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Opera Theatre announces first selections by community panel looking for new voices

Joe X. Jiang, Samiya Bashir and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj are among the artists of color participating in the New Works Initiative at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Joe X. Jiang, Samiya Bashir and Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj are among the artists of color participating in the New Works Initiative at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Artists of color who are creating three newly commissioned works at Opera Theatre of St. Louis say they are expanding the possibilities for which stories can make it to the opera stage.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis announced the three short operas commissioned through a program designed to open the opera world to artists who have been excluded in the past — particularly artists of color. Opera Theatre will produce the 20-minute operas March 16-18 at CoCA.

“It was really amazing to see all the different ways that folks have taken opera,” said Caroline Fan, a member of the community panel that selected the three works. “I'm so deeply excited for rappers and writers and other young creatives, who have never even considered opera, to see these deeply powerful and moving works.”

St. Louis-based artist Tre’von Griffith wrote and composed “Madison Lodge,” which looks at the history of drag balls in 1920s Harlem. “Cool Shack,” by Del’Shawn Taylor and Samiya Bashir, tells the story of an African American teenager who finds inspiration in the history of Black, female inventors.

Composer-librettists Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang wrote “Slanted: An American Rock Opera” about their experiences in the band the Slants, which successfully brought a lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court that affirmed its right to use a racial slur in its band name as a means of reappropriating the word.

The trio of short works will be the first fruits of Opera Theatre’s New Works Initiative. In March, the organization appointed a 10-person panel of St. Louis artists of color, mostly with members who do not primarily work in the opera field, to commission new works. The panel will commission six more short operas in the next two years. At least one St. Louis-based creative team will be included in each round.

The program is supported by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Opera Theatre does not yet have concrete plans for how to continue the program after the three-year period covered by the grant, and is instead focusing on one year at a time, a spokesperson said.

Tre'von Griffith wrote and composed "Madison Lodge" about the drag ball culture in 1920's Harlem.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Tre'von Griffith wrote and composed "Madison Lodge" about the drag ball culture in 1920s Harlem.

“I guess we revere opera in this very pristine, prestigious way. I don't know, maybe I felt like I wasn't good enough to be in that type of space,” Griffith said. “I’m happy that I made the decision to apply. I'm finding new things out about myself and my artistry. And yeah, I deserve to take up space here, just like anyone else."

Opera Theatre has had some recent successes commissioning full-length operas by artists of color. “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” by jazz trumpeter and composer Terrence Blanchard and writer Charles Blow, premiered at Opera Theatre in 2019 before becoming the first opera composed by Black artists to receive a production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

But the key shift represented by the New Works Initiative is in taking some of the commissioning authority away from Opera Theatre’s leaders, and inviting in people from outside the sometimes-closed world of opera, including artists who more regularly work with other musical forms.

“So often, who you invite to commission an opera is just, it’s who’s already in your network. It’s who we know. It’s who had access to reach out to us. And so I think we’ve been constrained by the network we’re living inside of,” General Director Andrew Jorgensen said when announcing the initiative in March.

Opera Theatre’s senior leaders, Jorgensen and Artistic Director James Robinson, are white men. Last year, 80% of its board members were white, including Chairperson Noémi K. Neidorff. Jorgensen has described the organization’s administrative staff as “almost entirely white.”

The lack of racial diversity reflects nationwide trends in the field of European classical music, where orchestra members, conductors, organizational staff and board members are disproportionately white and male.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, members of whom form Opera Theatre’s house ensemble, splits about 50/50 between male and female musicians. Its CEO is a white woman, and its music director is a white man.

The operas of Mozart and Puccini could be complemented with new work that reflects a variety of experiences and incorporates newer musical styles, said Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj, a Brooklyn-based theater artist who will direct the three short operas.

“The future is inclusion. I think the future is taking a lot of these European white models that existed, and what opera can be, and shattering it. We do a disservice in any art form if we don’t evolve,” Maharaj said.

“We know the history of the lack of opportunity and access to BIPOC creatives,” Maharaj said. “And to be able to see what amazing art has come forth, to see the outpouring that has come forth in St. Louis from the BIPOC community — and particularly the African American and Asian communities coming together and rallying around these new works — it’s a moment that will hopefully be a touchstone for years and years to come.”

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.