Photo: Michael Bishop
Houston Grand Opera’s season premiere, “Intelligence,” is not just another opera to take in – it’s an experience to be absorbed. It masterfully fulfills art’s big-picture role: sparking dialogues and bridging emotional divides, even when the discussions are challenging and the ties seem broken.
This riveting work is realized through the collective genius of composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, and choreographer/co-creator/director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. The piece explores a fascinating chapter of American history. And, instead of handing out conclusions, it invites introspection. The narrative challenges the characters and the audience with existential questions: Who am I? How do personal and grand historical narratives shape me? And, what if the stories I’ve been told are skewed or incomplete? As the audience is drawn into the opera, they are simultaneously prompted to reflect on its themes in their lives and our contemporary world.
The world premiere on October 20, 2023, marked the 75th for the Houston Grand Opera (HGO). Impressively, Texas has been the birthplace of six of the seven major operas by Heggie. The composer is renowned for tackling challenging subjects head-on. Unveiling an opera in Texas that probes the themes of the Confederacy and slavery was particularly audacious. This is especially true considering that Texas was the final state to grant emancipation to the enslaved, doing so a full two months after the war on June 19, 1865, a.k.a. Juneteenth. This choice is even more bold given the current political and racial climate in the United States.
Heggie’s compositions are approachable and never veer into the abstract. His music offers listeners recognizable motifs and cinematic quality, ensuring an experience that’s engaging rather than challenging. It feels as if Heggie is extending a warm invitation through his melodies, beckoning listeners to immerse themselves in the narrative. In “Intelligence,” the vocal lines artfully shift between rapid patter and rich lyricism, each used judiciously. The opera’s structure feels through-composed, breaking its musical flow only when essential. Traditional set pieces are absent, propelling the opera steadily towards its poignant climax.
Here’s an intriguing tidbit: “Intelligence” wasn’t the brainchild of Heggie and Scheer. The spark came from a docent at the Smithsonian Institute who suggested to Heggie that Mary Jane Bowser should be the subject of his next opera. While Heggie was intrigued, the decisive push came from an op-ed about Bowser in the New York Times. This serendipitous discovery convinced Heggie of the story’s potential. The challenge then fell to Scheer to craft a narrative that seamlessly blended historical facts with fiction, even incorporating elements of magical realism.
Mary Jane Bowser was born into slavery, serving the prestigious Van Lew family in Richmond. She benefited from certain privileges, like being baptized and married in a church for whites and even being educated in the North. One day, as Mary Jane goes about her daily chores, she’s approached by Lucinda, an enigmatic woman who seems to have deep knowledge about Mary Jane’s life and her close relationship with Elizabeth Van Lew, the family’s daughter. Elizabeth had cared for Mary Jane after her mother’s death, cementing a strong bond between them.
Their bond goes beyond familial ties. Unbeknownst to many, it is a fact that Mary Jane and Elizabeth secretly assisted the Union during the American Civil War. Their covert operations included providing shelter to Union soldiers and transmitting vital intelligence. Their most audacious plan involved placing Mary Jane within the Confederate White House, allowing her to gather and relay crucial information directly from President Jefferson Davis’s study.
However, the path of espionage is fraught with danger. Mary Jane and Elizabeth have Travis Briggs, a member of the Confederate Home Guard, snooping around and growing increasingly suspicious of both women, leading to a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. A confrontation results in a fire, during which Mary Jane believes she witnesses Lucinda, a character not represented in the historical record, who embodies Mary Jane’s mother as a symbolic tribute to the many voices lost in history. She is a mysterious guiding character of Scheer’s creation. In the fire scene, Mary Jane believes she saw Lucinda being consumed by the flames.
Haunted by the fire and her visions of Lucinda, Mary Jane starts to question the truths of her past. Her search for answers takes an unexpected turn when she is cruelly forced to read Elizabeth’s journal out loud, revealing a painful truth: contrary to her belief that her mother died in childbirth.
The tension escalates when Travis discovers Mary Jane’s husband, Wilson, unearthing the buried journal. In the ensuing confrontation, Travis meets a violent end at the hands of Henry, Jefferson Davis’ butler.
In the aftermath, Callie, Elizabeth’s sister-in-law, finds Travis’s body and faces a choice. As she contemplates exposing Elizabeth’s treason to protect her family’s name, Elizabeth stands concealed, gun in hand, ready to kill to keep her secrets safe. However, Callie realizes that exposing Elizabeth and Mary Jane would endanger her own reputation and that of her children. Prioritizing self-preservation, she buries Travis’s body in secrecy.
