— Feathers and Wax

Resilience Theater: Seeing Houston Grand Opera at the GRB

After the floodwaters receded from Hurricane Harvey and we finally ventured out to see people, one of the first conversations I had over a beer that night was with a stagehand at the Wortham Theater Center. He did not mince words. Water levels up to the stage. Storage rooms full of costumes, wigs and supplies below that level: ruined. This season of opera and ballet: extremely delayed.

Most of the theaters in downtown Houston were flooded by the storm, and many have had to delay their seasons. But the Wortham was by far the hardest hit, being situated right next to the Buffalo Bayou. Soon the official announcements came that the theater wouldn’t open its doors again until May — at the earliest. The Houston Ballet scrambled to secure performance dates at established fine arts venues, while Houston Grand Opera opted to think outside the box.

I had the pleasure of attending their dress rehearsal of “Julius Caesar” last night at the George R. Brown Convention Center, dubbed the “HGO Resilience Theater.”

Read on for what it’s like to see the opera in a convention center!

First off, parking at the convention center garage is $18, which is much higher than theater district parking. In order to appease season ticket holders HGO is even offering free Lyft rides.

But what about the rest of us plebeians? My tip: if you can’t find free street parking, head to the paid lot at Walker and LaBranch streets. It’s $10 and a mere two-block walk down Walker Street.

The convention center entrance that is nearest to the opera is at the end of Walker Street. Enter the building, go up the escalator, and you’ll see the will call tables. Then it’s another escalator ride up to the theater level. Expect to have your tickets checked multiple times by friendly ushers — with such a large space I assume it’s difficult to do crowd control.

I’ve got to hand it to HGO. They really went out of their way to make this cavernous, nondescript GRB hall actually feel swanky and almost cozy. Mill around the white leather couches, take a look at impressive set pieces and costumes from past performances and get yourself a glass of sparkling wine.

With Houston’s penchant for long commutes combined with early opera start times, food service has always been a must at the Wortham. I was pleased to see that the cheese plates, personal-sized gourmet pizzas and custom pasta dishes and salads are all here at the convention center too.

And although the dress rehearsal attendance was light enough for this to not be an issue last night, the HGO has literally trucked in portable restrooms. But not porta-potties. Please; this is OPERA. These are the fancy trailer type of portable bathrooms that people rent for outdoor weddings and the like. They’re in the far back of that last photo, under the bathroom sign, hidden behind a respectable curtain. So if the line at the regular convention restrooms (located right next to the portable ones) gets too long, you have options.

Once you get into the theater, you’ll find padded stadium seating that provides a decent view of the action, even though there is no raised stage. Some of the closest seating is actually on the same level as the performers. That might be a temporary tech table in the audience for the rehearsal, or it might actually be the permanent “booth” for the light board operator and stage manager; it was difficult to tell where they’d go to otherwise. But my sound engineer husband couldn’t spot the soundboard operator, so perhaps he or she is hidden away elsewhere.

The theater temperature was good, I felt fine in a dress with no jacket. The acoustics aren’t ideal, of course, but I could still hear every note just fine and there was no echoing noisiness from the audience, either. I will say that the seats are not as comfortable as the Wortham’s, but that’s a small inconvenience for getting to support something as thrilling as post-disaster Resilience Theater, amiright?

Fred and I talked about the production value in the context of this all being a plan B and came up with only positive reactions to how they handled the space. For “Julius Caesar,” which for this production is set in 1920s California as a movie being filmed, the space actually lends itself very well to being a looming Hollywood movie set.

Overall it was a pleasant evening out, and an experience that made me quick to forget I was in a convention center. Well done, HGO!

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Thanks for reading Feathers and Wax! x

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