Whenever a person or organization embarks on a risky venture, there’s a moment when it becomes apparent that the venture has succeeded or failed. For musical conductor Viswa Subbaraman, the artistic director and cofounder of Opera Vista in Houston, that moment came this past October, when he surveyed the capacity crowd at the debut of Somtow Sucharitkul’s Bollywoodstyle opera The Silent Prince.
“The Silent Prince was the biggest project we’ve ever done,” says Subbaraman. “To see that the performance sold out and to watch the reaction of the audience—that’s why we do this. We took on a major world première and knocked it out of the ballpark.”
Subbaraman has been the driving force behind the launch of Opera Vista. “It’s opera with a twist,” he says. “We have a younger professional audience base than most opera companies, and through our educational outreach programs like Opera 101, we are making an old art form cool again.”
Now in its fourth season, Opera Vista is dedicated to performing new operas written by contemporary composers and to expanding the audience for opera. Its monthly Opera 101 series takes place at a café and wine bar that caters to young professionals. Subbaraman introduces participants to components of the operatic art form in a setting and tone that demystifies the music.
“When people think of opera they envision a very long evening spent listening to performers singing in languages they don’t understand,” he says. “Once you begin to understand opera’s vocabulary and historical perspective, you realize it’s a pretty incredible art form.”
Subbaraman’s operatic awakening occurred during his sophomore year at Duke. Although he signed up for a premed curriculum, he took music classes to learn more about the history and theory of music, as well as the mechanics of composition and conducting. During his spring semester, he traveled to Vienna with the Duke Wind Symphony, where he was captivated by the world of professional orchestras. “We had rehearsals in the morning, classes in the afternoon, and performances at night,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, I realized that I was pursuing the wrong career, that what I really wanted to be doing was music.”
After graduating he served as assistant conductor of the Orchestre National de France, where he worked with conductor Kurt Masur, music director emeritus of the New York Philharmonic. But he increasingly felt a need to combine his passion for opera with an educational-outreach component for people in their twenties and thirties.
Opera Vista was founded in 2007 and has been gaining fans ever since. Its productions regularly receive rave reviews in the press; it earned Houston Press’ 2010 Mastermind Award for “artists, innovators and entrepreneurs who are changing our creative and cultural landscape”; and the company has been invited to present The Silent Prince in Bangkok later this spring.
Opera Vista also has earned acclaim for its innovative Vista Competition for new operas. The company performs excerpts of the semifinalists’ works before a live audience. During the finals, audience members have the opportunity to query composers about their work, and judges offer critiques. The composer of the winning opera, determined by audience vote, receives a cash award and a chance to have the opera performed as part of Opera Vista’s regular season.
“The Vista Competition fulfills the dual goal of providing an opportunity for composers to be seen and critiqued and showing audiences how these things are put together,” says Subbaraman. “We’re adding an element of fun that helps break the intimidation factor. Opera is not nearly as scary as people think it is.”
Viswa Subbaraman '98
January 31, 2011