Though barely begun, Year 13 is already a big one for Paul Houghtaling, director of opera at the University of Alabama. Friday the professor and coordinator of voice for the UA School of Music found he had been named recipient of the Frederick Moody Blackmon-Sarah McCorkle Moody Outstanding Professor Award, one of the most prestigious given at the Capstone.
He's been nominated before, but heard the news just as he's starting his 13th season at UA, having joined the faculty in 2007. It's hardly his first honor here: In 2015 alone, he was chosen for the Morris Lehman Mayer Award, the Druid Arts Award for Music Educator of the Year, and Outstanding Commitment to Teaching Award, the latter given by UA’s National Alumni Association.
With the stellar aide of fund- and support-raising UA Opera Guild, Houghtaling's built the program to the point it has its own home, Bryant-Jordan Hall, and a new season featuring a pair of world premieres, one by UA alum Joseph Landers, and the other by renowned composer Michael Ching.
But while collaborations with one of the most innovative American composers, and with the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra and Alabama and Tuscaloosa bicentennial groups, stand out for the 2019-20 season, Houghtaling's easing things off in a subtler fashion, closer to home. Sunday he sang three selections, "Songs My Mother Taught Me" at Canterbury Episcopal Chapel, for the 10:30 a.m. service, using original sheet music from a family collection.
"My mother was a singer, and early influence obviously," Houghtaling said, growing up in Troy, New York. Unlike her son, who'd tour Europe and the United States as a bass-baritone, after undergrad and graduate voice studies at College of the Holy Cross, the New England Conservatory of Music, Hunter College and the City University of New York, his mom worked without technical training.
"But she had a beautiful, natural voice," he said. "I remember hearing her sing these songs, being four or five years old, being inspired. My mother had this angelic voice."
Even without traditional training, she sang professionally, for television, and churches. Later in life she gifted to him all her original sheet music, "original editions of this genre of American parlor music, sacred songs." He sang from those Sunday, on yellowed, heavy paper almost resembling parchment, one dating back to 1908.
"I've always wanted to do this, but I don't get to sing much on Sundays because I'm at my desk, or traveling," he said.
Members of the Opera Guild, knowing how Houghtaling speaks of his now-deceased parents, often wish aloud they could have met them.
"And the joke is, if my parents met the Guild, they would have said 'We didn't know that many people even liked you,'" Houghtaling said with a smile. Knowing what an angst-ridden type-A worrier her son could be, his mom commented once, following a performance: "You have such joy and abandon on stage. Too bad you have none of that in your real life."
Collections of voices gradually build, with a 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 Liederabend — German for evening of songs, or lieder recital — where Houghtaling will join with fellow UA voice faculty David Tayloe, tenor, Susan Williams, soprano, and new mezzo-soprano faculty member Alexis Davis-Hazell. That performance, in Bryant-Jordan, the former chapel on Bryce Lawn, will feature works by Schubert, Schumann, Liza Lehman and C.V. Stanford.
And rehearsals are well under way for Landers' three-act opera "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," based on the iconic Depression-era recounting of the lives of impoverished Hale County tenant farmers. The performance will be a joint production with the TSO, featuring projections of Walker Agee's famous photographs.
"It is a profoundly somber work," Houghtaling said. "... It opens with a funeral, ends with a funeral, and life unfolds in between. ... It is very profound, but the opera is at least full of hope, that even through suffering and strife, there's something to stay around for, something to hope for."
There will be a one-night only performance 7 p.m. Oct. 21 in the Moody Concert Hall, to be filmed by Alabama Public Television, for broadcast closer to the December bicentennial date. Tickets will be on sale through the TSO at www.tsononline.org, or by calling 752-5515.
Next up chronologically will be "An Afternoon of American Micro-Operas for Female Voices," featuring four short contemporary American compositions, 4 p.m. Nov. 24 in Bryant-Jordan.
"That's an informal, fun, performance," he said, "and I have all these women for can really, really sing. ... There is no such thing as too many sopranos. You work with your embarrassment of riches."
The always-packed holiday classic "Amahl and The Night Visitors" returns 3 p.m. Dec. 15 at Bryant-Jordan. Those latter two performances will be free of charge, again thanks to the Guild, Houghtaling said.
Then 2020 opens with "A Celebration of American Opera: Part II," including Ching's early "Leo," for jazz trio, a pair of contemporary American pieces, and the new work being created specifically for UA.
"People are still enjoying Mozart, people are still enjoying Verdi and Puccini, but around the country, every opera company is commissioning new operas by American composers," Houghtaling said. "Suddenly, there are composers making a living composing. ... Generally, composers are getting $1,000 a minute, but Michael's loving what he's doing, and he gave me a deal."
Most composers work with a librettist — Wagner being one of the most notable exceptions — but Ching's writing the libretto for this one as well as the music. More will be revealed about the premiere as the performance approaches, though Houghtaling could say it concerns an unusual experiment in empathy.
That collection will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27-28, with a 3 p.m. matinee March 1, in Bryant-Jordan. Tickets will be $20 general, $5 for students. For more, call 348-7111, or see www.uamusictix.com.
The UA opera year rounds out with "Scenic Ventures," one-act works directed by students, 3 p.m. April 5; "One Night Only," another popular annual, featuring Broadway, pop and jazz selections, 7:30 p.m. April 7; and the Druid City Opera Workshop, culmination of a training program that helps recruit new students from across the country, 7 p.m. May 28. Those three will be free of charge, in Bryant-Jordan. For more, see www.opera.music.ua.edu.
Reach Mark Hughes Cobb at email@example.com or 205-722-0201.