Supporters Like You

Read about supporters whose passion for HGO’s world-class opera breathes life into the heart of Houston’s cultural heritage. 

Bill Altenloh and Susan Saurage-Altenoh

Bill Altenloh and Susan Saurage-Altenloh

Together, they weave an enduring tapestry of art, love, and dedication, profoundly impacting the world of opera and securing its place in the hearts of audiences for years to come.

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In the thriving cultural landscape of Houston, one couple’s love for opera has blossomed into an enduring passion for the Houston Grand Opera. Bill Altenloh and Susan Saurage-Altenloh embarked on their operatic journey shortly after their marriage, with Susan still residing in Baton Rouge. Little did they know that those initial single-ticket opera outings would become the cornerstone of their cherished date nights, both then and now.

Their love for opera soon led them to embrace mini subscriptions, and before long, they found themselves fully immersed in the magic of a complete season with HGO. This deepening involvement sparked a desire to invest even further, solidifying their commitment to the company and its mission of delivering exceptional performances to the Houston metro.

Dinner at the Founder’s Salon has become a cherished tradition for Bill and Susan, a delightful prelude to the evening’s artistic delights. As they savor their meals, they delve into the happenings of their week, and discuss topics that pique their mutual interests. The opera itself inspires days of animated conversations and reflections on its enchanting melodies and compelling narratives. 

For Bill, opera is a marvel that captures his heart and soul. Each performance engages his senses in a mesmerizing dance of music, action, singing, and drama, always bound by the thread of a captivating tale. The allure of HGO’s productions has proved irresistible to the couple, leaving them eagerly anticipating the next season’s offerings.

Bill and Susan see their contributions to HGO as more than just financial support; they view it as an investment in the future of the art form they cherish. Their belief in preserving opera for generations to come fuels their dedication to the company’s continued success. They understand the weight of their responsibility, knowing that safeguarding the high standards embodied in every HGO production is crucial for ensuring its enduring legacy.

In Susan’s words, “Opera is not just a form of entertainment; it is an art that enriches lives and shapes the cultural fabric of our society. Our commitment to HGO is a testament to our belief in safeguarding this timeless art for the benefit of future audiences.”

Through their quiet yet unwavering devotion to HGO, Bill and Susan exemplify the heart and soul of the opera’s patrons. Their story echoes the sentiments of countless others whose passion for the arts breathes life into the heart of Houston’s cultural heritage. As HGO continues to grace the stage with brilliance, Bill and Susan’s support guides the way for new generations to experience the transformative power of opera. Together, they weave an enduring tapestry of art, love, and dedication, profoundly impacting the world of opera and securing its place in the hearts of audiences for years to come.

Rhonda Sweeney

From Rhonda and Donald’s first date in 1986, Anna Bolena with the great Dame Joan Sutherland, HGO has been an important part of their life journey together.

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My first opera experience was on a June 1986 date with my now husband, Donald, to Houston Grand Opera’s Anna Bolena with the great Dame Joan Sutherland in the title role. I knew nothing about opera except that it was singing in foreign languages, of which I knew none! Nonetheless, I was excited to go and Donald reassured me that we would have a great time. Whether it was the opera, the wine with dinner beforehand, or a Friday evening after a long week, I fell promptly asleep after only a few moments into the opera and have no real memory of the evening!

Undaunted, we went to 5 or 6 operas in the final Jones Hall season, culminating with the fabulous Turandot. From then on, I was “hooked on opera,” and we dove headfirst into HGO’s next chapter in the Wortham Center, becoming subscribers, patrons, and active volunteers with the HGO Guild. And, we got married in January 1988, so falling asleep in the opera seemed not to be a deal-breaker!

Over the next decade, we hosted many cast parties in our home, met numerous artists, got involved with the Butler Studio and the Concert of Arias, and eventually I decided that becoming a Trustee would allow me to get more involved with the inner workings of the company itself. This, in turn, led to deeper involvement, with the Studio and Patron Committees.

In 1997, Donald retired from his Exxon career and in the midst of our financial planning, we decided to write our wills for the first time. During that process, we looked at what was important to us and how we wanted to spend our money during retirement, and as importantly, where our money would go after our deaths–if there was any remaining! We made provisions for family members, both during our lifetime as well as afterwards, but wanted to leave a portion of our estate to those organizations that had made a real difference in our lives. Houston Grand Opera was high on my list, and so I made a bequest in my will at that time.

Becoming a member of HGO’s Laureate Society though the inclusion of HGO in my estate plan was the next step in my further involvement with HGO. I joined, then Chaired, the Laureate Society Committee, and became a member of the Philanthropy Committee. My involvement in these committees helped me to realize the importance of planned giving and the HGO Endowment for securing the future of the opera company.

In the last decade, Donald and I became underwriters for HGO’s four-year Ring Cycle journey (2014-2017), for The Passenger at the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival, and for the six-year Seeking the Human Spirit journey which ended in spring 2023.

