In an Opera About Civil War Spies, Dancers Help Drive the Drama

In a theater at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan one recent afternoon, a rehearsal for the coming opera “Intelligence,” about Civil War-era spies, was about to begin.

But as the stage lights came on and the music blared, there were no singers in sight. Instead, six dancers from Urban Bush Women, a dance troupe in Brooklyn, were front and center, locking arms, jumping into the air and improvising movements inspired by African traditions.

“I want to see if we can find that physical charge,” Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the founder of Urban Bush Women, who is directing and choreographing the opera, told the dancers. “Let it breathe. Let it flow.”

“Intelligence,” which opens the season at Houston Grand Opera on Friday, tells the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a member of an elite Confederate family, who operates a pro-Union spy ring with the help of Mary Jane Bowser, an enslaved woman in her household. The opera, with music by Jake Heggie and a libretto by Gene Scheer, offers a meditation on the legacy of slavery and the overlooked role of women in the war.

“Intelligence,” more than eight years in the making, stands out for another reason. While dance is an afterthought or an embellishment in many operas, it drives this drama, with eight performers from Urban Bush Women sharing the stage with seven singers, including the mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Van Lew and the soprano Janai Brugger as Bowser. The dancers serve as a Greek chorus, falling like soldiers on a battlefield or passing secrets along a chain.

“It’s a big story, and dancers are an integral part of the storytelling force,” Zollar said. “They’re not just coming in for their number or routine.”

The dance-centered approach may be unusual, but it is a natural fit at Houston Grand Opera. For decades the company has been known for innovation, helping birth important 20th-century works like Leonard Bernstein’s “A Quiet Place” (1983) and John Adams’s “Nixon in China” (1987).

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is directing and choreographing “Intelligence” for Houston Grand Opera. “It’s a big story, and dancers are an integral part of the storytelling force,” she said.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Under David Gockley, Houston Grand Opera’s general director from 1972 to 2005, the company embarked on an ambitious effort to commission dozens of new works and garnered an international reputation for risk-taking. “Intelligence” is the company’s 75th premiere — and the fourth opera by Heggie to debut in Houston.

Khori Dastoor, Houston’s general director and chief executive since 2021, said the company aimed to build on its legacy.

“We can be an important opera company, but also maintain our nimbleness and spirit of innovation,” she said. “We aren’t having debates about whether change is good. We’re always thinking about what’s next.”

Houston Grand Opera’s agility served it well during the pandemic. While many cultural organizations are still struggling to win back audiences, Houston is in a relatively strong position, with a budget this fiscal year of about $33 million, compared with about $24 million before the pandemic. Ticket sales were up about 8 percent last season, compared with the 2018-19 season, even as subscriptions fell. Donations have been robust; earlier this year, the company secured a $22 million gift, the largest in its history.

And audiences remain enthusiastic. The company has been working to draw more Black, Latino and Asian residents by venturing outside the opera house more often. Last season, it partnered with 140 community groups and presented operas at 32 locations across Houston. On a night in late October, “Intelligence” will be performed before an audience of nearly 2,000 primarily low-income high school students.

“Most of our audience at Houston Grand Opera does not experience us in the opera house; they experience us in their neighborhood or at a school,” said Patrick Summers, the company’s artistic and music director. “We let people in our own community tell us their stories.”

The artistic focus is also shifting, even as classics like Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” remain staples of the repertoire.

Last season the company premiered “Another City,” a chamber opera about homelessness in Houston that is based on interviews with residents, inside a nondenominational Christian church and service organization. And in 2021, the company staged the premiere of “The Snowy Day,” an opera based on the 1962 children’s book known as one of the first to prominently feature a Black protagonist.

“Every opera company is really a reflection and expression of their city,” said Dastoor, the first woman to serve as general director. “I want our operas to look and feel and sound like Houston.”

“Intelligence,” which was originally scheduled to premiere in 2021 but was delayed by the pandemic, highlights neglected voices, with themes that connect to modern-day social issues.

Zollar rehearsing with Vincent Thomas, left, Johnson and Medina.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Heggie got the idea from a docent who approached him during an event at the Smithsonian in Washington and suggested that he look into Van Lew and Bowser for his next opera.

“I started Googling their names, and my jaw was just on the floor,” he said. “I had been looking for what the next story would be, and I knew it was right because I felt this fire and this shiver.”

Heggie turned to Scheer, a frequent collaborator, for the libretto, and he approached Houston Grand Opera about commissioning the work, encouraged by its history of championing new music.

“You can’t guarantee success with a new piece,” he said. “But Houston is willing to give it a chance.”

Heggie said he was given a choice early on, based on budget considerations, to feature a dance company or a chorus. He had already written operas with prominent choruses and said he thought that the seven singers of “Intelligence” could together sound like a chorus.

He thought dance would be a better fit, he said, a way to fill in some of the “question marks in the storytelling” arising from the limited records of Van Lew and Bowser’s intelligence-gathering operation.

“Dancers can explore the emotional world of this — really where there aren’t words but there can be movement that might give us clues,” he said. He wrote a percussive score to match.

Heggie reached out to Zollar, the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2021, who founded Urban Bush Women in 1984 as a way to elevate the stories of women in the African diaspora. She was hesitant at first — she had never directed an opera — but started to see connections between opera and dance. It helped that she was a fan of Heggie’s first opera, “Dead Man Walking,” which premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2000 and opened the Metropolitan Opera season this fall.

Heggie and Scheer visited Zollar in Tallahassee, Fla., where she teaches at Florida State University.

“They were really interested in the points of view that I would bring to the story, not just as a name attached,” she said. “And the dance. They definitely wanted the dance.”

The creative team for “Intelligence” includes the conductor Kwamé Ryan, the set designer Mimi Lien and the costume designer Carlos Soto.

In preparation for the opera, Zollar and other members of the team visited the South for research. They toured the White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., visited the former site of the Van Lew mansion and walked the Richmond Slave Trail.

Zollar said those visits offered a “spiritual grounding” for the opera and a reminder that the country was still grappling with the legacy of slavery. “It’s still vibrating,” she said. “It’s still with us in the air.”

In choreographing the opera, she drew inspiration from a variety of sources, including the African writing system called Nsibidi, as well as the Kongo cosmogram, a symbol from the BaKongo belief system in West Central Africa.

Zollar said she wanted her dancers to be a spiritual force in the opera: “They are what’s whispering in your ear, what’s around us that we cannot see.” From left, Cook, Gaskins, Medina, Johnson, Ware and Earle.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Zollar said she wanted the dancers of Urban Bush Women to be a spiritual force in the opera; she calls them the “is, was and will,” referring to their ability to speak to the present, past and future. They play with notions of entanglement and secrecy, echoing the themes of the opera.

“They are what’s whispering in your ear,” she said, “what’s around us that we cannot see.”

At the Guggenheim rehearsal, she encouraged the dancers to draw on their own influences — club dancing, jazz, Cuban music. She worked with Mikaila Ware, a member of Urban Bush Women, to refine a sequence of jumps and falls.

“It’s so beautiful,” Zollar said. “Can you give me a little bit more suspension? Can you give me a little bit more air?”

A central challenge for Zollar was adjusting to the scale of opera. She has been fine-tuning the dancers’ movements so they resonate at the Brown Theater in Houston, which has more than 2,400 seats.

Having the backing of a prominent opera company, she said, allowed her to spend the time necessary to immerse herself in the work. She added she was feeling a mix of “sheer terror and excitement” ahead of the premiere.

“Usually, I operate on prayers, spit and gaffer’s tape,” she said. “Now we can fully realize our vision. Now we can create something new.”

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