Are regional performing arts centers going national? It's beginning to happen here in Houston.
In its 22d year, the Houston Grand Opera Association can point to a half-dozen productions that have ventured successfully beyond the Lone Star State. Additionally, San Francisco, Minneapolis, New Haven and other cities have theatrical companies that expand well beyond their city limits. There are good reasons to believe that this may be the start of a movement that could transform American performing arts.
Houston Grand Opera's Tony-winning "Porgy and Bess" has begun a Kennedy Center run after a year's touring that took it from coast to coast. Profitably.
The association's latest foray into the national field is a bang-up revival of "Hello, Dolly!" with Carol Channing in the role she left 12 years ago. A dozen years later she's a dozen times better, reminding us of qualities her successors never realized as Thornton Wilder's philosophical matchmaker.
Houston Opera is more than pleased because, although Channing played it there twice before, her return 11-performance visit set a world's record with a gross of $319,963.50. HGO wants the national tour, which will include Washington and New York for limited runs, to wind up in Houston two years from now.
Records also have been set in St. Louis and Indianapolis, return visits both, at the start of the 25-city tour, so the "Dolly" success will help Houston bear the losses its "Of Mice and Men" recently incurred at the Kennedy Center. By the end of its three Washington weeks, Carlisle Floyd's musical of John Steinbeck characters was gaining admirers who heard, through the music, the inner spirits of those lost, lonely souls. But awareness came too late for wider audiences.
Why is a "grand opera" doing what's thought of as "a Broadway musical?"
"First," says David Gockley, who became general manager six years ago when he was 27, "the best traditional Broadway musicals are our American opera. They're in the language of the people, as were Verdi's, Rossini's and Puccini's. We should be proud of them, not sniff at them. They're our contribution to the theatrical art. They have had an immense, world-wide effect. Don't forget, 'Porgy and Bess' began as a Broadway musical for all the opera talk.
"Secondly, how else can we afford to present six operas a year, especially when we include new works and such unfamiliar ones as Rossini's 'Tancredi' or Richard Strauss' 'Arabella,' both of which we've scheduled for the coming season?
"We spend around $200,000 for each of our six productions. At six performances each, there's no way to break even. Or to support our touring company and the new Opera Studio, which we open in September. Or our free summer series.
"By reaching out nationally we enlarge our resources. Deutsche Gramaphone recorded the 'Treemonisha' you saw in Washington and New York. Besides the financial success of the 'Porgy and Bess' tour, we will be getting an income from its RCA recording, now receiving the best reviews that any Gershwin work ever has had. And we'll have our own 'Hello Dolly!' recording."
For composer Jerry Herman that's good news. He's hearing his score with the accent on the music, not as accompaniment for Gower Champion's initial -- and brilliant -- choreography. Both Lee Roy Reams and Florence Lacey, who sing the ballads, "It Only Takes a Moment" and "Ribbons Down My Back," are basically singers, Lacey a particular protegee of Herman. Eddie Bracken, back where he belongs in the big time, is a yeasty merchant of Yonkers.
For the first time "Dolly!" now has an overture. The original staging began with three chords but now the score's rippling melodies have a show-piece all their own in Herman's new orchestrations, one reason he rejoices Houston wants its own recording.
Herman's role as composer of theater music has been critically undervalued. As lyricist-composer of "Milk and Honey," "Dolly" and "Mame," he created exceptionally melodic scores but so facile did his talents seem that they have been taken for granted. Then he had bad luck with two works which suffered severely in their staging, "Dear World," to me his best score so far, and "Mack and Mabel," which had the disadvantage of a real-life book, the sad tale of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand. But their recordings are a melodious flood recalling the sunshine of Jerome Kern.
Herman's "Dolly" score has several numbers originally overwhelmed by the impact of the title song. "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," "Dancing" and "The Waiter's Gallop" all have the sparkle of the period's strong Germanic-Old New York flavor.
Like Seattle Opera's summer Wagner, which attracts audiences from Japan to Australia in alternating German and English performances, Houston gives four of its six opera performances in the original language, two in English. Home is the 3,000-seat Jesse Jones Hall, where top gallery prices are held to $250, making the full series price range from $20 to $110.
Financially Gockley and Buckley worry about how foundation resources for the performing arts are drying up.
"People assume we get a lot of oil money," says Buckley, "but it's not true. Our local supporters are much like those elsewhere, drawn from all sectors, none dominant.
"This is why we see national tours becoming important to the survival of regional organizations. Suppose each region could produce one or two things of quality a year. If these were exchanged around the country, profits could result for originating groups. We feel we're blazing a trail which could make the regional performing arts national."