Houston Grand Opera continues to be an important part of our own life journey, from the outset of our relationship together until now. Even with health challenges, we have maintained our season tickets, and want to ensure that future generations of Houstonians have the same opportunity we had when we were starting out–wonderful singing, great choruses and orchestras, and emotion-filled storytelling.

Bill and Rhonda Sweeney

“We want to ensure that future generations of Houstonians have the same opportunity we had when we were starting out–wonderful singing, great choruses and orchestras, and emotion-filled storytelling.”

-Rhonda Sweeney

Craig Miller and Chris Bacon

Craig and Chris share their deep appreciation of the value, joy, and importance opera has been in their lives. Most importantly, HGO is now a member of their “chosen” family. 

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“Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter “repented,” changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.” That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.”
— Lillian Hellman Pentimento (1973).

We both read these lines for the first time many years ago and we are now about the same age as Ms. Hellman was when she wrote them. We have a different appreciation for them now, especially when we think about what we might be able to leave behind when we are gone. Life is relentlessly changing and, as Ms. Hellman said, “the paint has aged.” Family members we had planned on helping may no longer be with us or may not need the same help. The causes and organizations that mattered most to us in the past are different from the ones that matter most to us today.

Twenty or thirty years ago we probably wouldn’t have thought about leaving part of our estate to Houston Grand Opera. We liked opera and often attended HGO performances, but at that time in our lives, we did not fully appreciate how opera, and HGO in particular, could bring joy and enrich our lives as it has done for us in recent years. Opera has allowed us to experience and to see the world differently. Opera has challenged us intellectually. Opera has excited us. Opera has inspired us. Most importantly, opera has moved us. Just thinking about HGO’s most recent (2022-23) season, at least one of us can recall tearing up on multiple occasions: Seeing local high school students cheering at a special performance of La Traviata, hearing five large choruses singing Lift Every Voice and Sing at the Giving Voice concert, watching the first ever U.S. production of the The Wreckers, more than 100 years after suffragist Edith Smyth first composed it, or hearing new Butler Studio member Demetrius Sampson Jr. talk about his mom and his “chosen” family at the Concert of Arias before going on to win second place in the competition with his powerful renditions from Madame Butterfly and Susannah, are just some instances where we have been moved at HGO.

But it is not only what happens on the stage of the Wortham that makes us love HGO. HGO has become our “chosen” family. Much like we used to get excited when we went back to school after a long idle summer, we get excited every opening night when we see many friends (fellow subscribers, patrons, chorus members, musicians, and other HGO staff) that we may not have seen since last season. We all share an excitement for this most wonderful art that we love sharing with others.

Because we receive so much joy from HGO, for us it was an easy decision to join HGO’s Laureate Society, a group of donors that have included HGO in their estate planning. If HGO has brought you similar joy and you are wondering whether you should include HGO in your legacy, you should know that the Laureate Society does not ask for any set amount for someone to join. Becoming a member today sets the stage for our opera to grow and prosper in the coming decades, just as what we enjoy now came from people exactly like us making these decisions in past.

Susan Tan

Susan is dedicated to promoting opera as a transformative art form and plans to ensure her love for HGO endures for future generations. 

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Houston Grand Opera has left an indelible mark on my heart and soul. The company, renowned for its exceptional performances, world-class artists, and dedication to promoting opera as a transformative art form, has captured my admiration and loyalty.

The immersive experiences I have had in their magnificent productions have provided me with moments of pure enchantment and emotional transcendence. Considering my digital nomadic lifestyle of permanent travel, my visits to the USA are infrequent, making each encounter with the Houston Grand Opera even more special and cherished. However, I am aware that this unusual transitory lifestyle does not allow me to actively contribute to the organization in the same way that more settled patrons can.

To ensure that my love for opera endures beyond my travels and that future generations can revel in the splendor of the Houston Grand Opera, I have decided to include the organization in my estate plans. By doing so, I aim to leave a lasting legacy that supports and sustains this cultural institution for decades to come.

I can play a role in nurturing the art form that has given me so much joy and fulfillment, even as a globe-trotting opera enthusiast. My decision reflects the belief that opera, as an art form, must continue to thrive and enrich lives, transcending borders and time.

Roberto, Renée and Jesse partying after Rusalka in 1991

Jesse Weir

HGO gave Roberto Ayala and me so much joy over the decades. We enjoyed opera together for 45 years, and I just want to pass that love on to other people. I have been a subscriber since 1971.

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I first became involved with HGO when I was asked if I would like to become the prop manager. At that time, I did not know much about opera. Yes, I went to a couple of operas while studying and living in Rome but I never thought more about it. However, when I returned to Houston and started volunteering for HGO, I had so much fun working backstage and loved getting to know the singers and all the supporting staff.

