Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Houston Grand Opera Launches Expansive Plans for Wagner's Ring, Musicals ... - Houston Press (blog)

Photo by Felix Sanchez/HGO
Last season's Barber of Seville was a crowd pleaser. Let's see how Houston Grand Opera does with the next ambitious steps it's taking.
High notes weren't the only things soaring at this week's gala for the Houston Grand Opera when HGO made its case for more donations aided by stirring performances throughout the evening. Artistic and Music Director Patrick Summers is thinking bigger than ever and he wants all of Houston along for the ride.

OK, so HGO will be performing Wagner's Ring over the next few years starting in 2014. That's pretty ambitious right? But that's not enough for Summers; he announced to the gala group that he wants Houston to become known as a place where Wagner is done extremely well.

For those less than enthralled with the incredibly gifted but noted anti-Semite's lengthy works, the opera is also planning to present The Passenger, an exploration of the Holocaust set aside for almost four decades. And HGO will take its entire company to perform at Lincoln Center, Summers said.

Meanwhile, Summers wants to see the company dipping in more to American Musicals, starting with Showboat this season. Doesn't matter the genre, he says, if it's great music, they want to sing it.

Stepping pretty squarely into turf now owned locally by Theatre Under the Stars and Gexa Energy Broadway, HGO plans to do works like South Pacific, Carousel, Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music (yes! says Stephen Sondheim lovers who feel he doesn't get enough exposure in Houston.)

And treading even further into the playgrounds of other area theaters, by December 2014, HGO plans to launch Holiday Operas, something it hasn't done before. It plans to commission adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and It's a Wonderful Life. They even plan a more uncommon one, The House Without a Christmas Tree.

All these plans plus its core productions -- it starts its season in a few weeks with La Boheme -- and its young artist studio, community outreach with HGOco and its Nexus Initiative that underwrites costs of tickets, means the HGO needs some more money. The goal of its campaign started in 2007, is to raise at least $165 million by December 31, 2014. It has already raised about $106 million leaving $59 million to go.

The crowd, treated to the singing of Frederica von Stade and Albina Shagimuratova, with a crescendo ending by the HGO Studio Artists showing off the next generation of would-be stars, seemed more than ready to go along with the grand plans. Now someone just needs to win the Texas Lottery and deed a large chunk of the money over to HGO.

Three people rescued from Houston apartment fire - Houston Chronicle

Three people were rescued from their smoke-filled apartment in southwest Houston early Wednesday morning after a burning object was thrown into their living room.

The 1-alarm blaze broke out about 4:30 a.m. at the complex at 3435 Walnut Bend, according to Jay Evans, a spokesman for the Houston Fire Department. When firefighters arrived, they saw three people sticking their heads out of a window of a second-floor apartment. Firefighters put ladders along the side of the building and helped the people escape.

Nobody was injured in the small blaze that apparently started in the living room after an object was thrown into the window of the apartment.

Evans said the car of the woman had recently been set ablaze in the complex parking lot. There was no immediate information on whether the two fires were connected.

The woman, who said she was too scared to give her name, said she was watching television in her bedroom while her nephew and two sons were in a different part of the apartment.

"We heard a blast," she said. When she came out of the bedroom, she saw a small fire in the living room and called 911. She said she was able to escape the apartment on her own, but firefighters helped the rest of her family get out of the apartment. She said she has an idea who may have thrown the object into the window because she's had trouble before. The latest blaze has made her especially worried that something even worse could happen.

"I'm scared for my life," she said.

Arson investigators were trying to determine exactly what caused the fire.

Shuttle's coming today — how ya feel about that? - Houston Chronicle (blog)

Man, today’s a tough one.

For Houston, Space City, our city, the home of the 30-year space shuttle program, the place that trained the hundreds of astronauts who flew on the shuttles, there’s a lot to process today.

First of all, this really is the last hurrah for the shuttle program. After this flight, the shuttles will all have reached their final resting places in musuems in Florida, Virginia, New York and California. Heck, this second and final shuttle aircraft carrier ferrying Endeavour will be retired too, and used for spare parts to service the SOFIA mission.

So the shuttle program is really, truly and finally over. The orbiters are all gone. No mas.

Endeavour, in happier days. (NASA)

Then there’s that little bitty, more-than-niggling fact that none of the retired orbiters will be here, the home of the shuttle program. I’m not sure I’ve fully dealt with the loss, essentially, of an orbiter to a floating museum in New York City.

