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Interview with: David R. Gockley
Interviewed by: Louis Marchiafava
Date: June 12, 1976
Archive Number: OH 065
I: (00:08) I’d like to begin the interview by asking you specifically how you were selected for the General Director’s position?
DG: I was selected for the General Director position of the Houston Opera because I had been here for two years since September of 1970 working as business manager, and then Associate Director of the Houston Opera under the general directorship of Walter Herbert, who was the founding General Director of the Houston Opera. I had been here working closely with the Board of Directors, closely with the audiences, closely with most aspects of the Opera company in residence here, and I got an ideal indoctrination without being responsible for what I was doing for two years. It wasn’t quite two years, I guess it was two years less about three months. But in May of ’72 I was named General Director of the Opera.
I: What did you see the problems in the opera being before you took your new position? Did you have a chance to analyze the situation to some extent?
DG: The problems of the opera were artistic. We were not presenting, I don’t think, the most imaginative casts, the most imaginative productions. We were not originating our own artistic product, but borrowing or renting scenery and costumes. A lot of casting was done by hearsay as opposed to direct knowledge of the performers and what their personalities would be attuned to as far as roles go.
(2:34) Another major problem was community involvement. Aside from some student matinees that we gave down in Jones Hall, we had hardly any outreach into the broader community with its accompanying value to fundraising and also to audience-building. We were raising very little money from the community, of course, an arts organization’s success is based to a great degree on how much contributed monies one can lay their hands on year to year for maintenance and special bit project such as new productions or the building of special facilities, etc.
So the Opera Company had somehow never really begun to tap the big corporate or individual money in Houston. The Opera Company had been, when I came on the scene, a poor cousin of the Arts in Houston and we are still, today, in 1976, feeling the repercussions of this. And the group that started the Opera was a group that was not the Symphony Group, it was not the Museum Group, it was not the Alley Theater Group, and I think it was a group that maybe had been spurned by these other organizations over the years and when the opera troupe got going, it was their wish to maybe exclude some of the more prominent members of the community, as irrational as that seems. But it was almost a mentality of, “Let’s stay small and exclusive so that we have our own little country club.”
I: (05:01) Was it form of elitism?
DG: A form of elitism, yeah, which has plagued the Arts in this country since our very beginnings. Our marketing policies were non-existent. We expected that amongst all other forms of entertainment and forms of leisure activity, that the people would just march right into opera. We had a hard-core subscriber register of about 3,500 people at that time, as opposed to about 12,000 now. We gave three performances of five operas, plus a few student matinees, and that was it. It was a sleepy company, a company obviously on a plateau for five or six years, certainly since the beginning of Jones Hall in 1966, I think it was. And the General Director, Walter Herbert, had actually moved away from Houston and was only allowed in Houston about seven or eight weeks of the year because he held another directorship in San Diego, and the San Diego contract wouldn’t allow him out of San Diego. But Houston’s would allow him to be away from Houston.
So I was in a very good position when I came down here as Business Manager in ’70, to be the immediate confidante of the Board of Directors because the professional director was not here. My business school background, which is a very trusting kind of thing, when businessmen are running the Board, they gave me a certain amount of credibility. I was not a freak artist type who only knew what sopranos were, as opposed to debits and credits. So I gradually got the confidence of the Board, and by the time Herbert announced his retirement, as many thought he was going to, I was there on the inside track. In this business, there are not that many candidates. A lot of good people are tied up or in other positions and, as I say, I had the inside track and I was evaluated, probably as safe [laughs].
I: (07:52) You mentioned a problem of Herbert being out of Houston so often. Was this one of the original reasons that you were brought down here?
DG: I’m sure it was. They needed more of an authority here than, an administrative assistance, which he had previous to that, who had gotten into trouble. They needed an authority.
I: Did you know Herbert before you came down?
DG: No, I did not know Herbert. Herbert and I had a mutual friend who arranged an interview with Herbert in New York City, where I was working for Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in an administrative, pure administrative, position. And that was very shortly after I got out of, actually graduated from, business school at Columbia.
I: If Mr. Herbert was not here, he was in San Diego so much of the time, who actually did the programming?
DG: Everything that was really important, like submit the budget, do the casts, choose the operas, set the tone of the marketing policy—when I first arrived here—was Herbert. And gradually I was able to become involved in, say, casting of small parts locally, because he was not here to really hear the auditions and I gradually moved into that aspect of it. I brought in a marketing consultant my first year here, so at the end of my first season, we did some substantial mailings and some radio, and the first major steps in getting out there and selling more vigorously. We went from 35 to about 5,300 or 5,400 subscriptions from my first year here as business manager to the second year, where I was designated Associate Director, as obviously a stepping stone. So gradually I began to take hold.