The first artist I worked with was Beverly Sills in the Tales of Hoffmann and over the years we became friends. She was always chewing Juicy Fruit gum to help her salivate before singing and she would stick it on the sets. Eventually, I got her to start giving it to me instead. She was so natural and such a happy lady, always kind to me and everyone around her. I soon realized there was so much excitement and joy at the opera. It was something I really wanted to get involved with.

From there, I became a true opera lover and travelled a great deal to see performances all over the world. I would time everything around coming back to Houston to never miss an opera at HGO, as it is truly one of the finest operas companies in the country.

I joined the HGO Guild, have been involved for decades, and now love being a lifetime trustee. Through the Guild, I was most interested in being a hospitality volunteer. When we hosted an artist and they returned to HGO, we always hosted them again and developed such special, long-lasting friendships. We hosted over 25 cast parties at our home, including the opening of the Wortham Theatre with Aida where we had 72 people for dinner. If he was in town, David Gockley always attended our parties. To fit everyone in we took all the furniture out of the house and moved it into storage, placing tables in every room and around the pool. Who would not want to be on first name basis with artists such as Eva Marton, Carlus Padrissa, Joyce DiDonato, Ana María Martínez and Renée Fleming, just to name a few? Renée called us once from London and said, “Jesse, I understand you have a recording of my Rusalka.” I said, “I do! How did you know that?” Renée replied, “David Gockley always said, if you ever need a recording call Jesse.” I meticulously made hundreds of recordings and I have donated them to the HGO archives.

When the Wortham opened, David Gockley showed me the theatre and asked me where we wanted to sit. Eventually, we decided we wanted to sit close in the center and we have had the same seats since the building was built. We always attended the Sunday Matinees because we enjoyed taking singers out for dinner after the performances.

Who is the we? Roberto Ayala, my life partner for 45 years. When Roberto passed away Perryn Leech, Managing Director of the Houston Grand Opera, asked if he could give a eulogy at Roberto’s Celebration of Life. He said, “Was there ever an HGO before Roberto and Jesse?” I was so touched that Ana María Martínez wanted to sing for us on this special day. Of course, our HGO friends were a major part of Roberto’s life because they truly had become our family.

When it came to including HGO in our estate plans it was just common sense. HGO has been paramount in our lives, making it so much richer and more exciting. We wanted to ensure other generations to have the opportunity to enjoy it like we have. Join me in keeping Houston Grand Opera grand for the next generations!

Helen Wils

Helen and her husband, Leonard Goldstein, have not only tried to share their passion for opera with their descendants, but they also hope to leave a legacy that allows future generations of Houstonians to experience the outstanding performances of this queen of the arts, “long after we have exited stage left.”

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I married my husband for, among other reasons, the three possessions I lacked: a color television, a microwave oven, and a subscription to HGO–the last being by far the most important on the list.

In 1978, during a sabbatical year from my college teaching job in Sacramento, I moved to Houston with every intention of returning. In town for two months, on my first date with my now husband, we attended a production of Norma with Renata Scotto in the title role.

I didn’t know many people in Houston at the time, but I figured a man who liked opera couldn’t be all that bad. Thus began 45 years of a love affair HGO, and not incidentally, the date who later morphed into the husband. HGO, matchmaker, all for the price of an opera subscription!

We have tried to instill our passion for opera in the generations that follow us. We took our two granddaughters to their first opera when they were 11 and 13. What my parents did for me around the same age, I did for them. We took a nephew when he was 10. We had Sarah and Ernest Butler Houston Grand Opera Studio artists entertain our guests at an anniversary we celebrated last year resulting in two newly minted millennial fans whom we subsequently invited to attend a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. They loved it. Brian Speck, former director of the Butler Studio, thoughtfully arranged a program to appeal not only to those among the guests who were frequent attendees but also those who have never had the opportunity to attend. The entertainment received rave reviews.

A retired estate planning and probate attorney, during my career I assisted many clients, helping them to provide for the future needs not only of their families but also of those institutions and activities they supported during their lifetimes. It is important to me as well that we too pass along a passion for the institutions and activities we care about and support, that we leave behind a legacy so that our descendants and others will be able to experience future HGO performances of the quality that we have been privileged to enjoy. Producing an opera requires not only hard work but also hard cash. It is an expensive proposition, as ticket sales cover only a small portion of the necessary funds.

We recognize that while we will not always be able to introduce newcomers to HGO personally, we want to pass on to others what we have so long enjoyed. A legacy gift to HGO is a gift that keeps on giving, ensuring that future generations have the opportunity to attend outstanding performances of this queen of the arts long after we have exited stage left.

“Becoming a member of the Laureate Society today sets the stage for our opera to grow and prosper in the coming decades, just as what we enjoy now came from people exactly like us making these decisions in the past.”

-Craig Miller and Chris Bacon

Join a Laureate Society

Together we can do so much. Join a community of people who share your passion for this transformative art form by becoming a member of one of our giving societies.