Hank Hammett takes Meadows opera to the top while dismissing SMU’s homophobic reputation
The Oscars may get most of the press, but for Hank Hammett, a lesser-known awards means much, much more.
Hammett, director of opera at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, earned big-time bragging rights earlier this year when the Meadows Theatre Opera production of gay composer Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land won first in its category (for small professional companies and universities) and second overall in the National Opera Association’s competition for best production. And it was Meadows’ first time in the competition, at that.
"We are all excited for this award and grateful for this honor and recognition," Hammett says, though he is no stranger to awards: He received a few of his own during his singer career as a lyric baritone, and knows the feeling of triumph in the competitive arena of the arts. Only this time, he gets to share with the student body.
This is much more rewarding, being honored for a collaborative effort, than winning something by yourself," he says. "This was the first full-scale opera with orchestra I produced and directed at Meadows. "The objective is never to win an award, but to
do the finest work you can and to serve the education of our student singing "actors, instrumentalists and designers. Had I never heard back from the NOA competition, my feelings about our production would not have diminished in the least."
That doesn’t mean he didn’t think they had a shot at winning. For Hammett, all the pieces fell into place for the opera: the design, the music, the choral work. It didn’t hurt that Meadows spoils its departments if need be. Hammett conveys a blessed feeling of how it all pulled together.
He also feels a sense of comfort in his workplace, despite SMU’s recent notoriety for its diversity issues — or lack thereof. The school took a hit for its apparent homophobic environment and has been working to remedy that ever since the Princeton Review published a list in 2008 naming SMU one of the 20 most homophobic colleges in the country. Hammett feels nothing could be further from the truth.
"I know SMU has traditionally taken a hit for this and has a reputation among some folks for being elitist and conservative. That’s not been my experience with our administration, faculty, staff and students," he says. "Drive around the Meadows parking lot and take a look at the bumper stickers on our faculty and staff’s cars. I couldn’t be in a more open-minded, supportive and progressive atmosphere."
As if only to prove the point, Hammett’s partner of almost 34 years, Dale Dietert, is also on the Meadows faculty in the voice department and had some of his students in The Tender Land. And Hammett’s experience as being an out couple on campus has been, in his words, "great."
"I have never seen or even heard of any homophobia at Meadows directed at my colleagues or me," he says. "If it exists, then it exists within individuals who don’t bring it to the workplace. We have an open and nurturing atmosphere where we are free to be authentic individuals. Honesty and transparency are encouraged."
But Hammett keeps his work in focus and plans for this award to speak volumes about the arts at SMU. Not only does it put the opera theater on a national level, it raises the awareness of all the departments at Meadows. That gives Hammett a good feeling.
"I hear people say all the time that Meadows is one of best-kept secrets in Dallas," he says. "You can experience the best the arts have to offer at SMU and that’s not a shameless plug — it’s the truth. It’s one of the reasons I love working there."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 19, 2010.