Houston Grand Opera Embodied Resilience in the Aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

Caroline Rogers

The days of rain and flooding that accompanied Hurricane Harvey displaced countless Houstonians. For many families and businesses who make their home in the city, the months and years following the August 2017 storm were filled with the monumental challenges of rebuilding. That was the story for Houston Grand Opera, whose home at the Wortham Theater Center in the downtown Houston Theater District borders Buffalo Bayou and was one of the most badly damaged buildings in the area.

After the storm, Perryn Leech, managing director of Houston Grand Opera (HGO), returned to the Theater District to assess the damage. He and Dean R. Gladden, the managing director of the Alley Theater, drove downtown, navigating a route on newly reopened streets. Leech recalls, "By that point, the vast majority of the floodwaters had started to recede. The roads were exposed, but the bayous were still raging, and it was still raining." Upon entering the Wortham, he found extensive flooding, millions of dollars of damage, and, against all odds, a path forward.

Canceling the season wasn’t an option. "We never thought about taking a backwards step," Leech says. It took months to pump the basement of the building of standing floodwaters, and while raising funds, restoring the space, and replacing equipment and vital electrical systems in the Wortham, HGO set about locating a temporary home elsewhere.

They found it in the George R. Brown Convention Center. A performing space began to take shape in Exhibit Hall A3, which was being used to maintain and refuel police vehicles and was soon transformed into a temporary theater. They raised seating blocks, built a green room and a restaurant, and embarked on the opera season without canceling a single rehearsal or performance. "It was an astonishing effort for everyone involved. It makes me extraordinarily proud of every person who had a part in that and who had a connection to Houston Grand Opera, be it a single ticket buyer, subscriber, trustee, board member, staff, or company member," Leech says.

The new performance space became known as the Resilience Theater, an apt name that spoke to the attitude that HGO staff—led by Leech and artistic and music director Patrick Summers—subscribers, and supporters adopted in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. It also reflected the spirit of the city of Houston. Leech says, "The word 'resilience' became part of the folklore of how the whole city dealt with Harvey, and I think our organization embodied that. Last year, we proved the importance of having a strong company of people who believe passionately in the art form and work to support it no matter what."

Now back in the Wortham, HGO hasn’t missed a beat. The organization produced a stellar 2018-2019 season which closed with the world premiere of The Phoenix, a new opera composed by Tarik O'Regan with a libretto by John Caird. It’s the end of a period of great challenge for HGO, and the company is now looking forward to the seasons to come in which it can continue building on its mission of sharing stories through the life-changing power of music. Reflecting on the past two years, Leech says, "Being back in the Wortham this season has felt like coming home. We learned that you can always make a temporary residence somewhere else, but when you return home, you know that’s where you’re meant to be."

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You can learn more about Houston Grand Opera’s upcoming season at houstongrandopera.org. Thanks to the community of support that rose up around the organization in the wake of the storm, the music will continue. Make a visit to the Wortham Theater Center soon, and experience it for yourself.