I: (10:23) Did your appointment create problems for you from other people affiliated with the opera? Well, the Opera Guild, for example? Did you meet any opposition?
DG: Not really.
I: What about your new policies? Did they meet any opposition from the traditions?
DG: Yeah, I think whenever you begin to, say, have the nerve to say that opera is entertainment and that entertainment is for anybody who wants to participate in it, and that we’re becoming democratic, and we’re becoming hard sell, or heavily marketed, you’re going to run into trouble with these people that feel an elite, you know, let’s keep it small and keep it close and keep it ours, type of feeling about these organizations. So, we did. But one of my saving graces was that the Executive Committee and officers of the opera during these key years were businessmen who had were brought in to the opera because of fundraising expertise and community credibility, and a lot of the old founding generation of the opera at that point had slipped into almost an emeritus status. And so their influence had waned and the influence of the businessmen, who didn’t know anything about the artistic side of opera, but at least could listen to, objectively, to a marketing plan that was stated in their language and says, so much in expenditures versus so much of a probability of response and each response would mean so many dollars in revenue. The figures looked good, therefore we went ahead and did it. And began to use some of the skills and certainly the language that these people were used to, whether they were running Houston Natural Gas or American General Insurance or Texas Commerce Bank, which produced some of the corporate leaders that worked with us in key times.
I: (13:17) While doing my research, I noted that one of the—
DG: —and gradually—I will say that during this period there became the idea of professional autonomy in more of these different areas, as opposed to dibbling and dabbling of this opera artist committee or this opera marketing committee, that would consist of little ladies saying that you should not have brochures that say this or say that, because that’s going to offend people.
I: Which I think is excellent. It attracts attention, quite literally.
DG: The idea of evaluating an arts manager’s performance on a more bottom line status. What is the bottom line? The bottom line is, I think, not getting an organization into the hole; not continually spending more than you’re bringing in. Something that I’ve always maintained as important for an arts administrator is to have control, not only of expenses but of the income side, so that if you want, if you as an arts administrator want to have an especially expensive season, that you have the wherewithal to market that season in a way that you want to, and you have the freedom of organizing the fundraising that will complement the earned income aspect, and get to the point where you can pay for what you’re doing.
I think it’s vital that you can pay for what you’re doing, and an arts organization that can’t is bound for disaster. But, to have marketing all of a sudden—and marketing skills play a part in it, and also professional fundraising skills, which has been used by colleges and hospitals for 20 or 30 years for a successful—of course, the arts are just now beginning to develop that. And that does mean an important thing in establishing our priority among the various charities around here as being important. So, the concepts that we’re dealing with now are bottom line evaluation, and the relationship between a Board and a professional staff. As not being entirely, you know, you take the every directive from the Board of Directors, but overall goals are established by the Board of Directors, such as you will balance your budget. Or, we will, indeed, accept you doing a Spring Opera Festival in the park. Or, we will accept you creating Texas Opera Theater. Or, we will accept the fact that you will have a Porgy and Bess in 1976, and make it available for touring under certain conditions that you do not take any exposure for ticket sales in the various other towns, and you get a guarantee; and the guarantee is in contractual form that is approved by our general counsel, etc. Those are broad policy things that I think a Board should be involved in, but as far as marketing decisions, no; as far as casting and director and designer and conductor decisions, no; as far as repertoire, I think a Board should not initiate repertoire, but I think it should have a general advise and consent situation there, if I go overboard one way or another. But, remember, if I go overboard in repertoire, I’ve got to answer to it in fundraising and marketing. And I don’t want an empty house. And I don’t want us not to raise money. So, by being involved in both of these sides, it’s kind of a self-policing thing. And I will not be an artistic type that goes off and spends wildly in doing esoteric pieces that are not going to draw an audience, because I’m also responsible for ticket sales. I’m also responsible for the amount of fundraising, not just this year, but into the future. And if doing something badly or without taste or controversy to the point of real problems, then my efforts, my building efforts and my artistic efforts for five years may be sacrificed, and I don’t want that to happen. I’m no fool.
I: (19:05) You’ve got into several areas that I had intended to ask you questions. You saved me the trouble. [laughs] Let me go ahead, though, and ask you just a few more details about some of these areas. Concerning the Board of Directors, when you first took over, you were dissatisfied, apparently, with the way they were functioning—the way it was functioning? Is that correct?
DG: Well, I certainly feel they could be more involved in raising money. And less involved in petty day-to-day management type decisions.
I: Have you been able to make these changes you desire?
DG: Gradually. Although it’s very, very hard, and a big ship like a Board of Directors consisting of a hundred, hundred and twenty people, takes a long time for it to turn around. And, everybody on the Board of Directors is sensitive about his position and will he stay, will he go, will he be dumped?
