I like to look at the Heights as a self-contained unit. While I am definitely a "city girl" I like to think that the Heights could be enough if I needed it to be. And someday I might. If the empty lots on Yale and Studewood develop the way the rumors say they will, I imagine traffic so rage inducing I may rarely venture south of I-10.
My husband I tested this self-containment this past weekend with a Heights date night. One of the great things about Houston is the easy access to amazing performing arts. Seeing a show in Houston is a great date night, but parking downtown can be a pain and, honestly, there aren't as many restaurants close to the performance venues as there could be. You end up parking twice and it can be an expensive inconvenience. Plus, when your babysitter punches in for the night, you want as little travel time as necessary.
So, can the Heights offer a similar experience with in itself? Oh! Oh, yes it can! With a plethora of restaurant choices, the dinner part has become easy. And with Opera In The Heights, the show is easy as well. Sure, "Oh!" is much smaller than the Houston Grand Opera but it is so completely in scale with the size of the Heights versus the size of Houston proper. Where the HGO is indeed grand, an organization well respected in the Opera world and on par with the country's other Opera companies, the Oh! is also well regarded in opera circles. Oh! is, however, regarded as a launching pad for up and coming talent. According to their website,"This season three of our young stars moved on to the New York City Opera and Metropolitan Opera. Over 40 recognized singers credit us as instrumental in their advancement." That is big stuff.
To sit through an opera, you must have a full belly. Even though the doors opened at 7, Hubby and I knew we would need to eat before hand. We also knew it would have to be quick, taste good and have wine. Luckily for us, Glasswall is right down the road. We love Glasswall for several reasons: the food, the proximity to our house, the atmosphere, the amazing wine list, and for nights like our date night, the ability to get in early, have a real meal and be out with time to spare. We walked in the door, no reservation, at 6 (they open at 5:30) and were out by 7 without feeling like we were ever in a hurry.
The seasonal menu had changed since the last time we were there and we were thrilled by some of the new choices. Hubs decided to start with the soup, a nice Black Eyed Pea that was "spicy and piquant." I had the only salad option on the menu- Boston and spinach with a creamy dressing and pistachios. Excellent. We enjoyed these with a couple glasses of Bird In Hand sparkling pinot. I discovered sparkling reds a few years ago in Australia and am giddy like a school girl at their increasing popularity here. This one was more pink than red, but delicious.
For dinner, we switched roles a little. I always get a steak when we go out, while my husband is usually attracted to things like duck, rabbit, lamb. He'll surely get an Osso Buco if it's on the menu. He also loves a good short rib. This night, I found I really wanted the short rib. However, we believe 2 people at one table should never have the same dish. I asked what he was going to have and when he came back with "the strip steak" I knew fate was steering me to the short rib! As always, both meals were fabulous but there was a stand out: the blue cheese onion that accompanied the strip steak. Oh my! It was so simple but the taste was out of this world. I will be experimenting with onions and blue cheese at home in the very near future!
Check out that gooey, melty blue cheese onion right there. Nom nom nom.
Perfectly tender boneless short rib, just sweet enough to stand out against the awesome gratin potatoes. Oh yum!
Even within the hour we had to eat, we still found time for dessert. Plus, we both had some stellar August Briggs pinot noir left in our glasses (but none in the bottle). I'll pretty much always order whatever bread pudding they have on the menu. It's always a perfect ending. Hubby got the pear tart. He was jealous of mine. All that goodness in an hour and free valet right outside the door.
Bellies full of good food and warm from good wine, we headed ever so slightly north west to Heights Boulevard and historic Lambert Hall, home of Opera In The Heights. The show was Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. To be honest, I had never heard of this opera before, but then again I am not a fan of opera in the sense that I know anything about the individual operas. I am more of an I-like-to-go-to-any-live-performances-I-can kind of opera fan. I like exposure to a little bit of everything. The great thing about opera these days is there are screens above the stage where you can read a translation and keep up with the story. It makes it so much more accessible to everyone (although I still get that image of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, red dress, leaning over the edge of the box and crying, even though she had no idea what anyone was saying).
The gorgeous architecture of Lambert Hall
Once Heights Christian Church, the hall is on the National Register of Historic Places
When we pulled up to the building, we found that we could not park in the small lot adjacent to the hall. No fear- unmetered, ample street parking was available. We walked up to "Will Call" which was a table under an easy up at the bottom the handicap ramp in to the hall. Our tickets were in a small envelope with our name written on the front. Walking up the steep steps of the old church, the whole thing had a very community theater feel about it. It was nice, that feeling. Everyone was happy to be there. It wasn't tony or uppity. It was welcoming and, yes, felt very accessible.
We passed the "concession table" where volunteers were selling soft drinks, coffee and bottle water. There were baked goods on a tray. Everything was the same price. The Starbucks franchise that donated the coffee had business cards out on the table and you got free coffee with the purchase of an Oh! mug. Did I mention the quaint community theater feel already?
Volunteers sell beverages and goodies in the entrance to the hall
Row J, Seats 14 and 15. In a large downtown performance venue these would be great seats, very close to the front. In Lambert Hall, they are the next to the last row on Orchestra level. But they are still great seats. This is the kind of intimate space where there are no bad seats. You're right there, up close and personal. The orchestra is with you on the floor, almost like part of the audience itself. The stage is small and sparse but opera is more about the people than the scenery. A simple desk, a couple of chairs and a small chest of drawers were all that were needed to set the scene for each Act. And the sound system. Yeah, there isn't one. The intimacy of the hall renders amplification completely unnecessary.
View of the stage from Row J
The orchestra sits at the bottom left corner of the auditorium
Now, again, I am no opera aficionado but I thing I can judge when a performance is good- sounds good, looks good, well acted. With opera, the acting is as important as the singing because there really isn't a lot of dialogue. The expressions on the performers faces tell as much of the story as the words they sing. I thoroughly enjoyed the performances and I think, when you do not know a lot about opera, your comprehension of the story when you leave is a testament to the performers. John Roger as Riccardo and Lara Tillotson Joyal as Amelia were brilliant. Lara, Soprano, was outstanding and captivating. John, Tenor, had the acting skills to really make his Count believable. I left with an understanding of the story, having laughed and cried by the time it was over. The laughing was, in large part, due to the wonderfully quirky performance of Soo-Ah Park as Oscar, Riccardo's page. Her voice was amazing and it almost functioned as a punctuation mark for every scene she was in.
The beautiful stained glass windows of Lambert Hall
My husband, who first introduced me to Opera on a date to see La Boheme at the Houston Grand Opera, is giddy with excitement at the prospect of seeing opera more regularly. With tickets starting at $20, Oh! makes opera date night doable for pretty much everyone. The best deal going is the season ticket package for the last 2 rows of the balcony: $68! Four amazing operas for $68. Where else can you get this caliber of performance for that amount of money?
Opera in The Heights is a great starting point for people who don't know much about opera but would like to check it out. It's accessible, with a great community feel (Did you know residents in the Heights offer room and board to performers who come from out of town?) and a really wonderful way to experience our neighborhood at its finest. While Oh! is going strong, with 2 shows of Un Ballo in Maschera sold out, it's still a small operation and can use all the support it can get. And it's ripe for a next generation of budding opera lovers to join. La Boheme is coming up at the end of March and beginning of April, with 8 total performances. Tickets start at $28, with $10 special for students. Make it a date!