Prominent 17th-century French actor and playwright Molière is often credited with saying, “Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.” Whether that’s true or not, Houston-based philanthropist Franci Neely clarifies that you don’t need an unlimited credit line to enjoy an opus. “Anyone can appreciate opera,” she says.
“It doesn’t take studying opera or being exposed to opera as a kid; I certainly was not. I didn’t know anything about the operatic tradition. It doesn’t take having prior knowledge or experience with it. It’s an art form that anybody can enjoy.”
Franci Neely, a retired trial lawyer and experienced world traveler, attended her first opera in her 30s. She became enchanted with the whole experience, from the dramatic sets and costumes to the powerful singing and sweeping orchestral arrangements.
The philanthropist is an active advocate for the arts and encourages everyone who can experience opera sooner than she did to do so. “Don’t be put off by the notion that you won’t get it or they sing in a funny way,” advises Neely. “Don’t be intimidated. Go in, read the program notes, and let yourself go and just experience something and be open to it.”
It truly is a labor of love for all involved in a production. The late Maria Callas was one of the most prominent and renowned opera singers of the 20th century. She once said, “An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It stays in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I’ve left the opera house.”
It’s time to ditch preconceived notions about the dramatic presentation set to music. “I think people would be surprised, especially at some of these new operas,” says Neely. “At the Metropolitan Opera and Houston Grand Opera, there’s a lot of commissioning of new work with very current, timely themes.”
A Modern Masterpiece: Jake Heggie’s Newest Opera
One such work is Jake Heggie’s new opera, Intelligence. The melding of words, music, and dance seamlessly tells a harrowing tale of an unlikely friendship, secret education, and espionage based on real-life events during the American Civil War. It is Heggie’s 10th opera.
The opus, created by the talented trio of composer Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, and director/choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, is inspired by the true story of a woman from a prominent Confederate family who runs a pro-Union spy ring. She sends another woman — who was educated despite being born into slavery — to work in the Confederate White House. The secretly literate enslaved woman’s covert spy operation helps turn the tide for the Union troops.
Intelligence makes its Houston Grand Opera-commissioned world debut on Oct. 20, 2023 and runs through Nov. 3, 2023. Franci Neely, a longtime friend and supporter of Heggie’s, helped bring the American epic to the stage. “It’s extraordinary,” she says.
This is the first time the Houston Grand Opera will open its season with a world premiere performance. Intelligence runs through Nov. 3. Conductor Kwame Ryan makes his Houston Grand Opera debut with this production and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton leads the talented cast.
“I’ve had the great fortune [to have] heard the music in progress,” says Neely. “And it’s going to be a stunner. It’s going to make huge news.”
Franci Neely: A Supporter of Opera Across America
New York City’s Metropolitan Opera will open its season with Heggie’s first-ever opera, Dead Man Walking, which he created with librettist Terrence McNally. “I’ll be in New York for the opening,” says Neely. “I’m so thrilled.”
The new staging runs from Sept. 26 through Oct. 21, 2023. It’s based on the 1993 memoir by Helen Prejean about her experiences as a nun fighting for the redemption of a death row inmate. Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn starred in the 1995 movie based on the same book. The stage production, told through music and singing, is “about redemption,” says Neely.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato stars as Sister Helen opposite bass-baritone Ryan McKinny in the role of death-row inmate Joseph De Rocher. The Met’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin directs the orchestra for the haunting new presentation.
Heggie told PBS, “The music’s all about creating character and giving that singer something to connect with the audience. And so, on a small scale, that’s what songs are about. So transferring over to opera because it’s always been about character and psychology. It was actually a much easier leap than I thought.”
Neely is enthralled by the deft storytelling. “It really presents the arguments for and against capital punishment, for and against the death penalty,” says the former lawyer. “It’s a brilliantly moving work. I’ll be happy to celebrate with Jake.” In fact, Neely has attended the premieres of several of Heggie’s operas, including when his Moby-Dick opened at the Dallas Opera in 2010.
“I like to take on projects that terrify me,” Heggie told radio station WFMT. “I’ll know I can do them, but won’t know how the hell I’m going to pull them off.” That was true about adapting American novelist Herman Melville’s 209,117-word novel Moby-Dick, published in 1851.
“When I read the book, I realized it was overflowing with music. The writing is lyrical. It’s big, and it’s bold, it’s emotional. It’s about intimate journeys in a vast landscape, which I think are the best stories for opera. Intimate stories with large forces at work beyond anyone’s control. And it’s also people wrestling with their identity and their place in the world. All these big, universal meditations are extraordinarily operatic,” Heggie stated.
A longtime supporter of the arts, Neely would agree. She had aspirations of being an actress but decided to pursue a career in law “to make a living and support myself,” she explains. But that doesn’t mean her love of spectacle ever deserted her. “Opera is so dramatic. Some would say it’s ridiculously dramatic,” she muses. “But the feeling you get through the musical instruments, including the human voice, the sets, the emotion that exudes an operatic stage, is something that’s very appealing to me.”
For those that want in on the drama, Neely suggests, “Go to [Georges Bizet’s] Carmen — the music is unbelievably beautiful and singable. Start with ones that are accessible and then dive into others. It’s really wonderful.”