George Steel, the Dallas Opera's new general director, has deep roots in Hopkins County. His great-great grandfather was Commodore Perry Connally Jr.
Dallas Opera Photo

Opera director has Hopkins County ties to Connally family

Chili contest, antique tractor pull among events planned Oct. 18 for first 'Help A Child' benefit

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

Nov. 2, 2008 - As arts editor, I cover a lot of authors and entertainers who don't live within driving distance of Sulphur Springs. I usually talk to these people in what we call "phoners," 10-20 minute telephone interviews that are set at a specific time on a specific date.

Over the course of 20 years of doing this job, I've learned it's best to introduce myself at the beginning of the conversation because the artist doesn't usually handle the logistics and sometimes doesn't even know who's calling.

When I caught up with George Steel, the new general director of the Dallas Opera, on Tuesday afternoon to chat about his vision and plans for the opera, I said, "Hi, George, this is Terry Mathews from the Sulphur Springs News-Telegram. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to visit with me this afternoon."

Imagine my surprise when the first words out of Steel's mouth were, "I have relatives from Hopkins County. In fact, my Granny Steel is buried there in the Connally family plot in the city cemetery."

Granny Steel was Kate Elizabeth "Liz" Maynor Steel. She was born in Texarkana and she died in Sulphur Springs in 1994, according to Steel.

"Granny's mother was Belvareeta Connally Maynor, who was born in 1886 and died in 1947," he explained after pulling up information on his computer. "Her father was Morris Maynor Sr. Granny's grandfather was Commodore Perry Connally Jr. (1857-1915). Her grandmother was Buena Vista Crisp Connally, who was born in Hopkins County in 1860."

Steel and his wife, Sarah, a product designer, moved to Dallas on Oct. 5, their sixth wedding anniversary. They are living in the "uptown" area near McKinney Avenue with their two children, daughter Anna, 3, and son Alexander, 5 months.

Steel grew up in Maryland, graduated from Yale University with a degree in music, and for the past 11 years was the executive director of the Miller Theater at Columbia University in New York City. During his time in New York, Steel met and became an apprentice to legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein.

"I met him when I was a singer," Steel explained. "I got to know him and his family very well. We became fast friends. He became my most important teacher."

Besides the challenge of taking the reins at the Dallas Opera, Steel says there were three additional reasons to move to the Lone Star State.

"Dallas offers three of my favorite things that can't be had for love or money in New York City," he explained. "We have great Tex-Mex, great barbecue and great margaritas."

Steel is a big fan of Sonny Bryan's barbecue and prefers the original location on Harry Hines.

"I grew up eating at a barbecue restaurant in my hometown in Maryland that was founded by an airline pilot who modeled his restaurant after Sonny Bryan's," he said. "He ate there when he flew into Love Field and replicated, as best he could, that distinctive Sonny Bryan flavor. It was good, just not quite as good as Sonny Bryan's."

Steel's move to Dallas also coincides with major changes at the Dallas Opera.

"It's our last season at Fair Park (Music Hall)," Steel explained. "After 52 years, we'll be moving to the new Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts."

The 2008-2009 season will end with "The Italian Girl in Algiers" by Gioachino Rossini, which was the same opera that opened the company's first season 50 years ago.

"Maria Callas opened our first season 50 years ago with a special performance and then came back during the season and performed in 'The Italian Girl in Algiers.' The very last was the very first," Steel explained.

Steel has grand plans for expanding the Dallas Opera's audience.

"I want new audiences to come in the door and be carried away by what we're doing," Steel explained. "I think one of the old-fashioned problems with the opera is there is this presumption and expectation that people who come already know the work. It's a terrible feeling. You feel like you're already behind."

Steel wants to eliminate pre-conceived notions by "putting the audience on equal footing by doing exciting new things that people might now know, like maybe 18th, 19th or 20th century work - or newly commissioned work. I want everyone to go on a fresh adventure."

While Steel believes pre-opera lectures help audiences become more familiar with the music and story behind a performance, he also thinks there is room for new ideas to lure people to the opera house.

"There are all kinds of additional educational activities that bring in new people," he said. "We could do a CD that they could pop into their CD player on the way to the opera. There are a 1,000 different ways to reach new audiences."

Steel said he'd like to conduct the Dallas Opera orchestra in a concert sometime soon.

"This season's schedule has been in place for a long time," he said. "Hopefully I can do a concert with the opera orchestra next season, which would be great."

Steel is interested in answering some family tree questions. He's used the Internet to track down some of the Connally family history, but would like more information.

"Granny Steel loved being a Connally. She visited her mother in Sulphur Springs all the time," he said. "I'm hoping my Connally kin will read this article and help me solve some of my genealogical questions."

Steel can be reached at 214-443-1043.

t

2008-2009 Dallas Opera Season

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO by W.A. Mozart

November 14, 16(m), 19 & 22, 2008

DIE FLEDERMAUS by Johann Strauss II

December 5, 7(m), 10 & 13, 2008

?

ROBERTO DEVEREUX by Gaetano Donizetti

January 23, 25(m), 28 & 31, 2009

LA BOHME by Giacomo Puccini

February 13, 15(m), 18 & 21, 2009

?

THE ITALIAN GIRL IN ALGIERS by Gioachino Rossini

March 6, 8(m), 11 & 14, 2009

The Grand Finale!? Production from Santa Fe Opera.

Tickets: $15 - $199

Ticket information: www.dallasopera.org

Contact: 214-443-1000

Older Archives

Looking for News-Telegram Sports and News Archives for January 2004 - November 2008