Which brings us to today’s flight. A cynic might get this implicit message from NASA:

Hey Houston, you didn’t get an orbiter â€" but we’ve got a couple of lovely parting gifts for you. There’s those shuttle seats, and we’re going to let you get to see an orbiter in flight.

For a day. And then it’s gone.

So yeah, it’s going to be really great to see Endeavour flying across Houston’s blue skies today. I’m going to make an effort to make sure my young girls get to see it, because they’ll never have a chance to see a shuttle fly again. But it’s going to be bittersweet.

And I’d understand those of you boycotting today’s viewing opportunities because, well, consolation prizes suck.

So I’m wondering, where’s your head at today, Houston? Looking up at the skies with pride? Or in a much more somber place?

100 Creatives 2012 Oliver Halkowich, Dancer and Performer - Houston Press (blog)

OliverHalkowich (A. Sarkar).jpg
Photo by Amitava Sarkar.
Oliver Halkowich in The Nutcracker. (Choreographer: Ben Stevenson)

At the young and tender age of 2, Oliver Halkowich, a transplanted "Floridian," began his dance training. Born in the Florida Keys, he studied with the Miami City Ballet School. At 14, he went to San Francisco and studied with the San Francisco Ballet School. After four years in San Francisco, he spent a year in Boston with Boston Ballet II. Boston Ballet II is a leading pre-professional program in residence at the Boston Ballet for performers aged 16 to 21. Ten years ago, he found his way to Houston, where he auditioned with Ben Stevenson. He landed the job and has been regularly seen with the Houston Ballet since.

What He Does: "I'm a dancer," says Halkowich. "I call myself a performer, and dance is an avenue for me to get onto stage and perform. That's what I love to do." However, there is more to his chosen career than just dancing. He wants "to entertain people," stating, "I'm out there to make people smile or to at least make them feel something for two hours." When he is on stage, his primary goal is to "get [the audience] out of their daily life and take them somewhere."

Why He Likes It: Performing is an obvious passion for Halkowich, who candidly affirmed, "I've always liked to be the center of attention." He enjoys dancing professionally because, simply put, he likes being on stage. Another motive is that he likes "to be someone else for a little while." He explains that when on stage, "you don't really see the audience" and that is how, like the audience, he can escape into his own world. This is what gives him his "chance to get away and pretend like [he's] somebody else, which is exciting."

If Not This, Then What: As a child and young adult, Halkowich was also involved in swimming, diving, gymnastics, karate, and the jazz and tap styles of dancing. "Before I went to San Francisco at 14, I was diving alongside of dance," he elaborates. "So, I'd kind of like to say that I would have been in London competing on the platform, but I doubt that would have been the case." Feeling that Olympic stardom wouldn't have been in his cards, he concedes that his "second big passion is food." With a sense of realism, he says "I probably would have found a way to eat more, talk about food more, and just surround myself in all things food."

Photo by Valerie Reeves, Art Institute of Houston North
Oliver Halkowich in The Sleeping Beauty. (Choreographer: Ben Stevenson)
If Not Here, Then Where: Halkowich freely admits, "I've always wanted to live in Manhattan." With resounding practicality, he divulges, "my sister lives in Manhattan, and it's not as glamorous as I kind of have it in my head. I know she struggles every day with that city, but to me it's still the be-all, end-all." Looking past New York City, he feels that "Europe is also intriguing. The dancing over there is just huge and so different from America."

What's Next: With a busy schedule over the next few months, the first place Houston audiences will see Halkowich again is in WOMEN @ ART, which opens September 20. He'll be in all ballets. He's also looking forward to the big premiere by Canadian choreographerAszure Barton. "We're all kind of in the unknown right now about what that ballet is going to be like, but it's definitely an extravaganza." In October, as a side project, he is joining forces with the contemporary dance group I.aM.mE, winners of America's Best Dance Crew's sixth season, to perform in Huntsville and New York City. He also asserts, "you'll see me as the prince in The Nutcracker in December."

More Creatives for 2012
(In order of most recently published; click here for the full page).