I: Who makes that decision?
DG: That decision is made by an inner nominating committee, hopefully, that has the best, most constructive interests of the Opera at heart. And where I sit as kind of an ex-officio, informative member, to make suggestions as to a Board member’s performance, of course, I have the information—what they give, do they buy tickets, do they serve on a committee, are they responsive when we say, “Invite your friends, Mr. Money-Bags, to the Opera, or your friend, Mr. Politician, to the Opera.” Are they being helpful? Are they out there answering the needs of the Opera Company? So, the nominating committee, of course, must be a representative group, and the thing to do is to try to instill in them an objectivity and not get into individual personalities and individual personal needs, because if you’re not objective in nominating a slate of directors for an opera company, then everything you do will be suspect and you’ll never get anywhere. If we treat one person, and say, “Ahh, that poor soul. He doesn’t do anything any more but we can’t hurt his feelings, or her feelings.” Then, every other decision you make along the line will be suspect.
I: (22:04) Has there been a significant change-over in membership to the Board in the last five years?
DG: I think there has been significant change-over, yeah. If significant means, say, 30%.
I: I would say that’s significant.
DG: And we right now are on the verge of doing something that has been done in certain places across the country, and has been done successfully, mainly with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. We are going to break our existing Board down into three units, different units, to try to define various people’s service to us into give, but do not want to work; want to give and work; want to work but not give. So we are breaking our Board down. And we are going to have an Advisory Board. We are going to have a Managing Board. And we are going to have what we call President’s Council.
The President’s Council will be the gives but do not want to work, and it’s a very, very honorary kind of thing. There will be events that honor this group and communications that go to them, and they will be solicited every year.
The Managing Board will be our actual Board of Directors, and we hope to get this down into manageable proportions. By manageable proportions, I say not more than 50 people. And these people will have a commitment. They will give a certain amount of money, maybe $1,000 or $2,000, annually; and they will take on a further commitment to raise $3,000, or $4,000, or $5,000, depending on how this is legislated, immediately, versus down the road. So that each Board member will be a guarantee of the Opera Company of maybe $6,000 to $7,000, and multiply that times 50, and you realize what kind of money you’re talking about.
The Advisory Board, as I say, will be those—will be a kind of a catch-all—of those who you want to give some status to, some recognition to, but yet are not going to be on the inside voting Board of Directors.
The President’s Council will vote, the Managing Board will vote; the Managing Board will elect the officers and the Executive Committee. And it’s very, very intricately designed to give the greatest management control and policy control to those who are willing not only to give, but to give and then to get. You will hear the three Gs of being an Opera, or a Board member of a non-profit organization—that is, Give, Get, or Git. [laughs] And that very simplistic thing is what has gotten behind us. We cannot exist with a Board of Directors that is full of people who are there in an emeritus capacity because they founded the organization 20 years ago. Let’s give them a place. Let’s give them a nice little pedestal, but let’s leave that slightly out of the mainstream of the management and the policy of the Opera, and this Managing Board—let’s make that so attractive and so prestigious and based, not only with rich families, but with politicians, with people with political clout, with areas of the city that are—representatives of geographic areas of the city, of the races of the city, of labor as opposed to management, etc.
I: (26:47) Do you think that it’s actually possible to do that?
DG: I think it is in this town—it is. In Philadelphia and Boston and New York—No. But that’s what makes this town, you know?
I: Why is it possible here? I’m just curious.
DG: I think those in the know at the Opera realize that in order for an opera organization to exist we must be a political animal. And to be a political animal, we must have reach into—we must be political in our programming, we must do the part, we must do the Texas Opera Theater, we must do the opera in the schools, we must do the Porgy and the Bess, we must do American Series, we must do International Series, we must have something for every taste. For almost every taste, anyway. And, again, in crudest terms, it has been called the wine shop with something for—with $1.98 jug wine and Chateau Lafitte Rothschild—available. And so that you’re not appealing to one pinnacle of the wine-going public, you’re appealing to all of them. So, I think it’s—because we are a political animal, because we will need to call upon public sources of funds as well as private sources more in the future than in the past, we have got to get involved with every group that can justify help from, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, or the Texas Commission for the Arts and Humanities. We have—we are a labor-intensive industry—80% of our dollars are spent on salaries. To produce an opera, you’re involving 200 plus paid people. These people are represented by unions. And so, in the political process, it’s best for us to approach government as a unified group of workers and managers. And this is happening gradually. For example, we have members of our chorus union organization on our Board right now. I sit by politicians and, for example, Barbara Jordan is on our Board, the Congresswoman.
