efforts have met with acclaim from peers and the media. This year, Ross earned the MasterMind Award from the Houston Press. The popular publication specifically cited Ross’ attention to delivering new operas during each performance season.
In 2016, Ross directed the center’s regional premiere of David Carlson’s “Anna Karenina.” UH made history as being the site of both the first Texas performance of this opera and the first university to present it.
“Anna Karenina” was just one of the many premieres presented by the Moores Opera Center. The center also offered regional debuts of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (2015), “Frau Margot” (2015), “The Italian Straw Hat” (2013), “Amelia” (2011), “Elmer Gantry” (2010) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (2009). These are just a few of the operas that the center has premiered for patrons.
During its 30th season, the Moores Opera Center will continue this tradition with the first Texas and university production of John Musto’s “The Inspector” in January 2017.
Audiences aren’t the only ones benefitting from experiencing these premieres. Student singers also have much to gain from performing new music, Ross said.
“From an educational standpoint, it’s important to expose our singers to contemporary opera,” Ross said. “These are works that are starting to make the rounds with professional opera companies. When our singers graduate, they will know how to approach an opera that has rarely been performed.”
The regional debuts at the Moores Opera Center have met with standing ovations from Houston audiences and accolades from the National Opera Association (NOA). In 2015, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” and “Frau Margot” respectively earned first and second place in NOA’s annual awards.
Over the summer, music enthusiasts also were treated to a number of firsts courtesy of UH’s Texas Music Festival (TMF). Audiences heard pieces never performed in Houston, including Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome,” “Roman Festivals” and “Pines of Rome.” The festival also co-commissioned a world premiere from composer Kevin Puts. His work “In at the Eye” made its debut on campus. This is just one of the many new compositions commissioned by TMF. This new music is exciting for festival audiences but even more so for the musicians that bring them to life.
“I think the capacity to present new work credibly is what distinguishes any arts organization,” said Alan Austin, artistic and general manager of the Texas Music Festival. “In music, we first learn the tradition of how to play an instrument well and to understand how we fit into music on a local, national and global basis. Beyond this, life is about what we all contribute and what this means in the big picture. Stretching ourselves through creative challenge is one facet of growth and to continually challenge our students and faculty with new work means that we’re healthy, growing and creating a place in the world.”
Next door, the School of Theatre & Dance (SOTD) also engages its students with new work and new stage skills. The school wrapped its performance season in spring with the local premiere of “She Kills Monsters.” It was the first play featuring high-flying choreography developed in the new Aerial Laboratory. Students had the unique opportunity to learn how to “fly” on stage, something that has become commonplace in contemporary productions such as “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark” and classics like “Peter Pan.”
The school’s student playwrights also gain invaluable experience through new work. Each year, many of them contribute to the city’s stage offerings by generating fresh plays. Shorter plays are featured in the annual 10-Minute Play Festival, and one full-length student play is presented as part of the school’s performance season. Troy Lotin’s “Cuckoo” was performed in 2015 and Kendall Kaminsky’s “The End of Side A” was showcased in 2014. This fall, the school premieres senior Nicole Zimmerer’s “Thicker Than Honey.”
Rob Shimko, director of the School of Theatre & Dance, directs these plays and offers creative guidance—alongside noted playwright and Distinguished Visiting Professor Theresa Rebeck—as these works make the transition from the page to the stage. Shimko relishes the opportunity to work on new plays. More importantly, he enjoys working with student playwrights as they discover their voices and watch their works leap from the page to the stage.
“That’s one of the most pleasurable things I do for my job,” he said. “I am very excited about sitting in a rehearsal room with actors and a young playwright who is figuring out what he or she is trying to say. Watching this process of discovery during the rehearsal process is exhilarating for everyone involved.”
Art students also have ample opportunities to create works for public viewing. The School of Art and Blaffer Art Museum partner for the annual Student Exhibition and Master’s Thesis Exhibition, which spotlight student works. Blaffer Art Museum also is known for hosting some of the first exhibitions from rising professional artists. This summer, sculptor Matthew Ronay and new media artist Hilary Lloyd had their first major U.S. exhibitions at the museum. The museum also was the exclusive North American venue for “Mirrors for Princes,” an evolving five-city exhibition of installations and sculpture by the art collective Slavs and Tatars, and it debuted the first solo museum exhibition for British-Nigerian artist Zina Saro-Wiwa.
The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts also delivers new works on campus and in the community. Among these works is the colorful mural on the exterior wall of the Graduate College of Social Work. Tunisian artist El Seed created it as part of the center’s annual CounterCurrent Festival. Each year, this festival spotlights artists from around the world (including some from UH) who showcase new, innovative exhibitions, performances, site-specific works and installations on campus and throughout the city.
In addition to El Seed’s campus mural, the 2016 edition of CounterCurrent included the debut “Home Balance,” a traveling bounce house video installation created by UH art professor Stephan Hillerbrand and wife Mary Magsamen. The festival also featured “Meet Me at MacGregor,” a premiere public performance led by noted jazz musician Jason Moran. This project is part of an ongoing collaboration with Project Row Houses and Da Camera. It’s just one of many partnerships developed between the Mitchell Center and arts organizations to produce new work.
“Partnerships are a vital element of our programming, because they attract new audiences,” Farber said. “They also allow the Mitchell Center to contribute substantively to the Houston arts landscape, asserting our role and that of the University in the arts ecology here. We view the University of Houston as the laboratory where innovation and new ideas are generated. We can bring this energy to our partners.”
Davis agrees that UH and the College of the Arts are perfect workshops for hosting and creating new works of art. He envisions the college as fostering collaborations across disciplines and across the city. Actors, musicians, artists, dancers, performers and others, he said, soon will be creating memorable works. Likewise, they will help establish the College of the Arts as a center for creativity locally and nationally.
“This is a ready made environment for the college to thrive,” Davis said. “We have the city and its artistic spirit. That spirit exists on the campus. As a college, we need to harness this energy and foster an environment where students and faculty alike are not afraid to take risks and produce new, visionary works.”