Opera Aficionado Franci Neely Says Don’t Miss Jake Heggie’s Intelligence — The Katy News
Retired lawyer Franci Neely supports the Houston Grand Opera, where Jake Heggie’s 10th opera, Intelligence, will debut. “The arts have always been a part of me,” she says, adding that they “have enriched my life.” The renowned philanthropist is an underwriter of Heggie’s most recent opera, his fifth commissioned by the HGO.
The show’s Oct. 20, 2023, debut will be the first time in the company’s history that it opens its season with a world premiere performance. It will run through Nov. 3. The modern opera has been an eight-year labor of love for Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, and director-choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.
The opera chronicles an unlikely friendship through enthralling music, words, and dance. “It’s a thrilling, deeply meaningful project [and] deals with identity, ancestry, legacy, empowerment,” said Heggie.
“ Intelligence is extraordinary,” Franci Neely chimes in. “It is based on a true story about an African American woman during the American Civil War. She was enslaved — and she was incredibly intelligent.”
The woman — historians are conflicted as to whether her name was Mary Bowser, Mary Richards, or Mary Jane Richards Garvin — assists the Union Army by spying from her position as an enslaved person inside the home of Jefferson Davis, the first and only Confederate president of the United States. “They thought she was illiterate, but she could read the material that was around. And she was giving that intelligence to the Union. It’s just a remarkable story with wonderful music,” says Neely.
“It’s such an inspiring story, and she’s a significant historical figure few people know about. I hope this show changes that — and I feel it will. Intelligence is going to change lives,” she adds. “I can’t wait for people to see this heroic story rooted in such a painful part of our nation’s past.”
She encourages people of all ages to explore opera. “I feel it is something that all generations can benefit from being exposed to,” says Neely.
Jake Heggie: Master of Modern Operas
Neely considers herself fortunate to call Heggie a friend. “He’s an amazing talent and very dear to me,” she shares. While she was lucky to witness his creative methods in person and catch an early taste of Intelligence as a work in progress, the rest of us can see his musical masterpieces in opera houses nationwide.
His opus Dead Man Walking, with libretto by Terrence McNally, will debut at the Metropolitan Opera on Sept. 27, 2023. “I’ll be there celebrating Jake,” says Franci Neely. The dramatic work is based on the New York Times bestselling memoir by Sister Helen Prejean and premiered in October 2000 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.
“ Dead Man Walking is not an opera for the faint of heart but is an amazing, brutal, yet beautiful story that will change your life and perspective about humanity and how you do not have to judge and decide everything is black and white. This opera is a must-see,” Jennifer Lunz wrote in a review for Splash Magazines at the show’s premiere at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House in 2019.
Neely says, “Dead Man Walking is about redemption. It’s a brilliantly moving work. So I’ll be happy to celebrate with him.” She was also at the opening of Heggie’s Moby-Dick when it premiered at the Dallas Opera in April 2010.
Franci Neely’s Philanthropic Work
Neely is quite an opera lover, yet she was in her 30s before discovering the musical masterpieces. That could be because she spent most of her young adulthood studying law and making a name for herself as a talented trial lawyer.
Not long after graduating from The University of Texas at Austin School of Law, she became the first female partner at the firm that would become Susman Godfrey. Since retiring from corporate litigation, she’s focused on her philanthropic work and global travels.
The Franci Neely Foundation creator gives back through her foundation and nonprofits. She’s also a fan of the work Doctors Without Borders and the Peace Corps are doing. “Money can’t buy you love, but it can give you the ability to improve things for others ideally. So that’s really the impetus — that it is important to me to do that in meaningful ways,” she says.
Neely’s been recognized numerous times for her philanthropic contributions. The University of Texas Law School named her its 2007 Distinguished Alumnus for Community Service. And she was named one of the Houston 50 Women of Influence.
The honor is well deserved, as Neely’s philanthropic efforts include Bo’s Place, an organization focused on assisting children dealing with losing a loved one, and Inprint, a literary arts nonprofit, started in 1983 to better integrate reading, writing, and literature into everyday life. “Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the United States,” says Neely.
She was also recognized for the $250,000 donation she made to fund an interactive water-play feature for children at Houston’s Hermann Park. “I was honored by the Hermann Park Conservancy along with my great friend Sandy Godfrey because I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Hermann Park,” she says. “It’s a beautiful park in the central part of Houston near my home. It is an artery that means a lot to people.”
Additionally, Neely is an avid travel photographer and collector of black-and-white, female-centric photography. “Much of that collection has been pledged to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston,” she says. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, she helped keep the arts alive by donating funds to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston for virtual events.
A longtime arts supporter, Neely began the Houston Cinema Arts Society in 2007. Cinemahtx.org stated that the Houston Cinema Arts Society enhances the city’s cultural community with film-centric programming and year-round support for filmmakers.
As the founding chair of the Houston Cinema Arts Society, Neely helped present the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, which has hosted A-list celebrities, including Shirley MacLaine, Isabella Rossellini, and Ethan Hawke. “My latest contribution to others is a challenge grant to the Houston Cinema Arts Society that was rapidly matched,” she stated.
Outside of Houston, Neely has given back in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she was a member of the board of directors of the Nantucket Historical Association. Neely chaired its trustees and governance committee, and its antiques show dinner in 2011. She was also president of the Friends of the Nantucket Historical Association.
She encourages others to give back wherever and whenever they can. Neely says, “Do something that’s outside your comfort zone” — even if that means going to the opera. Neely believes Heggie’s new work is a good choice for anyone interested in modern opera. “It’s going to be a stunner,” she says.