HOUSTON — Tucked in the heart of River Oaks is a gem of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston: one of two house museums managed by MFAH.
“This house and collection was given to the Museum of Fine Arts Houston 20 years ago,” says Christine Gervais, Rienzi’s director. “It was the gift of a couple named Harris and Carroll Sterling Masterson, who amassed this collection over decades of going to Europe and loving European decorative arts and paintings.”
Though the home is as the couple left it in many ways, the Mastersons also allowed MFAH to update the collection over time. Additions that Gervais has made include a porcelain bust of Marie Antoinette.
“What makes this bust ever rarer is that it’s accompanied by the bust that was made at the same time of her husband, Louis XVI,” Gervais says.
The 18th century monarch doesn’t just have a starring role at Rienzi. She’s also taking center stage in Houston Ballet’s production of Marie.
“I think it humanizes her,” says Houston Ballet principal Melody Mennite, who is reviving the role she originated.
Stanton Welch debuted Marie back in 2009 after more than 10 months working on the score with the ballet’s music director and principal conductor, Ermanno Florio. It’s comprised of Dmitri Shostakovich’s compositions, which help tell the complex story of the teenage queen.
“I get to walk through her whole life from being a little girl who was taken away from her home and thrown into this country,” Mennite says.
Along with the music and choreography, the costumes designed by Kandis Cook help transport the audience to 18th century France.
“The costumes are beautiful, but they’re also danceable,” says Mennite. “There’s only one costume that’s period-true with big hips and big cage of hair she wore.
Mennite, who joined the Houston Ballet in 2001 and was promoted to principal in 2008, says she learned a lot about the young queen when she first took on the role a decade ago.
“For me personally to tell her story, I had to try to get to know her a little bit. That’s where that research came in,” Mennite explains. “She was a mom. She was a wife. She was a clumsy teenager. She was everything that we all are.”
That’s something, Mennite and Gervais agree, that seems to be stripped from the queen’s story, replaced by false information.
“There are many myths about her,” says Gervais. “‘Let them eat cake’ is the most famous one, which most historians believe she never said.”