We have tried to have someone from the NASA area; we have tried to have someone from the Sugar Land area; we’ve tried to have someone from the Pasadena area—a prominent person in that area. But we can call upon them and we need to have Texas Opera Theater appear in Pasadena. If you’ve got a River Oaks Board, that’s not going to help you there.
You have to realize that Pasadena—the demographics of Pasadena is a wealthy, surprisingly wealthy, community. It has a lot of blue collar, but it also has a lot of management and supervisory people. And over the last couple of years, we have built our audience in Pasadena considerably. But it has a different school system. It has a different government. It has a different police department, etc., and if we want to make an impression on the Pasadena school system, it’s going to help to have so-and-so on the Houston Opera Board, who is a prominent person in Pasadena. And then what happened is, okay, the Pasadena school system buys Texas Opera Theater. And so Texas Opera Theater does 20 performances in the Pasadena schools times so many children, and the children are given an exciting experience. They convey it to their parents. They take home with them some literature about the Houston Opera, which includes a coupon that gets them half price to come down to Jones Hall to attend one of our Opera in English performances with a tour backstage afterwards, which also comes with that because they have a special coupon that they got in the Pasadena schools. And we know who they are. We can mail our newsletter to them. We can mail our subscription brochure to them the next year. And all of a sudden we have a foothold in that part of the town. And it started, maybe, with having a Board member from Pasadena who’s active and committed.
(32:35) That’s the way we are looking at each area of town. We know where our subscribers come from. We know where our audience comes from. It’s heavily white, it’s heavily rich and it’s not likely to change too considerably. We are hoping, for example, with this Porgy and Bess, the special production that’s coming up next month, to have 25% to 35% black population attend this. And we are working heavily with black newspapers, black radio stations. We are having black ticket outlets for the first time in our lives—four or five black ticket outlets in the black neighborhoods. And this will be a very interesting experiment as to whether we can actually appeal to this. So, that’s, in a nutshell, why it’s important for us to have geographical, social, and racial representation on this Board.
I: I can see why your policies would run into opposition from some of the old elite. It’s a completely different concept of the Opera.
DG: The elite can’t pay for it any more. As long as they could, they could have it. But there is, as we all know, an equalization of wealth these days, and there are not the big fortunes that there have been. Even the big fortunes of Texas have never gone to the Arts, because the Arts are the most irrational, impractical kinds of things. Medicine, and education, and even long shot oil exploration, is better expenditure than creating a beautiful, exquisite production of Der Rosenkavalier or Porgy and Bess.
I: (34:53) What is your relationship with the Opera Guild?
DG: My relationship with the Opera Guild is—the Opera Guild is a committee of the Opera Association, and a committee that has specific functions. It involves younger people, in general; it involves women, in general, not totally; it has its own subcommittees that deal with such things as artist hospitality; docent programs in the schools; they are the ushers of our student matinees in Jones Hall; they run an Opera Ball every year; they run an Opera Ball, to raise money, they run a garage sale to benefit the Opera.
My relationship with the Opera Guild is, at present, very warm and very constructive. Again, I’m on them all the time to take on this project, take on that project, get good leaders, and get bodies that will distribute posters. For example, this year we tried a couple of things that didn’t work. We wanted the Opera Guild to be our letter-writing group, to write Congressmen and Senators and legislators on causes involving the Arts. That’s another thing that happens when you become more of a political animal, you’ve got to use more political types of persuasion, and direct it toward the people that make the governmental policy. We found that the Opera Guild people—we tried to organize, say, 20 different captains with 20 different team members. When an issue was at hand, we would send the word down through the hierarchy, and then, hopefully, we could get 400 letters going within the course of, say, seven days. And if they didn’t want to write a letter, then the captain would send a mailgram for them. And that was the deal that we would make. So that, even if somebody did not want to take the trouble to sit down and write a personal letter, which is the most impressive thing to a legislator, we would have some kind of communication going. But that, somehow, did not pan out. We did not get the right leaders. They did not know how to choose the right captains. And people simply did not feel that this kind of, say, three or four time a year commitment to write a letter or to send a telegram, a mailgram, was that important. And so that fell apart.
(38:05) Another thing that fell apart was a poster and flyer distribution committee. They did not want to, we found out that these ladies simply did not feel that that was something that they wanted to do. And, of course, it all boils down to leadership. It depends who the leader is, it depends how they can work with their people. Are they, after the poster session, does there happen to be a nice luncheon? There’s all kinds of ways that you can motivate them to work. Some things are more attractive than others. Like, if you’re giving a fashion show with Diane Von Furstenberg coming in and showing her designs—this was another Guild project this year. You have people clamoring to work on that. To sell tickets; to become involved with something that has a little glamour to it. But, distributing posters to Handy Andy? I’m sorry. No.