The climax centers on a heart-wrenching confrontation between Mary Jane and Elizabeth. Mary Jane confronts Elizabeth about the secrets she kept. Feeling betrayed and disillusioned, Mary Jane makes a resolute decision to leave Richmond, not just to escape the dangerous web of espionage but also to share her poignant story with the world—a story of betrayal, identity, and the search for truth amid war.
Scheer and Heggie undertook thorough research into the history of Richmond, Virginia, touring landmarks like the Confederate White House and the sites where enslaved people, including Mary Jane, were traded.
A letter from 1870, discovered at an auction house, revealed unexpected correspondence between Mary Jane and Elizabeth. This letter challenged previous assumptions that their communication ended after the war, underscoring how history often presents unexpected twists.
Faced with the responsibility of narrating this story, Scheer perceived it as quintessentially American and relevant to modern conversations about race and the nation’s intricate past. He emphasizes the importance of acknowledging the roles and contributions of enslaved people and African Americans in shaping the country’s narrative.
Art in Action Becomes Personal
I’ll venture into the personal because it speaks directly to what art and “Intelligence” is all about. After an early morning start to leave Houston, I settled into my Lyft ride. While I’m usually reserved, my driver, Ice, inquired about my visit. I mentioned I was reviewing the previous night’s Houston Grand Opera show, “Intelligence.”
“Opera…” she responded. “Which one?”
“‘Intelligence,’” I replied.
Instead of leaving it there, she pressed on, “What was it about?”
I paused. Being a Black woman, Ice made me nervous about addressing the sensitive subject. Would I unintentionally say something wrong?
I took a deep breath, shunted my ill-ease aside, and went for it.
Ice kept saying, “Wow,” as I told the opera’s story.
The topic changed to general opera questions. She was so intrigued she wanted to surprise her mom by buying tickets for her birthday!
But, a deeper revelation was on the horizon.
As I got out at the airport, she presented her fist for a bump. “Christopher, there’s a reason you and I met today,” she began. “This wasn’t by chance. I was meant to take you to the airport. I’m glad we can talk about these things across the aisle, so to speak.”
By “these things” and “across the aisle,” she wasn’t referring to mundane topics or political parties.
It was a poignant moment. I wished all skeptics of opera’s modern relevance could have witnessed it. “Intelligence” had facilitated conversation and connection. The discussion and our fist-bump held deep significance for both of us.
Might some Southern opera-goers bypass “Intelligence” because of its portrayal of the Confederacy? Certainly. The scars from a nation at odds with itself 150 years ago still resonate for many. How many audience members had forebears who battled for the Confederacy? Such ancestral ties are not rare.
The audience reaction was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Rapturous cheers erupted following the death of the loathsome Briggs. His head’s grim encounter with a shovel was extremely satisfying.
The curtain call was met with roaring applause, yet the usual buzz of post-show conversations was conspicuously absent. While New York crowds might revel in post-opera exchanges, Houstonians seemed more restrained. Was it the riveting storyline and outstanding production that left them pondering silently? Or perhaps their focus was diverted by the thrill of the Houston Astros beating the Texas Rangers in a pivotal American League Championship game, the score shared by HGO during the intermission. Many were headed off to the opening night gala. That would be the likely setting for opinions to emerge. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!
The show boasted a stellar cast of vocal powerhouses. Making her HGO mainstage debut, Janai Brugger shone as Mary Jane Bowser. J’Nai Bridges, also making her HGO debut, played the enigmatic Lucinda with an otherworldly presence. Michael Mayes portrayed the nasty antagonist Travis Briggs, with Jamie Barton capturing the essence of Elizabeth Van Lew brilliantly. Caitlyn Lynch, as Callie Van Lew, created a believably vain and off-putting character more concerned about her family’s status than human beings. Nicholas Newton delivered an unforgettable performance as Henry, Jefferson Davis’ butler, while Joshua Blue, in his inaugural HGO appearance, sang with clear emotional depth as Wilson, Mary Jane’s spouse.
Integral to the narrative of Mary Jane was the art of dance. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the visionary co-creator/director, choreographer, and founder of the New York-based Urban Bush Women Dancers, masterfully wove modern and African dance elements, sometimes blending them, to craft a vivid portrayal of Mary Jane’s interior monologue and lineage. Kudos to the dancers, who were truly exceptional. The ensemble comprised Courtney J. Cook, Loren Davidson, Kentoria Earle, Roobi Gaskins, Symara Johnson, Bianca Leticia Medina, Love Muwwakkil, and Mikaila Ware. Their performances were electrifying and stood out as one of the show’s highlights.
