Philanthropist Franci Neely Underwriting Intelligence Opera Debuting October 2023

Franci Neely

With a lifelong passion for theater, Franci Neely knows a compelling story when she hears one. The Houston-based arts benefactor was so taken with composer Jake Heggie’s new opera, Intelligence, she decided to be an underwriter for the groundbreaking new show that will debut Oct. 20 at the Houston Grand Opera.

The story takes place during the tempestuous Civil War era and tells the tale of Mary Jane Bowser — though some historians think her name was Mary Jane Richards Denman — who was born into slavery in the Van Lew household, and Elizabeth Van Lew, who hailed from a well-to-do Confederate family and spearheaded an undercover pro-Union spy ring.

“It’s extraordinary,” Neely says. “It’s based on a true story about an African American woman during the American Civil War. She was incredibly intelligent — and a slave. She was also literate, which was unusual for the day. And so she was planted in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. She could read sensitive material that was scattered around the house — and went undetected, because it was just assumed she could neither read nor write. But the entire time, this brave woman was passing that intelligence to the Union. It’s just a remarkable story.”

Neely says the music in the piece adds another element of joy to the experience. She shares that during the summers of 2021 and 2022, Heggie stayed with her and she got a sneak preview of the music while he was composing it.

“I’ve heard the work, the music in progress. It’s just going to be a stunner,” Neely says. “It’s going to make huge news. I’ll be there on Oct. 20 for the Houston debut, and in New York on Sept. 26, all to celebrate Jake and his work.”

Neely’s September visit to New York City will be to attend the opening night of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which will kick off this season of the Metropolitan Opera.

Franci Neely Recalls How She Met Jake Heggie

“Jake and I met many years ago now. I’m fairly sure it was when he was in Houston working on one of his operas that HGO, Houston Grand Opera, had commissioned,” Neely says. “I love Jake, everyone loves Jake, everyone hits it off with Jake.”

Neely says she became close friends with Heggie and his husband, Curt Branom, who’s a musical theater talent himself.

“Over the years we’ve grown closer. He and Curt have stayed with me in Houston and Nantucket [Massachusetts]. And I’ve followed his career for well over a decade. He’s very dear to me,” the culture connoisseur shares. “I’m so thrilled I’ll be in New York at the opening of Dead Man Walking, celebrating Jake.”

Neely says she anticipates Sister Helen Prejean will also be in attendance. “Sister Helen is the nun who wrote the book of the same name on which this opera is based. She shares her experience with a death row inmate,” Neely says. “Sister Helen’s story tells of her experience ministering to this death row inmate, who was in fact executed. Essentially, it’s about redemption.”

In 1995, Prejean’s book was turned into a hit movie. Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for her portrayal of the crusading sister.

Neely adds she feels it presents the arguments on both sides, for and against capital punishment and she feels it’s a brilliantly moving work — one of many in Heggie’s oeuvre. “I was at the opening of [Heggie’s] Moby-Dick at the Dallas Opera a number of years ago. I’ve been to a number of his openings,” Neely notes.

Franci Neely: Opera Has an Emotional Appeal

When Franci Neely describes her love for the opera, she radiates an undeniable enthusiasm.

“I’m a trial lawyer because I really wanted to be an actress, but I also wanted to make a living and support myself,” she ruefully admits.

“The feeling you get from the musical instruments, including the human voice, the sets, the emotion that exudes on an operatic stage is something that’s just very, very appealing to me.” 

Often a misunderstood art form, Neely says she wants the world to see that anybody can appreciate opera.

“You don’t have to study opera or be exposed to it as a child. I certainly was not,” Neely confesses. “I went to the opera for the first time when I was probably in my 30s. I didn’t know anything about the tradition. But I learned that it doesn’t take having prior knowledge or experience. It’s an art form that really anybody can enjoy.”

Always one to encourage others to escape their comfort zone, Franci Neely advises going to the opera with an open heart and mind.

“Let yourself go and just experience something and be open to it,” Neely says. “I think people would be surprised. Especially at some of these new operas like Intelligence. The Metropolitan Opera and Houston Grand Opera are commissioning new works with very current themes.”

She says the push to showcase relevant, in-the-now content could also be attracting younger, more diverse audiences. To that end, the Paris Opera is seemingly leading the charge. During its 2018-2019 season it reported 95,000 audience members were younger than 28.

“Don’t be intimidated. Go in, read the program notes and give yourself a chance,” she says. “Try and try again.”

Start with baby steps, she tips. Beginning an opera adventure with Wagner or some of the longer works may not be the best entry point.

“Go to Carmen, go to La Traviata. I don’t think anybody could listen to the music of Puccini or Bizet and not be enchanted,” Neely gushes. “I mean, Carmen’s music is just unbelievably beautiful and singable. And so are Puccini’s compositions. Those melodies are so gorgeous. Start with ones that are more accessible and then dive into others. It’s really wonderful.”

And, of course, she heartily recommends checking out Jake Heggie’s works.

“Go to a Jake Heggie opera, go to Dead Man Walking, which is so timely,” Neely says.