I: (39:13) Well, the Guild, then, does not involve the policy decisions?
DG: No. The Guild is an auxiliary to take on various projects, money raising and promotional, and educational, that helps the Opera. And generally these are things that require lots of bodies.
I: Well, money has been one of the major considerations in the interview, so let me move on to that for a few moments. Where is the main source of the income originate from now? I know your budget for last year, I think, was $2.1 million, which is a large amount. How do you manage to raise that? Is it from tickets, primarily, or donors, or corporations, government grants?
DG: The largest individual source is tickets. Tickets make up, in that entire picture, which is slightly distorted because it includes a Spring Opera Festival of $200,000 in expenditure with no earned income, no ticket income, because it’s free to the public at Miller Theater; you have Texas Opera Theater, which is a growing, forming group, which represented about $350,000 of that, only about 20% of which was income from performance fees, as opposed to grants, contributed grants. So our regular season was about $1.6 million. Our regular Jones Hall season. And, of that regular Jones Hall season of $1.6 million, about 52% was ticket sales.
(41:27) Of the remaining, say, 50%, remaining half, that has got to be contributed money, 60% of that comes from local sources, 40% comes from National sources. National sources, meaning National foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, National corporations, as opposed to local corporations. Let me correct myself. I said 60% comes from local sources, 40% from National sources.
Of the local sources, we, of course, have a local fundraising campaign; we have our Opera Guild, their contribution to us from the Opera Ball and the garage sale; we have local corporations giving through special projects to the Houston Opera, or we get our portion of the combined corporate campaign, which was instituted two years ago, as a United Fund effort toward the Houston corporations, which would be divided up among seven Arts organizations, the Opera, the Symphony, the Houston Ballet, the Alley Theater, the Society for the Performing Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Contemporary Arts Museum. The Opera is in there for 12.9% of the pot. Right now, the combined corporate arts drive is in the last year of its initial three year period, and most of us have been very, very disappointed with that and its ability to use an effective, combined approach to get major Houston corporations to really up their donations to the Arts in general. We got this idea from businessmen who said, “We’ll give more if you’re not involving our executives in seven different drives, and if we have one call from one person and we’ll lump it all together and we’ll give you that and more.”
As it’s turned out, the quality of leadership, again, has been very, very weak. What has happened is that it’s given the Arts—by not having us, the Opera, approach these people and put the bug on them ourselves with the kind of eloquence that only we could have about our own specific activity—we’ve given the corporations an excuse not to give, rather than an excuse to give. And they’re ending up asking themselves for money for the Arts. We’re very, very disappointed in that now, and in the next year we’ll have, kind of, a put up or shut up thing happen. And either they get good leadership that can get above this selfish business of corporations calling on themselves and accepting very little as their debt to the Arts in this town, or we’re going to be back, each going at them ourselves.
And, of course, the Opera being such a dynamic broad-based force in this town, more than any other, and the very fact that our art form itself, with its capacity for stars and capacity for special productions, and lots of fanfare, we would much prefer being out there raising our own money. Because since that combined Arts corporate thing has happened, we have almost tripled in size. And our 12.9% was based on when we were having a budget of $500,000. We selfishly feel that we’re getting the short end of the stick there. When the corporate community in Houston—right now, the amount that the corporate community is giving to the seven Arts organizations, through this combined corporate campaign, is about $420,000, which is nickels and dimes for one of the largest corporate confluences in America. Of course, they feel when they come to Houston, they get away from taxes, welfare, and Arts organizations. But that’s not necessarily true.
I: (47:12) Till they ran into you. Traditionally, it has been the common view that opera attracts very wealthy people, and that they give large contributions. Is this true?
DG: As I said before, since we never really have reached the elite, say, top ten families of the City of Houston, we have not been in the business of getting big gifts. We had our own little elite. But our little elite gave little amounts, because that was their capability. The largest individual gift that we have gotten, and that we could expect to get on an annual basis, was $15,000. But the number of contributions now is approaching 10,000 annually, with an average contribution of under $100. And we’ve got lots of $5s and $10s and $20s and $25s, and we do tremendous work by mail and by personal solicitation, of some 300 volunteers every year, that have cards on people and are broken down into teams and sections. And it’s a tremendous—a lot of staff research that goes into this, and lots of clerical work to keep up on these contributors and try to up them a little bit every year and to inform them of the Opera’s activities via newsletters, so that we’re not hitting them once a year, and every time we hit them, we’re asking them for something.
I: What about support the City? I know the one time you made a public appear to the City, it failed.
I: Have you received any encouragement since then?
