HOUSTON - Deep in the heart of a very red state, Houston Grand Opera has just wrapped up a production with so much sexual innuendo and anti-war sentiment that it might have warranted a look by the Justice Department.
But even today's most rabid, neo-Legion of Decency types would probably have found themselves savoring Mark Adamo's new opera, Lysistrata, freely adapted from the ancient satire by Aristophanes about Athenian and Spartan women using the ultimate weapon to stop continual wars between their men.
This clever, assured work marks two milestones.
One is for the 42-year-old composer, whose only other work for the stage, Little Women, was given its premiere by Houston Grand Opera in 1998 and was revived there only two years later to satisfy demand. It went on to enjoy one of the biggest successes in contemporary opera history, staged by several more companies in North America and Mexico; a production in Tokyo is set for this May.
The 2000 Houston revival of Little Women was broadcast nationally on PBS and subsequently recorded.
Barring substantial changes at the FCC, Lysistrata probably won't be seen on PBS anytime soon. The subject matter is iffy enough during these retro-censorship times; what would really sink a broadcast of this particular production is the sight of all the soldiers who, having been denied sex by their mates, are all too obviously in a state of - well, in a state. (Despite the opera's subtitle, The Nude Goddess, little flesh is exposed in Michael Kahn's lively staging.)
But, with or without TV exposure, Lysistrata should have a solid future. Like Little Women, Adamo's second opera gives every indication of having legs; it's already on the New York City Opera schedule next year.
Lysistrata's other milestone is for Houston Grand Opera's general director David Gockley.
This is the company's 33rd world premiere under his visionary guidance since 1974, an astonishing record that includes John Adams' Nixon in China, Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place and Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree. This commitment to new fare - the 2004/05 season alone offered three premieres, two main-stage works and one children's opera - has kept Houston in the artistic forefront of American companies.
Daring to take risks
A lot of folks talk a good game about how important it is for opera houses to avoid becoming mausoleums, where the works of long-dead composers are repeatedly laid out for yet another memorial service. Gockley lives his philosophy that "opera in this country and in this time cannot survive - does not deserve to survive - if it remains firmly rooted in the past" (as he says in a message printed in the Lysistrata program).
And while others invariably decide that there's just never enough money in the budget or enough open ears in the public to take the risk on a new opera, Gockley has always managed to find a way to keep freshly written music flowing in Houston.
There's never one easy explanation for why some places turn out more receptive than others. If Gockley could bottle and sell whatever formula has worked so well for him, maybe other opera companies could stop cowering in fear of the unknown, untried and unheard.
Gockley, who became Houston Grand's general director in 1972 at the age of 27 after two years as business manager, will take the reins at the San Francisco Opera, starting half-time this summer, full-time by next January. His Texas tenure will be an awfully tough act to follow.
The Houston company's financial state has taken its lumps recently. Next season, which Gockley planned, suggests a more conservative, box office-centric outlook - mostly staples, only one mini-premiere (a one-woman show being written for Tony Award-winning singer/actress Audra McDonald). So the Lysistrata premiere seems doubly significant, providing what probably was the last big splash of the Gockley era.
A refreshing splash it was.
A hot cast was assembled for the opera, which had its final Houston performance last weekend. Emily Pulley (Lysia), Chad Shelton (Nico), Laquita Mitchell (Myrrhine), Victoria Livengood (Lampito) and Joshua Winograde (Leonidas) were among the standouts. Stefan Lano was the fluent conductor.
Adamo, who wrote both the libretto and music for this "tragicomedy for singers and orchestra," reveals keen comic instincts. His dialogue, much of it in rhyme, is packed with witty wordplay, surefire sitcom punch lines and double-takes.
A Spartan woman sums up the sex boycott scheme: to "inflame our men within an inch of their lives, then greet their rigidity with total frigidity." Asked by ringleader Lysia to swear solidarity with the plan, her comrades-in-charms declare: "We're down on our Peloponnese."
Truths for all time
Lysistrata could have provided an entertaining evening in the theater with all the jokey business alone, but the opera's satiric/ironic side gives it greater weight.