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Opera Theatre of Saint Louis rejects ‘elitist’ stereotype by creating universal experiences

Stephen Lord, Tim O'Leary, and Aubrey Allicock joined "St. Louis on the Air" in studio.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

In 1976, a small group of dedicated opera aficionados brought eleven performances of four operas, ranging from Mozart to Britten, to St. Louis.

The repertory was unconventional, and all the operas were performed in English rather than their original languages—unusual choices for traditional opera festivals, but choices that continue, 40 years later, to draw curious locals and dedicated foreign followers to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

The desire to push musical and theatrical boundaries has guided Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) since its beginning, said general director Tim O’Leary.

Founding general director Richard Gaddes, among other early leaders, initiated OTSL with the tripartite intention of introducing adventurous repertory to St. Louis, St. Louis to the international opera community, and new, promising singers to the performing arts world. As of its 40th anniversary, OTSL has presented 24 world premieres and 24 American premieres. In the process, it has shaped St. Louis into an international destination for high-quality opera.

“I’m happy to say we have not only one of the most gung-ho and loyal audiences of any opera company in the country, but it’s an incredibly diverse audience in terms of who comes and where they come from,” O’Leary said. The six-week festival eventually produces four operas at once, attracting attendees from every St. Louis zip code—and far beyond.

“Our highest count, I think, is 47 states in a single season, and 12 foreign countries represented in the audience,” O’Leary said.

Opera is not typically considered an accessible or universal art form, but OTSL’s numbers beg to differ. O’Leary insisted that people’s preconceptions (and misconceptions) of opera are demolished when they step into the theatre. New attendees, he said, can find the combination of music and theater, linked by powerful human voices, strangely familiar.

“And it’s nothing like all those sort of ridiculous stereotypes, unless it’s done badly. Which we don’t do.”

OTSL is committed to the accessibility of its performances and the immersion of its audiences. The theatre itself is quite small, seating only 987. All operas are performed in English. And following performances, artists mingle with the audience under a tent in the nearby lawn, allowing a kind of connection that is usually limited by the distance from stage to seat, or by money. There is no donor requirement or status advantage at OTSL—anyone can attend, join and enjoy.

Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock, who got an early start with OTSL and has since become a principal artist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, said that ‘the Tent’ is a uniquely American, uniquely St. Louisan experience.

“The audience in St. Louis, there’s nothing like them,” said Allicock. “It was the first time I actually felt the heartbeat of an entire city.”

The Tent is one of several ways OTSL works to combat the perception of opera as stuffy or elitist: the organization boasts a rapidly-growing Young Friends program, several new, commissioned operas, and the discovery and cultivation of promising young artists like Allicock.

Nationally renowned singers such as Christine Brewer, Nathan Gunn, Sylvia McNair and Susan Graham gained early exposure from their performances with OTSL. Singers, directors and managers alike are encouraged to develop strong professional and artistic skills—and to push the envelope, emotionally and theatrically, in their performances.

“Opera has always been best at dealing with the extreme places in human emotion,” O’Leary said. As opera changes with the world itself, becoming globalized and refreshed, it stays universal, poignant and relevant. And young singers are perfect conduits for this dynamism, said music director Stephen Lord, because they are just beginning to experience life’s joys and tragedies in full form.

Allicock noted that singing is an intensely personal experience. “Because the singer’s voice is so individual--I am using my own soul to create this work, and it’s coming out of me, the instrument, who has never sung it before, done it before,” Allicock said. That kind of singing keeps you honest, he said—and aware.

“We all have lives,” said Lord. “Aubrey’s had a year with some sadness in it, and he’s had a year with some happiness in it, and you bring it to the theatre with you—try to leave it at the door, but it’s still a part of you.”

No opera, perhaps, has been more representative of OTSL’s mission to push boundaries and present opportunities than “Champion,” a jazz opera inspired by the life of Emile Griffith—his younger self performed by Allicock.

“We were lucky to partner with Jazz St. Louis and commission “Champion” from Terence Blanchard,” Lord said. It was Blanchard’s first opera, Lord explained, and the combination of jazz, opera and theatrical storytelling created a moving and beautiful premiere. Its 2013 performances garnered critical and popular acclaim.

“This was about moving the art form forward,” Lord said. 46 percent of the audience at “Champion” was made up of brand-new OTSL attendees. “It was that feeling of something being born that’s significant, new and beautiful.”

And, O’Leary noted, something that resonates. “It’s been about bringing people both literally and figuratively into the Tent,” he said said; “giving them the opportunity to discover how beautiful and moving and truthful opera is, and relevant.”

Lord agreed. Opera is what OTSL does, he said—but what it is, is an experience.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced byMary Edwards andAlex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalistDon Marsh. Follow us on Twitter:@STLonAir.  

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