DG: (49:14) We’ve received some encouragement since then. As we sit here, now, the 1976 budget of the City of Houston has not been approved. We have been assured by the Mayor that there is a $50,000 general support line item for the Houston Opera. Now, between now and budget passage time, it may get cut. We have had a history of a hostile City Council, where expenditures of this kind of thing go. We have received some help from the City before, but that has been specifically for our outdoor Miller Theater season, which takes place in the City-owned Hermann Park Miller Theater. And we have gotten $50,000 the past two years to support, help support, the Miller Theater programs, and productions. That is $50,000 out of $200,000. So, even that has forced us to go out and get $150,000 non-City money to make that thing take place. For the first time, we’re asking for general support. If we attain that, I think the City, at this point, will be a significant and very worthy source of support to us. For example, the Federal government, right now, gives the entire Houston Opera family $150,000 a year—$100,000 to the main company and $50,000 to Texas Opera Theater.
The State, through the Texas Arts Commission, is another story. It’s well known now that our great State of Texas, occupying all this geographical area, is 53rd out of 55 American states and territories in the per capita support of the Arts. Even American-Samoa outranks us. So, a lot of work has got to be done in the next couple of years in legislative enlightenment in the State of Texas. For example, Houston Opera got a fat grant this year, $4,500, from the State of Texas. And that, I understand, was the top grant that was given in the State. Texas Opera Theater, and it has worked up due to the generosity of the Moody, Humphries, and now the Brown Foundation, it has gotten itself together, and now it actually has performance headquarters in 30 Texas cities. This kind of activity will hasten the State support of the Arts in Texas, because, since we have been predominantly a rural state, just like we have been predominantly a rural country ruled by Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., the idea of Federal support for the Arts has been always very suspect, because what does it mean to us in Iowa if the New York Philharmonic is getting a grant? Maybe it doesn’t mean that much, but now there’s the Iowa Symphony, and maybe the Met Broadcast could go to Iowa. There’s the Philharmonic Broadcast could go to Iowa. All of a sudden, there’s means of getting around, whether it be geographical or over the media, helped make a justification for the support of these major organizations.
(53:27) And, of course, we in Texas, on the State level, are similar to that in that we have had the Dallas-Houston Access, where the Arts have meant something, and have made an inroad in their specific communities. But, of course, the rural dominated legislature has said, “Well, what does it mean in Abilene?” Not a whole lot. But, now, Texas Opera Theater performs twice in Abilene. The Houston Ballet, I’m sure, maybe gets to Abilene. We are trying, now, to formulate a broadcast network throughout our region. We’re seeking a corporate sponsor to that right now, that every production will be piped throughout the State, maybe on the same network at the Metropolitan Opera Network. And say, well, what do we mean to Abilene? We mean six broadcasts a year.
We’re heavily involved in investigating the televised and the cassette areas of transmission of our performances. That is still technologically undefined, right now, and is the best way to go about this. Live performances, televised or live performances, do a combination of live and taped, or in front of a live audience and then do close-ups with different takes, but in the theater on the set, and create a completely different production for its studio context. We have had all three things illustrated on public television this year. And there’s arguments on all different side. But we’d like to get into that. The cost is horrendous. Some of the big corporations, such as Exxon out of New York, Texas out of New York, again—all these corporations that have gotten their wealth out of Texas but spend their money in New York [laughs] are making major commitments to public television. But, as yet, we down here have not been able to take advantage of that money. We’re trying to. We’re also trying to interest people locally in allowing us to do some television and cassette production. But that’s another important way of transmission. And if it plays on every public television station in Texas, and we develop these arms, 30 Texas cities via Texas Opera Theater, broadcasts on a network of stations, telecasts—then we can justifiably say to the legislature, and the corporations, and the major private foundations; because I don’t believe that the government should pick up our entire tab, I simply think that if it’s a reality then it has got to play a bigger part.
We would like to see, say, government foundations and corporations each occupy a third, or each put up a third of our needs into the future. If, as I was beginning to say, we had these tentacles and arms going throughout the State, and you realize that the tentacles and arms cannot exist without the torso, then I think we have the first real valid political justification why the Houston Opera should be maintained when there’s everything else to maintain—hospitals, colleges, social programs, highways, etc. There’s no two ways about it. We must be a priority. And till now, the Arts, and specifically the Arts in Texas, haven’t been a priority at all. And as soon as those rich country club folk don’t want them any more, then we don’t want them either.
