Houston Grand Opera (HGO) and the Asia Society Texas (AST) are proud to announce the world premiere of The Big Swim, created by composer Meilina Tsui and librettist Melisa Tien. Commissioned by HGO in partnership with the AST, The Big Swim will be presented on February 16, 17, and 18 at AST’s Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater.
Crossing boundaries between the traditional and modern, Eastern and Western, and classical and non-classical, the witty, heartwarming one-act opera represents the fifth collaboration between Houston Grand Opera and Asia Society Texas, and HGO’s 76th world premiere. AST plans to present the opera, an interactive retelling of the great race between the 12 animals of the zodiac calendar, each year as part of its Lunar New Year festivities.
“Meilina Tsui and Melisa Tien’s wonderfully exhilarating, inventive new opera, The Big Swim, is part of a continuing tradition at our company,” says HGO General Director and CEO Khori Dastoor. “HGO is committed to creating multi-generational programming that centers the family experience and celebrates the beautiful cultural gifts that Houstonians of Asian descent have brought to our international city—from the first wave of Chinese immigrants 150 years ago to today’s diverse AAPI population, now one of the largest in the entire country. We are so grateful to our friends at Asia Society Texas for their vision, and their partnership in producing this new piece.”
“It has long been a goal for Asia Society Texas to have a premier performance centered on Lunar New Year as it is one of the most important holiday traditions in Asia and for Asian Americans,” says AST President Bonna Kol. “We are so pleased to partner with Houston Grand Opera to make this goal a reality. We believe The Big Swim will become a new holiday tradition that all Houstonians will enjoy for years to come.”
“I am thrilled to bring audiences into the enchanting world of The Big Swim,” says director Mo Zhou. “It’s zany, fun, and designed to leave you with a heart full of joy. This opera isn’t just a performance; it’s an experience, a celebration of life, culture, and the universal language of music—a rich symphony of East Asian cultures that combines the beauty of tradition with the thrill of innovation. Get ready for a journey like no other.”
The Big Swim draws upon a vast range of cultural elements and stylistic influences, with Tsui’s score incorporating opera buffa, Peking and Cantonese opera, Gregorian chants, American and Asian pop music, animated musicals, and more. In Tien’s modern take on the classic story, notions of individualism and rivalry are gradually replaced by a sense of community and camaraderie among the 12 Zodiac animals. At the end of the race, the characters gather to sing a song of unification and friendship.
The opera’s acclaimed cast includes soprano Meigui Zhang (Rabbit & Horse), mezzo-soprano Alice Chung (Ox & Pig), tenor Seiyoung Kim (Monkey & Rat), baritone Joseph Lim (Tiger & Rooster), and bass Zaikuan Song (Dragon & Dog), all in their HGO debuts, with Butler Studio alumna/mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce, also performing with HGO this winter as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly, as Snake & Sheep. Eiki Isomura, artistic director and principal conductor of Opera in the Heights, will take the podium for the production, directed by Mo Zhou.
Scenic and puppet designer Afsaneh Aayani is the creator of the opera’s dynamic modular set, which draws inspiration from traditional Chinese garden designs while paying homage to East Asian cultures and the Lunar New Year celebrations that unite them. Valérie Thérèse Bart’s vibrant costume designs combine influences from the Philippines, South Korea, China, and Vietnam. Michael James Clark, the Head of Lighting and Production Media for HGO, serves as the opera’s lighting designer.
Composer, pianist, and singer-songwriter Meilina Tsui is celebrated for her fusion of Central Asian and East Asian musical influences. Her compositions, which have been performed across Asia, Europe, the United States, and the Middle East, have earned her numerous honors, including the 2022 ASCAP Foundation Morton Gould Young Composer Award. She has served as a composer fellow at an array of renowned institutions.
Playwright, lyricist, librettist, producer, and educator Melisa Tien is known for her formally unconventional, socially relevant, emotionally evocative work. She is a member of New Dramatists, a grantee of the NYC Women’s Fund for Media, Music, and Theatre, a librettist for the American Opera Project’s Composers & the Voice program, a librettist with Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, and a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow in Playwriting/Screenwriting.
Director Mo Zhou, whose international career spans opera, theater, dance, and film, is the recipient of the OPERA America Robert L.B. Tobin Director-Designer Prize and the 2023 OPERA America Grants for Women Stage Directors and Conductors. She is a member of the faculty at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Performances of the hour-long, one-act, world-premiere opera The Big Swim will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 16; 2 p.m. Saturday, February 17, and 2 p.m. Sunday, February 18 at the Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, Asia Society Texas, 1370 Southmore Blvd. For more information and to buy tickets, visit HGO.org or call the HGO Box Office at 713-228-6737. Tickets are $40.
About Houston Grand Opera
Houston Grand Opera (HGO) is one of the largest, most innovative, and most highly acclaimed opera companies in the United States. General Director and CEO Khori Dastoor assumed leadership of the organization and responsibility for its strategic vision in 2021. HGO was the only American finalist for Opera Company of the Year in the 2019 International Opera Awards, and the only American company to be nominated twice. In fulfilling its mission to advance the operatic art, to serve the Houston community, and to be a global leader in the future of opera, HGO has led the field in commissioning and producing new works (75 world premieres to date) and in training and nurturing promising young artists and administrators. The company contributes to the cultural enrichment of Houston and the nation through a diverse and innovative program of performances, community events, and education projects that reaches the widest possible public. HGO’s pioneering Community and Learning initiative has served as a model for other arts organizations. The company invites all Houstonians to experience superlative opera without the barrier of price through discounted single tickets and subscriptions, subsidized student performances, and free productions.
HGO has toured extensively and has won a Tony, two Grammy awards, and three Emmy awards. It is the only opera company to win all three honors.
About Asia Society Texas
Asia Society Texas believes in the strength and beauty of diverse perspectives and people. As an educational institution, we advance cultural exchange by celebrating the vibrant diversity of Asia, inspiring empathy, and fostering a better understanding of our interconnected world. Spanning the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, our programming is rooted in the educational and cultural development of our community—trusting in the power of art, dialogue, and ideas to combat bias and build a more inclusive society.