HOUSTON – The Houston Grand Opera is bringing something very special to Houston, the world premiere of an opera based on the little-Known true story of two unlikely pro-union, Civil War spies.
The HGO-commissioned, ‘Intelligence,’ tells the story of Mary Jane Bowser who was born into slavery and Elizabeth Van Lew, a woman from a prominent confederate family.
Houston Life’s Melanie Camp went backstage at rehearsals and spoke with soprano Janai Bruger, who plays Mary Jane and mezzo-soprano, Jamie Barton plays who plays Elizabeth.
“It’s exciting to do research and dive into history,” said Bruger of playing Bowser. Adding that much of what Bowser did in her life after the Civil War has gone unrecorded as she, “had to change her name quite a bit,” as a result of the work she had done in support of the Union.
Composer Jake Heggie told Boulder-based classical music blog, Sharps and Flatirons that he learned about the story of Mary Jane Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew through a docent at the Smithsonian Institution – who said this should be Heggie’s next opera.
Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer workshopped the opera at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 2021 along with founder of the Brooklyn based Urban Bush Women dance company, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who is Director and Choreographer of Intelligence.
“This is a story that should be known more. That women were very much involved in war in different kinds of ways. And, this idea of spies, working as abolitionists, and working to support the union army but being one of the richest women in the confederate, in Richmond, Virginia who was working on behalf of the union army, it is absolutely thrilling,” Zollar said on Houston Life.
The opera is a fusion of dance, words, and music.
“Jakes music is stunning, and the singers are beyond belief,” said Zollar who brings dancers from Urban Bush Women to the HGO’s stage for the production. Zollar told Houston Life the dancers are “integrated in the body of this work as storytellers, as physical storytellers.”
Barton is alumna of Houston Grand Opera’s Butler Studio, returning to Houston for premiere of this new opera she said she is “so excited for the Houston audience to get to see this. But, for the world at large this is an important piece.”
“I want people to be engaged and curious. Whatever rises up as a part of the experience, or whatever questions come up, or feelings, that they become curious about that and understand that the work has provoked something,” said Zollar.
Tickets for ‘Intelligence’ and subscriptions to Houston Grand Opera’s entire incredible season are on sale now at houstongrandopera.org or call (713) 228-6737
Houston Life’s Melanie Camp takes us behind the scenes to rehearsals. Watch the videos above.