What we have tried to do is to establish a beachhead for ourselves in the Pasadenas, and the NASAs, and the Northwests, and the Park, and now, in the State. No longer can you say, any more, that opera is for only the elite. No longer can you say it only is an unnatural preservation of a European art form, a 19th Century European art form. As it is now, six of the last 12 operas that we have done have been by American composers. We have an American artist policy and we’re very, very chauvinistic about this, because we feel that the Americans that we are producing, that our great educational institutions are producing with their great subsidy, with teachers that we have been able to attract to America, and the ones we have produced in America—we have the best trained, best prepared, most versatile, most theatrically-oriented opera singer, or music theater performers, whatever you want to call them, opera being a foreign word—in the world.
(59:43) We all knew that after World War II, there was a tremendous influx of American—after World War II—there was a tremendous influx of American opera singers in the German houses, and Austrian, and Italian, and French. Because they were split asunder by the war, and a lot of their teachers and professors came to America. And now there’s a—now that their post-war generation has matured—there’s more local chauvinism in those countries. More Austrians and more Germans are singing. But, still, the dominant nationality at the Vienna State Opera is American. The dominant nationality of, I won’t say in the small houses, the small German and Austrian houses, is American; but there are Americans in all of these houses, and they’re generally the best people.
So, these Americans, as their expertise and talent is the result of the American training that they’ve gotten, and we’ve got to get around to the fact that if we’re going to train them and offer umpteen scholarships to students at the University of Indiana to study opera, and then export them immediately, and therefore subsidize Austria more than Austria is being subsidized already, we’ve got to bring into balance a little more, the training of artists and in the provision of a working experience for them. And right now we’re producing ten times as many as we can employ. And I think we certainly don’t have the European opera tradition, and I don’t think we should have the European opera tradition. We’re not Europe. We’ve got to create an American musical theater tradition, that draws on that. Because certainly our musical comedy came out of German Singspiel and German Operetta, as well as our own native influences, like Vaudeville and Review and musical languages such as Ragtime and Jazz and March, and things like that. We have got to evolve. We’re old enough now, and hopefully this bicentennial has put enough pride and given us a little bit more of a confidence in our own output, our own cultural output, that we can see clear to say, okay, we’re going to extend the opera tradition.
(1:02:54) And, in the tradition of it being not elite, esoteric, experimental. That has got to play a part in it. But opera, in the best sense, has got to be entertainment, theater, communication to a wide group of people. That’s the way Puccini had it, that’s the way Mozart had it, that’s the way Verdi had it. That’s the way I hope Gershwin has it, that’s the way I hope Bernstein has it. I feel that we now have a group of American music theater masterpieces; Pal Joey, Showboat, The Kind and I, Carousel, Most Happy Fellow, Kiss Me, Kate, West Side Story, A Little Night Music, etc.; that really have stood the test of time, and they are great pieces. Great pieces that speak of us. I hope that it’s not out of bounds for an opera company to include West Side Story in its repertoire.
For so long, we’ve considered anything—this elite, pro-Europe mentality—has always said, “Well, there is ‘Opera,’ and there is musical comedy.” And what has happened is, that musical comedy groups have sprung out all over the country. There’s one right here in Houston that’s sprung out of the Houston Opera seven years ago when the Houston Opera Board refused to do a musical comedy in Miller Theater in the summer, because that was beneath them. And, now, we have a very excellent organization here in town, Theater Under the Stars, which produces the musical comedies. They do everything popular, and we do everything unpopular, in effect. But, I was thinking, in the ideal situation, that there would be the capacity of an opera company, or a musical theater company, whatever you want to call it, to do Carousel one month, the Coronation of Pompeii the next month, Peter Grimes the next month, Tosca the next month, you know? Because it all comes out of the same tradition.
I pointed out to our Board members this year that the prestigious funk for the opera in Germany, one of the great opera companies, opened its season with My Fair Lady in German, starring Anya Celia, one of the great Wagnerian opera performers in Europe for the past ten years. But I can imagine myself saying to our Board, even now, that we would want to open our season with My Fair Lady. First of all, we can’t now, because there is a musical theater organization, musical comedy organization in town, which I think is a crime that the two have got to be separate. But that’s done. But even if it weren’t, they’d say, “Well, no. That’s not a—isn’t that beneath an opera company?”
It seems all throughout the ages and throughout our history, Europe has always respected our cultural output far more than we have. I think it’s important to take a Bernstein, take a Sondheim, take a John Candor, and say, stretch yourself. You don’t have to conform now to the even more confining Broadway formula for success. Come into our fold. Do something, maybe, that you always wanted to do, and call it music theater, call it opera, whatever you’d like; but make music an important part of it. And make theater, of course, the basis for it. Use our brilliant young well-trained American music theater performers, and let’s see what we get. Let’s extend this tradition. Economics, maybe, has put us past the golden age of Broadway. And, now, in order to have a Broadway success other than a freak like Chorus Line, a marvelous idea, is that you’ve got to have Bob Fosse and certain formula songs, and people with no voices. I personally can’t stand a lot of the Broadway shows that have come, in general, up the last two years, because I think they’ve been simplistic, badly performed. I think they have been brilliantly designed, in most cases; very well choreographed; very well staged. But, the material and generally the quality of casts is very, very bad.