Related, Zollar, venturing into opera for the first time, served a pivotal role in directing and choreographing the show. As a Black woman, she brought an invaluable perspective on the Black experience. Ice, the Lyft driver, raised an insightful question during our ride to the airport: “Were the creators Black or white?” Had it been solely the vision of two white individuals, it could’ve raised serious concerns. Though they were the composers and writers, Zollar, as the director, became the essential bridge, ensuring authenticity in the staging.
Canadian/Trinidadian conductor Kawmé Ryan was on the podium. HGO’s orchestra pit is deep, making it challenging to observe and fully appreciate the nuances of his conducting style. Whether it be vibrantly animated or gracefully understated — the true measure of his capabilities was reflected in the exemplary performance of the HGO Orchestra. The precise care with which they delivered Heggie’s score under his baton was more significant than any visual display of his leadership on the podium.
Revisiting the vocal performances (in order of appearance), Brugger’s portrayal of Mary Jane was unparalleled. She brilliantly brought to life a multifaceted character, embodying the essence of humanity. Mary Jane was a harmonious blend of vulnerability and strength. Her vulnerability stemmed from her past as an enslaved woman, constantly cautious and wary, especially with looming threats like Briggs. Moreover, the pervasive dangers of the South posed a continuous menace, as the formerly enslaved lived with the ever-present fear of being captured, auctioned, and pushed back into the clutches of slavery despite their emancipation. Yet, Mary Jane’s strength was rooted in her literacy and broad worldview — the benefits of her education in the North and her missionary work in Liberia. These attributes positioned her as an ideal spy, unsuspected by the Davis family, who would never have imagined that an enslaved woman could execute espionage right under their very roof.
Brugger’s vocal prowess was impeccable, captivating the audience with every note and nuance. Her voice, acting, and stage presence masterfully intertwined, creating a magnetic balance that held the audience spellbound. Demonstrating unwavering confidence, she showed no traces of first-night nerves. Her voice resonated powerfully, rising above the orchestra without ever verging on being overly dramatic, even in the most poignant scenes. With her performance, she effortlessly transported the audience into the heart of Mary Jane’s world.
Bridges crafted a transcendent character, serving as the beacon guiding Mary Jane through her quest to unearth her roots and harness the strength of her lineage. An adept storyteller, Bridges harnessed every available facet to breathe life into a character that lingers in memory. Through Lucinda, portrayed with finesse by Bridges, Mary Jane is given a lens to the past. Bridges instilled a maternal undertone in Lucinda’s interactions with Mary Jane, setting the stage for an opera conclusion that’s nothing short of startling – details of which I’ll keep under wraps. Paralleling Brugger’s performance, Bridges too was mesmerizing in her vocal delivery and compelling in her portrayal.
Jamie Barton is synonymous with excellence; is there any performance where she delivers less than her best? The character of Elizabeth Van Lew was tailor-made for Barton’s prowess. She effortlessly transitioned from moments of unmatched humor to portraying a woman overcome with devastation by the opera’s end. Despite the grave deception her character imposes upon Mary Jane, Elizabeth keeps an aura of sympathy. There’s an underlying goodness to Elizabeth – she is a Unionist and an abolitionist, risking both her life and her family’s reputation to support and console Federal prisoners of war. Taking her commitment a notch higher, she aids the soldiers in their escape to the North. But the quandary remains: can her commendable acts overshadow the grievous wrong she inflicted upon Mary Jane? It’s a contemplation left to each audience member. Barton’s use of the quintessential Southern quip, “Bless their heart,” was strategically used and perfectly timed, with each instance eliciting chuckles from the Texan audience well-versed in its true meaning: a genteel iteration of “You’re an idiot.” This sly jest was primarily aimed at Travis Briggs and Callie Van Lew, a duo you’d think twice about inviting to dinner.
Turning our attention to Travis Briggs, depicted as a clumsily cruel Confederate Home Guardsman sporting a mutton-chop beard, Michael Mayes masterfully evoked loathing towards his character. As mentioned, the audience rejoiced at his character’s downfall and playfully jeered him during the curtain call, only to erupt into enthusiastic acclaim for his outstanding portrayal. Mayes vocally matched the power and skill of his fellow performers, effortlessly seesawing between humor and malevolence. On the lighter side, he amusingly donned a barely convincing disguise in futile attempts to deceive Elizabeth, inevitably finding himself exposed. Bless his heart. On the darker end of the spectrum, he coldly murders a Union POW, makes a heinous attempt on Mary Jane, and slyly tries to stoke Callie’s affections. A minor inconsistency in his portrayal was his fluctuating Southern accent; it appeared intermittently, sometimes there, other times not.
