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Richard Gaddes, visionary who brought opera to St. Louis, dies at 81

Richard Gaddes, founding general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, is seen speaking at the organization's gala in 2012. Gaddess arrived in St. Louis for a weekend and wound up leading Opera Theatre through its first nine years.
Richard Gaddes, founding general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, who spoke at the organization's gala in 2012, helped bring opera to the region. Gaddes arrived in St. Louis for a weekend in 1976 and wound up leading Opera Theatre through its first nine years.

Richard Gaddes, the founding general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, died Tuesday after a short illness. He was 81.

Gaddes built Opera Theatre into one of the nation’s leading regional opera producers. He also advocated for developing young, American opera artists and commissioning new work.

A group of opera-starved St. Louisans brought Gaddes to town in January 1976 for what was meant to be a short visit. They intended to build an opera company that would mount splashy productions of classic works throughout an extended season.

Gaddes presented an alternate vision. He suggested focusing on smaller productions that would take better advantage of the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Arts at Webster University and performing new works alongside old favorites in a repertory model across a limited, festival season.

In other words, he drew up a plan for Opera Theatre of St. Louis as it still operates — and thrives  —  today.

“It is hard to overstate Richard’s importance to Opera Theatre,” said General Director Andrew Jorgensen. “Forty-nine years later, Opera Theatre of St. Louis is still committed to and practicing the founding principles of the company.” 

Commissions have since done much to raise Opera Theatre’s profile worldwide. In 2021, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” the second opera the company commissioned from jazz artist and film composer Terrence Blanchard, became the first production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera written by an African American composer.

Gaddes was born in Wallsend, England. As a young talent manager, he launched a series of lunchtime concerts at Wigmore Hall in London for emerging opera artists who lacked the financial backing to mount a more formal debut recital.

Conductor John Crosby recruited Gaddes to work as artistic administrator at Sante Fe Opera, which Crosby founded. It was while serving in that role that Gaddes accepted an offer to consult for a group of people in St. Louis who were interested in starting a new opera company.

According to the story that circulates in the hallways of Opera Theatre, Gaddes intended to stay only for a weekend. Instead, he led the new organization for its first nine years.

“What they had in mind were large-scale operas in a big house. I spent the weekend looking at the various theaters where the opera theater could present its season. They had very little money and it just seemed like a very challenging task,” Gaddes recalled in a 2008 interview with the National Endowment for the Arts, which that year included him in its first round of Opera Honors Awards.

After seeing the 800-seat theater at Webster University, adjacent to a grassy area fit for picnicking, Gaddes suggested a change of plans.

“I recommended to them that rather than doing extravaganzas with elephants and camels and mob scenes in large spaces, that they have an ensemble company presenting the cream of the crop of young American singers,” Gaddes said. “I actually wasn’t expecting to start the company myself. I thought I was advising them what they should do. And somewhat to my amazement they came back and said, ‘We think this is a great idea. Let’s do it.'”

Five months later, Opera Theatre opened its first season.

Gaddes conceived of Opera Theatre as a warm-weather festival, where patrons were encouraged to arrive early, enjoy the grounds, and perhaps enjoy food and drink outdoors before each performance. The company has kept that model in place.

He went on to lead Grand Center Inc. and promote the revitalization of the Midtown arts district. Gaddes returned to Santa Fe Opera to lead it as general director for eight seasons beginning in 2000.

“Richard was a visionary, someone who could bring a vision to life. He was extraordinarily creative, had big ideas and could make things happen quickly,” Jorgenson said. "He was a mentor, an inspiration, and a close, personal friend."

Opera Theatre will honor Gaddes next season as part of its 50th anniversary.

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