Lupe Mendez, poet and poem pusher

Jason Nodler, artistic director, playwright, director
Ana Treviño-Godfrey, musician

Matthew Detrick, classical musician
Travis Ammons, filmmaker
Florence Garvey, actress
Julia Gabriel, artist, designer and backpack maker

Rebecca French, choreographer and FrenetiCore co-founder

Kiki Neumann, found object folk artist
Flynn Prejean, Poster Artist
JoDee Engle, dancer
David Rainey, actor, artistic director and teacher
Geoff Hippenstiel, painter, art instructor
Jessica Janes, actress and musician
Dennis Draper, actor and director

Mat Johnson, novelist and tweeter
Orna Feinstein, printmaker and installation artist

Adriana Soto, jewelry designer
Domokos Benczédi, Noise and Collage Artist
Robert Boswell, Book Author, UH Prof
Patrick Turk, visual artist
Elizabeth Keel, playwright
Bob Martin, designer
Mary Lampe, short film promoter and developer
Nisha Gosar, Indian classical dancer
Jeremy Wells, painter
George Brock, theater teacher
Radu Runcanu, painter
Ariane Roesch, Mixed-Media
Sandie Zilker, art jewelry maker
Philip Hayes, actor

Patrick Palmer, painter
Ana Mae Holmes, Jewelry Designer
John Tyson, actor
Jerry Ochoa, violinist and filmmaker
Raul Gonzalez, painter, sculptor, photographer
Roy Williams, DJ of medieval music
Laura Burlton, photographer
David Peck, fashion designer
Rebecca Udden, theater director
Donae Cangelosi Chramosta, vintage designer handbag dealer
Paul Fredric, author
John Sparagana, photographer
Damon Smith, musician and visual artist
Geoff Winningham, photographer

Johnathon Michael Espinoza, visual artist
Jaemi Blair Loeb, conductor

Katya Horner, photographer
Johnathan Felton, artist
Nicoletta Maranos, cosplayer

Carol Simmons, hair stylist
Joseph "JoeP" Palmore, actor, poet
Greg Carter, director
Kenn McLaughlin, theater director
Justin Whitney, musician
Antone Pham, tattoo artist
Susie Silbert, crafts

Lauralee Capelo, hair designer
Marisol Monasterio, flamenco dancer
Carmina Bell, promoter and DJ
ReShonda Tate Billingsley, writer
Kiki Lucas, choreographer and director
J.J. Johnston, theater director
Mary Margaret Hansen, artist
Richard Tallent, photographer
Viswa Subbaraman, opera director
Emily Sloan, sculptor and performance artist
Sonja Roesch, gallery owner
Enrique Carreón-Robledo, conductor
Sandy Ewen, musician
Camella Clements, puppeteer

Wade Wilson, gallery owner

Magid Salmi, photographer
Carl Williams, playwright

Lin can't turn back expectations at first Rockets workout - Houston Chronicle (blog)

Jeremy Lin laughs as he answers questions about sleeping on Chandler parson's couch, being a franchise player, and if he's been to Houston's Chinatown. (Nick de la Torre/Chronicle)

It turns out Jeremy Lin is a shot-blocker, too. No matter how often he was asked, and he was asked repeatedly, Jeremy Lin swatted back every attempt to describe him as the face of the Rockets’ franchise.

The television commercials might argue otherwise, but for now, Lin was clearly still like so many others marveling at how far he had come so quickly.

“Every once in a while I’ll take a look back and just be like, “I can’t believe this is happening,” Lin said Tuesday after his first workout at Toyota Center. “I had one of those moments this morning, just sitting in the training room with the big Houston Rockets logo. It was like, I was appreciating the fact I get to wake up and play basketball for a living. Even the whole NBA thing. Yes Houston, but just to be able to play basketball for your job. Those are things I try to remind myself of every day.”

So determined not to let success change him, Lin spent his first night back in town sleeping on teammate Chandler Parsons’ couch, rating it just a touch behind his brothers’ and well ahead of former Knicks teammate Landry Fields’.

He said he has changed since his breakthrough season in New York, returning to Toyota Center fully recuperated from the torn meniscus in his left knee that ended his season and 10 pounds lighter.

He said he has been going through full workouts since early July, working with a shooting coach and different trainers for his lower and upper body. Lin said he especially worked on his left hand and rapid decision-making. And while insisting he would not separate himself from his teammates despite his notoriety, he said he will be more of a vocal leader than in his 12 days trying to make the team last December.

He also returns with the advantages of experiences like few others’.

“I learned a lot in New York,” Lin said. “It happened so fast I think I learned (about) basketball, but I think I learned a lot about people, a lot about life. That’s was huge. On the outside looking in, it might have been all about the glitz and the glamour, but it was really tough for me to handle everything, from all aspects.”

Smugglers want more money for daughter, mother says - Houston Chronicle

A grocery store parking lot in southwest Houston was to have been the spot where Amparo Centeno would be reunited with her teenage daughter.

Centeno had already paid more than $6,000 to have Hidalma, 16, brought from Nicaragua to the United States.