Caitlyn Lynch portrays Callie as the archetypal Southern belle, brightly showcasing her character’s petulant and self-absorbed nature. Contrasting sharply with Elizabeth’s broad perspective and altruistic motives, Callie is narrowly focused on preserving the family’s social standing. When confronted with the choice to betray Elizabeth for “the Cause” (which she believes in thoroughly), she hesitates, recognizing the broader consequences for their family. Though not as vile as Briggs, Callie’s entrances were always met with a strong sense of anticipation for her ensuing brattiness. The dynamic between Barton and Lynch on stage was entertaining, with Lynch’s portrayal of Callie drawing a rebuke harsher than “bless your heart.” She was deserving of “Callie, I don’t give a damn.”
With his commanding bass-baritone, Nicholas Newton embodied the role of Henry, Jefferson Davis’ butler, with an air of regality and self-assuredness. Upon discovering Mary Jane’s literacy, he befriends her, solidifying their bond. When Briggs threatens Mary Jane, it’s Henry who valiantly intervenes, wielding a shovel to protect her. Meanwhile, Wilson, portrayed by the talented tenor Joshua Blue, contrasts starkly. Although Blue’s robust voice suggests strength, his portrayal of Wilson is one of vulnerability, especially evident in his physical demeanor, characterized by a timid gait and defensive postures. His inability to prevent Briggs from seizing Elizabeth’s secret journal, filled with codes and the painful truth of Mary Jane’s past, highlights his fragility. Although Blue’s powerful voice might seem at odds with Wilson’s more submissive nature, it nonetheless offers a nuanced dimension to the character, making him both pitiable and sympathetic.
The Urban Bush Women dancers, representing the role of the “chorus,” brought electrifying energy to the stage. Heggie embraced a classical touch by weaving a ballet into the opera, which enriched it by plunging into Mary Jane’s African heritage rather than disrupting the narrative. Though incorporating ballet adheres to operatic conventions, it underscores the innovative nature of “Intelligence.” The production wouldn’t have achieved its goals without Zollar’s troupe and her visionary choreography. In this opera, dance stands shoulder to shoulder with vocal performance, highlighting its integral role in the storytelling.
Mimi Lien, the set designer for the production, masterfully employs the Van Lew mansion and the Confederate White House. These residences become symbols, representing the divisive ideologies of a nation in conflict. Lien’s architectural approach is geometric, capturing memories and concealed truths lurking in corners. Yet, as the story unfolds within these homes, rooms transform; fluidity and change are illustrated by organic shapes formed by draped fabrics. These drapes serve a dual purpose: they trace Mary Jane’s temporal and spatial journey to her roots and capture dancers’ ethereal shadows, casting haunting, ghostly silhouettes. One scene that stands out uses the shadow of an auctioneer, powerfully projected onto a vast fabric. This imagery brings the abstract notion of the auction block chillingly to life, grounding it in tangible reality for the audience. Saying much more about this scene risks diminishing its impact, so it’s best left for the audience to experience firsthand.
John Torres’ lighting design masterfully complemented the narrative without overshadowing it. He adeptly used lighting to accentuate characters, craft hidden nooks and direct audience focus with impeccable timing. Halo-like illuminations often graced Mary Jane and Lucinda, adding a mystical touch. Torres showcased versatility in his technique, with lights descending from above, skimming over the audience, and erupting in vibrant hues during surreal scenes. His work was as aesthetically striking as it was functional. Mirroring Lien’s houses, Torres’ lighting played a pivotal role in creating a sense of metaphysical concealment and revelation.
Wendell K. Harrison’s projections were nothing short of mesmerizing. Harrison’s work stood out in an era where projections are often favored over tangible sets for their ability to achieve unparalleled effects. She seamlessly integrated clips of slave ships, Matthew Brady’s iconic battlefield photographs, and scenic backdrops like Richmond and its POW camp to enhance the visual allure of the production. While many reviews criticize projections as lackluster, distracting, or muddled, Harrison’s designs brought clarity and a sense of space to an otherwise sparse set.
Houstonians, catch this opera while you can.
“Intelligence” continues its run on Oct. 28 & 30 and Nov. 1 & 3.