I: (1:09:13) Do you have any that stand out in your mind, specifically? Some that might be well known?
DG: That succeeded?
I: That fall into those categories that you just expressed.
DG: Oh, Chicago; Pippin; all the Jerry Herman things, like Hello, Dolly, and Mame; even some of the Sondheim works, like Follies, although I like his Night Music very much.
I: There’s one area I’d like to get to before we conclude the interview. It deals with the booking with super stars that you’ve booked. The logistics of bringing first rate singers to Houston has to be enormously complicated, from everything that I’ve been able to learn. Perhaps you could outline the process of negotiating some of these?
DG: Right. Artists, famous artists, have generally gone to the regions of America for one thing—money. And there is a desire in these artists, and I’m talking about the great opera singers, the Sutherlands, the Marilyn Hornes, the Herman Prizes—to be involved artistically in a good thing. But, and this goes back to when the great, you know, the Carusos, were touring America.
(1:11:03) That it was a lot of one-night stands around, and they would get tremendous purses, and they could take a three week tour throughout America and come out with $100,000. And then they would have some accountant in New York who had some connections, and then it wouldn’t be taxed. And they would really just clean up. Regional opera in America has attracted super stars, because it has paid big fees and had short rehearsal periods. And over—and the syndrome has been, “Take the money and run.” Bring your own costumes to New Orleans, or wherever, and close your eyes to the artistic experience. Get the big fee, and leave; go back to New York, or San Francisco, which has emerged over the last 20 years as a very good company. Or to Europe.
We, now, don’t ask an artist for five days. We ask an artist for a minimum of 24 to 25 days. You realize that that’s about 10%, 11%, 12% of their entire year. For one production in Houston, with now four performances, you realize that we’re in a terribly difficult position. We can counter with two things, recalling that each day spent in Houston is a day not spent in Vienna, London, Paris, Milan, New York, where there is a chance of much greater exposure for them. More performances in a shorter amount of time. Rehearse one while you’re performing the other. So we have to counter with money. We have to pay, probably as high fees, for most artists, as they are paid throughout the world. We also have to counter with offering them things that they want to do. Marilyn Horne and Reynaldo was something that peaked her imagination. It was something she could do for the first time. We got her pretty good press exposure for it. And now she wants to come back and do a similar type of thing. We got Sutherland at a time when she was having problems negotiating with the Met, and she was free to come. We have other artists in the future, but we’ve got to pay them, and we’ve got to give them a good time when they’re here. We’ve got to give them a really stimulating artistic environment, and that means good theater, good conducting, good staging. That’s what we’ve got to do. Good colleagues. Good spirit. And, looking into the next couple of seasons in our planning, we’ve got to get out there and get them first, of course. The Italians are notoriously dilatory about hiring their artists until the last minute. We have to plan ahead. We have to contact them. We have to have good relationships with the agents, who often can help to dictate where an artist goes.
I: What is the range of fees that one must put out to a super star?
DG: I would say super star fees go from anywhere from $3,000 per performance to about $7,000 per performance, $7,500, maybe at tops.
I: Per performance?
DG: Per performance.
I: In preparing for the interview, I also noted that there is a major danger of last minute cancellations by these types of people. Have you run into any of that?
DG: (1:15:48) We’ve run into that. A very obvious one in each of my years here, of a major star canceling at the last minute, after, of course, you’ve sold a season on him, and advertised him, or her. You have to be aware that that happens. It creates a drama in this office, and in the audience, too. And you generally find that audiences are, our audiences have been sympathetic to it. And, in each case, they have been legitimate problems. Martina Arroyo, the American Soprano, slipped a disc while getting out of bed, and just was immobile. James King, the American Tenor, was singing Othello here the last year, popped a blood vessel on his vocal cords, and was obviously, totally, hoarse and couldn’t do it. And these things happen. These are delicate people with delicate bodies. And we do not have a sophisticated cover system. We do have our American Series English performers, who are covering the role in Italian and, as happened this year, I put the American Series tenor into the Othello when I couldn’t get anybody else. So the show will go on. And we will not be left without anybody. But we do not hire two great super stars, one to sing it and one to cover it. And, at the last minute, you’ve got to take what’s available.
I’ve got to run.
I: (1:17:54) Right. I asked only for an hour, and you gave me much more. I do appreciate it. On behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, I want to thank you for participating in the project.
DG: Okay. It’s been valuable.
I: It has.