But on Tuesday, the traffickers suddenly demanded an additional cash bounty.

"They don't want to give me my daughter. They want more money," Centeno said, standing in the Fiesta parking lot along Westheimer near Dairy Ashford.

Centeno said her daughter is with a group of about 25 others somewhere in Houston who were smuggled into the country.

Houston police at the scene said the incident was under investigation but had no other details.

The mother said traffickers allowed her to speak with her daughter briefly over the phone while they made their demands. She said Hidalma sounded terrified.

"She said, 'I really want you to pick me up,' and that's when they (the smugglers) hung up," Centeno said.

Centeno, who now lives in San Antonio, said a co-worker told her she had a brother who could help bring Hidalma to the U.S. The daughter left Nicaragua two months ago.

The smugglers charged Centeno $5,000 to bring her daughter from Nicaragua to Mexico and an additional $1,700 for the final stage - the trip across the U.S. border and then her transportation to Houston.

About noon Tuesday, Centeno went to the grocery as directed and wired what she thought was the final $1,700 payment to a location in Jalisco in central Mexico.

But at the last minute, Centeno said the people holding her daughter in Houston demanded another $1,700 in cash.

"I don't have more money," she said.

Centeno went back inside the store and tried to halt the wire transfer so she could use the money to pay off the traffickers in Houston. But it was too late. The cash had already been picked up in Mexico.

Employees told her to call the police.

Centeno made the same trip from Nicaragua two years ago - the last time she saw her daughter. She recalled the traffickers treating her and the others roughly. They were regularly yelled at and beaten until the final payments were made for their release.

"I'm worried that the same thing is happening to her," Centeno said.

She decided to return to San Antonio and wait for the smugglers to again make contact.

"My worst fear," she said, "is that they're not going to give her to me."

Mayra Beltrán contributed to this report.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Let's not let student-loan debt wreck young lives - Houston Chronicle

We were thrilled this past week that the University of Houston cracked U.S. News and World Report's latest "Best Colleges" rankings (#187! Go, Coogs!). But the hometown pride in our hearts swelled even more to see two Houston institutions near the top of what, for many students, will be the magazine's most important list: "Least Debt." It's the best measure of whether students can truly afford the college they attend.

UH clocked in at an impressive #8 in the nation: For the 49 percent of the Class of '11 who took out loans, the average debt was $15,613 - about $10,000 less than the national average. Not far behind UH was Rice University at #12; for the 24 percent of its students who needed loans, average debt was $16,528.

We're also proud that, according to the Project on Student Debt, for the whole state of Texas, our students' average debt is lower than the U.S. average. A relatively affordable education means that more Texas kids can afford to chase their dreams. It also helps build the state's work force, keep our brightest high-school students in-state, and lure smart out-of-state kids to study here.

That's the good news. The bad news is that higher education in Texas is fast slipping out of reach for too many Texas families - and doing so precisely when, more than ever, a degree or certification is a poor kid's ticket to the middle class.

According to "The Cost of College," a new report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the burden of paying for higher-ed has fallen more to families over the last decade, while at the same time tuition costs have risen sharply

Both Texas and the federal government are cutting back on financial aid for the needy at precisely the time when Texas families are least able to cover the spiraling cost of education. In the last decade, poverty among families with children has skyrocketed. Between 2000 and 2011, CPPP reports, the number of public-school kids eligible for free or reduced-price lunches rose by a staggering 45.5 percent, to 2.9 million students. Obviously, a family that can't afford a school lunch can't afford tuition, fees and expensive textbooks. Maybe, to make ends meet, the student takes on a heavy burden of loans - loans that can haunt him for the rest of his life, and will have to be paid off even if he isn't able to complete his degree, or graduates into a lousy economy and can't find a job.

And maybe the kid works - which, up to 20 hours a week, we heartily approve. But studies show that more hours than that, though often necessary to cover bills, cut too deeply into a student's ability to study. According to the CPPP, more than half the students who drop out of college report that they couldn't handle the stress of working and going to school at the same time.

What can Texas do to help students, and grow the work force that our economy needs? For starters, it can follow its own higher education plan. "Closing the Gaps by 2015," the plan that the Texas Higher Education Board adopted in 2000, recommended greater, not less, financial aid for low-income students. A good start would be fully funding the state's TEXAS Grant program, which at present can afford grants for fewer than 70 percent of the needy students who qualify.

Higher education shouldn't be only for the rich. And given the collision of our state's growing low-income population, and our economy's growing need for skilled workers and college graduates, we can't afford to rest on our laurels.