As a librettist, I thought the idea of setting an opera in the Rothko Chapel seemed preposterous. The much hallowed place in Houston, considered by many to be one of the greatest achievements in mid-twentieth-century art, doubles as a gallery exhibiting Mark Rothko's paintings and as a sanctuary of quiet and contemplation. It is where the merest whisper can incur the most censorious sneers from fellow visitors. Setting an opera in the chapel seemed almost antithetical to an art form in which characters raise their voices—often very loudly. How would this place "sing?"
But well over a decade ago, HGOco, an offshoot of the Houston Grand Opera, established "Song of Houston," a program created to encourage librettists and composers to write new works that examine aspects of life in the company's hometown city. In 2015, composer Laura Kaminsky persuaded co-librettist Kimberly Reed and me to apply for the program, and suggested we consider the Rothko Chapel as a possible setting for the opera we would create.
Before I visited the chapel, I researched its history to help find a way to transform the idea of a setting into a story. John and Dominique de Menil, key figures in Houston's contemporary art scene, were great admirers of the work of Mark Rothko (1903–1970) and in 1964, Ms. Menil traveled to New York and approached the artist in his studio with the idea of commissioning a space dedicated entirely to his paintings.
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WRITTEN BY MARK CAMPBELL
PHOTOGRAPHY BY HICKEY-ROBERTSON
This story appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of MILIEU.