Khori Dastoor brings performing and business experience to role as HGO general director

Shaun H. Ruff


Framed posters and art sit on the floor of Khori Dastoor’s office at Houston Grand Opera. Posters for HGO’s 2021-22 season are visible, lending the space a brilliant wash of crimson, with posters for forthcoming works like “The Wreckers.” But the office itself remains a work in progress, due in part to the fact that Dastoor finished out a season as general director at Opera San Jose before moving to Houston full time at the end of last year.

“I’m just starting to decorate in here,” she says.

Clearly, Dastoor hit the ground running as HGO’s general director and CEO. As we walk the stage of the Wortham Theater Center, moving around the wooden architecture comprising the set for “Romeo and Juliet,” she instructs me to look up.

Not 48 hours earlier, I’d seen HGO’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot” and wondered where the grandiose lattice that opens the second act was.

And there it is, hovering above the stage.

“It takes about 260 people to do ‘Turandot,’” she says. “And there are about 90 bodies onstage with ‘Romeo.’ With ‘Romeo’ there were all-new costume builds. So it’s very busy. But I walk these halls and I feel this relentless optimism. People here remember how bad the past two years have been, when we couldn’t do things like this. The people who work here, they treat jobs like an identity.”

Those parallel productions certainly announced the fullness of HGO’s return after a period during which the organization had to shut down live performances and find new platforms to present its art.

Dastoor stepped in after her predecessor, Perryn Leech, announced his departure in late 2020 after 14 years.

For a few months, when she took over late last year, Dastoor flew from the Third Coast to the West Coast while she completed her duties at Opera San Jose. But this year, Dastoor has been fully immersed in HGO, navigating a lingering pandemic and also trying to envision what the organization can be in the 21st century.

She says her interview with HGO included a meeting with David Gockley — HGO’s general manager from 1972 to 2005 — which proved crucial to her interest in the job.

“He said the first thing was, ‘It has to be first class,’” she says. “He said that wasn’t to be taken for granted.

“I feel like the Gockley era provided a proof of concept around American opera, which now feels settled. Like maybe it was a frontier, but now it’s established and we have to consider its relevance to the community — who’s in our audience and why. Houston Grand Opera can do what he did, which is to show opera as something connected to the way we live our lives today and how we’ll live them tomorrow. Houston should be a model for the rest of the country in serving the whole community.”

Dastoor offers a fresh perspective on running a legacy opera company. Certainly she came to HGO with a business background at Opera San Jose and also having worked as associate director of Packard Humanities Institute. But she also graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music and has performed around the world. So when Dastoor let loose a few notes from the stage of the Wortham, she did so as one who has spent time onstage.

Having known the response generated by performance as a performer, Dastoor has a sharp interest in how HGO presents itself going forward.

She spoke reverently about a performance late last year by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann. Dastoor saw an elderly couple try to make an early exit, so the husband could navigate his wheelchair before passageways were clogged.

“I think Jonas did eight encores,” Dastoor says. “Eight. So they kept going up, then coming back down. Jonas was doing this amazing and esoteric repertoire. The audience was losing their minds. I called my husband and said, ‘When you get here, you won’t believe it.’ To have this community respond this way, it felt special.”

Dastoor cited both “Turandot” and “Romeo and Juliet” as “showing the truly excellent organization we have here. These are pieces that demand everything of a company.”

She saw in the former, an opportunity to present older operas and use some aspects of their creation as talking points for contemporary complications. “Turandot” has Persian roots, and the story flowed through a Chinese narrative before becoming an Italian opera. HGO brought legendary director Robert Wilson back to his native Texas for the production.

“I feel like the show involves conversations we should he having,” she says. “We have Russians and Ukranians making music together right now.

“There’s nothing more international than an opera house. You have six or seven languages that could be in the building at any one time. Which makes it a wonderful representation of Houston itself. And that has been wonderful to discover. I knew Houston was a cosmopolitan, major city. But I didn’t know about its international community; its food. So I’d never been in a room like that, where you experience this energy for classical music.”

Dastoor is trying to build on HGO’s grand legacy by opening it up further to this diverse and sprawling city. Her eyes light up talking about the ways HGO kept fans engaged with digital programming early in the pandemic. As a singer, she appreciates the need to “put dollars in the pockets of our artists. That’s something that has been crucial to HGO’s reputation: figuring out how to support young artists out of college. Keeping these artists paid during difficult times. HGO has never wavered with this art form.”

So she now looks to expand the organization’s reach.

“We have an understanding of the people behind the dollars we receive,” Dastoor says. “Which is important, because I don’t have to make a case to them. They believe in what we do.”

But she thinks the art form can find new listeners, perhaps not by following some popular but unproven approaches.

“We come into the world singing,” Dastoor says. “And we come into the world curious. Our job is to bring this beauty to the lives of as many people in Houston as we can.

“There was a time people thought we had to push the new, but our research shows there’s interest in the new. But new audiences are also drawn to ‘La Traviata,’ ‘Carmen’ and ‘La Boheme.’ They find their way to new opera through those works. It’s about a commitment to the experience.”

The old models for subscriptions could be modified, she says. Running times perhaps could be shortened, as long as they don’t affect the work.

“But this is still a place where you can experiment,” she says.

“The artists we get to work with are so astounding. And what I take from that is a clarity about what they and the listeners want to say to us. So they allow me to dream for the future, and those dreams are enormous.”


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