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Reflection: O'Leary's extended contract is good news for art and St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: For one old enough to remember when Opera Theatre of St. Louis was the Little Company That Could, the public relations release that bounced in Wednesday was full of information I at first regarded as bizarre.

It proclaimed that Timothy O’Leary’s contract as general director of the company has been renewed for five years. Generally, I tune out contract-renewed news because it’s usually about coaches and professional athletes, which I don’t much care about, rather than occupants of the administrative wheelhouses of cultural institutions, persons I do care about considerably.

This announcement, because it had to do with a prominent fixture of the cultural establishment, is Class A, 24-carat news as far as I’m concerned. And in the world of the Beacon, it rates categorization as News That Matters.

As Opera Theatre board chair Spencer Burke said, “Tim has brought tremendous creativity and energy to Opera Theatre and its creative team. His work has generated attention nationally about the role of the arts in our society and enhanced the reputation of St. Louis as an arts-centric community. We are ecstatic about the new contract and look forward with great anticipation to the next five years.”

The board’s renewal of the contract is no surprise, really. O’Leary, in just-shy-of-five years as general director, has the financial numbers with him, and he has demonstrated mature and virtuosic leadership throughout the organization, but also a form of leadership crowned with a radiance called courage that has affected the community at large.

Opera Theatre – from opening night in 1976 with a lively “Don Pasquale” to this very moment -- has operated with artistic courage, striving always to measure up to the standards set purposefully high by founding general director and opera universe luminary Richard Gaddes.

Whether producing standard repertory or new or cutting-edge commissioned works, the company has pursued innovation and adventure with a vengeance. It has consistently taken risks in offering rarities and revivals; it has introduced and set the artistic compasses of countless young singers, many of whom now are leading lights in a grindingly difficult and highly competitive business. The company has insisted that its conductors follow their hearts and intellects as well as the abstraction of notes on their scores.

It has caused glorious commotions by engaging stage directors who’ve demonstrated, most of the time anyway, a bred-in-the-bone understanding that creativity may be radical but it isn’t shtick or camp or simple novelty and it certainly isn’t cute.

You and I may disagree on a few points of artistic judgment over the years; O’Leary and I do. He loves “The Marriage of Figaro” and I think it’s tiresome. À chacun son goût! The new, or different course on which he set out has more to do with a quality embedded in many serious operas, but brought to center stage by O’Leary, and it has clearly and specifically to do with social justice.

O’Leary took the reins from Charles MacKay, the company’s second general director, in 2008. He began considering his first audacious move in 2010. Its name is “Klinghoffer.”

By now, perhaps of interest rekindled in part because of the work O’Leary and Opera Theatre, the tragic story of the murder of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists at sea is reasonably well known. More than two decades ago, the American composer John Adams, with poet-librettist Alice Goodman, took this calamity and compressed it into an opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer.” It received its first fully staged realizations in 2001, first in Brussels at the Theatre de la Monnaie and in this country at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Controversy followed the show and although it was given concert performances from time to time, its second full-dress American appearance came only in 2011, a decade later, in St. Louis. There was a flurry of protest then but the show went on. It was received respectfully, but it might not have been as successful had O’Leary, the opera company and their stalwart community partners not done deliberate work preparing the public with a series of explanatory programs that began long before opening night.

In response, in 2012, O’Leary won the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council’s Norman A. Stack Award for community engagement projects specifically for programs surrounding the production of Klinghoffer.

In 2011, I wrote, “Opera Theatre was built in large measure by women and men who subscribe to the notion that art, with all powers summoned, is capable of effecting real change over time. The effects may not be immediate or obvious, but moral lessons presented abstractly and subtly in great operas such as ‘Klinghoffer’ become understood and accepted as standards of conduct and behavior, and, put to work as agents of understanding, may eventually effect change. Furthermore, when art confronts darkness and evil directly with light and with goodness, the metamorphosis can be lasting and beneficial to us all.”

“Klinghoffer” was first. This year on June 15, Opera Theatre brought to its stage an equally challenging and potentially controversial opera, “Champion,” which it commissioned from composer Terence Blanchard and librettist Michael Cristofer.

In one of the laudatory reviews it received, the critic and author Harper Barnes called the work “vibrant and mournful” in his notice for the Beacon. The torments rained on the human soul and body are “Champion” essentials. Its cast of characters is composed of members of populations the mainstream often regards, or once regarded, as disposable: African Americans, gay people, poor people, single mothers, plus a category I’d not thought of before, prize fighters. There is no hiding place down here.

But back to the contract. For his part, O’Leary, 38, is delighted with the contractual business. “The community that surrounds Opera Theatre is so welcoming and warm that when I came here it was the perfect way for me to get to know the larger community.”

He said as soon as he and his wife, Kara, arrived, “we felt we were living in a dream because people were so lovely and warm. We immediately felt part of a huge extended family.” Now, with two daughters and a cozy house in the Tower Grove neighborhood, he said, “We can’t believe our luck in living in such a wonderful city.”

Wonderful city includes his relationship with his colleagues in the arts – “the most collaborative I know by a long shot.”

He spoke warmly of his admiration for Jazz St. Louis executive director Gene Dobbs Bradford. “Champion would not have happened without Gene and Jazz St. Louis.”

St. Louis, he concluded, is a great place to live “and a great place to be producing artistic works that matter.”

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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