Actually, I don’t even like to use the word ‘opera,’ ” says David Gockley, the young general director of the Houston Grand Opera. “It has such an archaic connotation, something just for the wealthy elite or 19th-century Italians.” Instead, he urges, “Let’s get rid of the pretensions and start thinking of this as popular American entertainment.”
Gockley, 37, prefers the term “music theater,” and a prime example is the HGO’s recent production Willie Stark, a retelling of the rise and fall of a Southern demagogue based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 novel, All the King’s Men. Composed by Carlisle Floyd and directed by Hal Prince, Willie struck some critics as having more dramatic pizzazz than distinguished music, and as leaning heavily toward Broadway or Texas. But Gockley has taken his opera on the road anyhow, and its three-week run at Washington’s Kennedy Center concludes this week. It is not the first venture away from home for his Houston company. It put on a revival of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha in New York in 1975 and won a Tony for its revival of Porgy and Bess the following year.
“One tremendous advantage I had when I came here,” Gockley admits, “was that people in Houston had no preconceived ideas about what opera ought to be.” As a result, Gockley could combine such traditional fare as Carmen and La Bohème with musicals like Hello, Dolly! and Show Boat, and even move further afield with a multimedia Lulu, a seminude Traviata and a restaging of The Magic Flute using fantastic sets by children’s illustrator Maurice Sendak.
To spread the word that opera can be made accessible, the HGO also gives free outdoor operas and runs a touring Texas Opera Theatre. “Other companies spend 90 percent of the money on performing and 10 percent on promotion,” he explains. “We do it about 50-50. You have to be popular to succeed.” HGO unabashedly hypes its season with TV ads by Henry Kissinger and Kirk Douglas, and for Willie Stark threw in a free beer rally as well. As a result, its budget now approaches $7 million, and HGO under Gockley has bloomed from a precarious provincial operation to the nation’s fifth largest company.
As a kid in the Spartan coal-mining hills of Montgomery County, Pa., Gockley didn’t exactly sit home Saturday afternoons listening to opera. His dad was the high school football coach, and young David dug Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. He majored in music at Brown University, where a professor surprised him by suggesting he try singing opera. The advice took, and Gockley wound up at the New England Conservatory of Music and then the Santa Fe Opera, preparing for a career as a baritone. Performing turned out to be too traumatic and he switched to management under Santa Fe’s brilliant director John Crosby, whom Gockley credits for “humanizing opera with solid theatrical productions.”
Gockley left Santa Fe for an MBA at New York’s Columbia University. Following a brief fund-raising job at Lincoln Center, he was hired in 1970 as business manager by the dispirited and very mediocre Houston Opera. Two years later, at age 29, he became the youngest general director of an opera company in the country. Since then he has increased subscriptions by 70 percent to 13,000 annually and upped the company’s performances to almost 400 per year.
The driving Gockley has always been prone to flare-ups. But company members claim he has mellowed considerably since his second marriage (his first ended in divorce in 1976), to soprano Adair Lewis, who retired professionally to “become a part-time singer and full-time mother.” The couple are the parents of two daughters, Meredith and Lauren Elizabeth.
Gockley agrees that fatherhood has made him more easygoing, especially now that his first child—the HGO—can stand on its own feet. But now there is talk of a new Houston opera house, and there is always more ground to cover. “It’s one thing when you’re the youngest; people are apt to forgive a lot,” says Gockley with a grin. “But when it’s 10 years later and you’re still the youngest director, then your reputation is really on the line.”