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Winter Opera gives the devil his due

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Just when you thought giving candy to the devil at your front door would shoo him away for another year, he’s back. He’s center stage this weekend in Winter Opera’s new production of Charles Gounod’s masterpiece, “Faust.”

He’s no horned, Halloween devil in red or black satin. He's a suave, sophisticated, deep-throated tempter called Mephistopheles.

“Faust” is the first of three new opera productions in the seventh season of the ever-improving Winter Opera. It will be sung in French with English supertitles.

The story is based on the first part -- the tragic romantic part -- of what may be the German language’s greatest masterpiece, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1808 play “Doctor Faustus.”

“’Faust' is such a dramatic story with gorgeous music,” Winter Opera founder and general director Gina Galati said, explaining why she chose to stage the opera. “And we hadn’t done a French grand opera for a few years, not since we’ve had space at Chaminade. We are doing three traditional classic operas this season. We are a very traditional opera company.”

Nationally, word is out that Winter Opera is a singers’ company also. Last spring more than 300 paid the application fees and sent in voice tapes in hopes of gaining an audition. Galati and Winter Opera’s longtime music director Steven Jarvi (now in his third month as St. Louis Symphony resident conductor) selected 150 singers to audition in New York City and St. Louis last spring. Galati, a native St. Louisan, is herself a gifted soprano with an international resume.

Tell the story clearly

At the auditions, many sang music from the opera. Arias from “Faust” have long been favorite recital and audition offerings, stage director John Stephens said. The St. Louis native directs a highly regarded 60-singer opera program at Kansas University in Lawrence.

“My concept is to tell the story as clearly as possible," Stephens said. “Not to make it a quaint story with peasants and a red devil with pitchfork but something with a look that says that human nature is always tempted by evil. The Devil offered Faust riches and power but he wanted to be young again. How timeless is that?

“We say that all the time: I’d give anything to be young again. It’s a very contemporary passion,” he said.

Stephens reread Goethe's play and was pleased at first rehearsal that most of his cast had, too. "We have a most impressive cast, and they've come prepared. French enunciation was spot on in an early rehearsal. The leads have been giving concerts at area universities including some ‘Faust’ songs.

“I enjoy Goethe’s observations of human weakness and foibles and was surprised by his humor – sure it’s sardonic and satiric but it’s very funny."

He also reread one of his favorite writers, C.S. Lewis, and his take on the devil in “The Screwtape Letters.” Stephens also plumbed Machiavelli’s “The Prince” to examine the evil of destroying innocents for one's own self-gratification -- the way Faust does to the naive Marguerite.

“I adore Gounod’s beautiful music,” Stephens said. Galati and most of the cast echoed the praise. 

As a singer himself whose career in St. Louis started with Opera Theatre in 1982, Stephens believes music must tell the story's emotional track; nothing can get in the way of good singing.

Soprano Julia Ebner said “Faust” “is my favorite opera of all.” She sings Marguerite, the beautiful, naive young woman who unwittingly entices the brilliant but near-suicidal elderly scholar, Faust, to bargain with the devil to be young again.

Ebner, a Syracuse, N.Y., native has sung at Santa Fe Opera. Besides Marguerite, she also has sung such tragic leads as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata,” a role wildly popular with sopranos.

“Violetta can’t compare,” Ebner said. She especially loves the cathedral scene in “Faust” where, after Marguerite submits to the manipulative Faust, she goes to pray. The devil shows up to sing about her turn to his sinful ways. In the background, an organ plays the funeral dirge "Dies Irae."

“I love the combination of religious music and romantic opera music. It's so beautiful,” Ebner said.

Mezzo-soprano Erin Haupt sings the comic role of Martha Schwerlein, a middle-age war widow. She is pleased to add lighter minutes in the drama. At an early rehearsal she agreed fully with stage director Stephens that at one point she was to drop the flirty silliness and just sing beautifully.

“It’s the most beautiful music, I’ve ever sung,” Haupt said,

A St. Louis-based mezzo, Haupt has worked at both Winter Opera and Union Avenue Opera and teaches singers at St. Charles Community College .

Since medieval times, folk tales have been told about brilliant men who bargained with the devil for fleeting worldly pleasure. In return they agreed to serve the devil for all eternity in hell. 

Gounod’s 1859 French opera is considered a masterpiece.

“I think (Gounod's) Faust is one of  most nuanced roles for tenors,” said Clay Hilley, who sings Faust here.

Hilley learned the role in 2011 when Arizona Opera hired him as a cover, an understudy. With no emergency, he didn’t go on stage. This time, he has found much new richness in the score he memorized two years ago.

“I think you could sing Faust 50 times and still find new things in his character,” Hilley said. 

At 32, the Atlanta native, a 2011 Gerdine Young Artist at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, won "Opera News" praise for his work as the Messenger in Verdi’s "Aida” at Glimmerglass Opera in Copperstown, N.Y.

Often in "Faust," the bass who sings Mephistopheles is the scene stealer.

Toledo-based Timothy J. Bruno made his local debut in August as Wotan in “Die Walkure”at Union Avenue Opera. Wotan was one of 18 roles with regional operas Bruno, 26, has sung in the two years since he made his professional debut. Now he tumbles from the heavens to hell from Germanic god to Germanic devil.

“It’s such wonderful music,” Bruno said.

Winter Opera grows

Winter Opera is flourishing. Two weeks ago subscriptions for the new season’s three operas were double what they were last year on opening night, Galati said.

“Every year when I come back to (Winter Opera) Gina has made the company better and better,” said Stephens, who sang the title role in “Rigoletto” in the company's first season.

From the first, the fledgling company had strong support from many on The Hill, where “Rigoletto” was staged in St. Ambrose Catholic Church. Many never considered opera stuffy but something their own grandparents and parents loved. Galati’s maternal grandfather, Angelo Ferrante, relaxed on Sundays listening to opera recordings, most of them featuring Enrico Caruso. He'd heard much of the music as a young boy in Sicily. 

Galati and her board – later joined by music director Jarvi -- carefully built the company. Moving to Chaminade two years ago was a big leap in pulling in a wider audience.

The "new" this year is its move from a modest Hill storefront on Marconi a few blocks south to a former recording studio with a spacious office, two rehearsal halls and three practice studios. For its first six years, the company was a rehearsal venue vagabond, begging or borrowing church basements and vacant storefronts. Some of these places had little heat and no parking.

Galati hopes Winter Opera's new studio will bring in a small income if local music teachers, businesses and exercise class rent the space.

Winter Opera's season continues with a salute to Verdi’s 200th birthday with his “Falstaff” Feb. 7 and 9 and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” March 7 and 9.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.