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Opera Theatre: Shining enlightenment on the region with words and music for 41 seasons

A crowd takes in a performance at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Courtesy Opera Theatre of St. Louis
A crowd takes in a performance at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Forty years ago this week the lights went down on the Loretto-HiltonTheatre in Webster Groves. A special brand of illumination radiated that first night, shining optimism, hope and artistic authority on a new opera scene. It rose like a fiery dawn in late Midwestern springtime.

This week, that light continues to shine on Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which opens its new season Saturday with Giacomo Puccini’s “La bohème.”

From its start in 1976, the company has been a success, and a boon to the cultural life of the St. Louis region. A young, British impresario, Richard Gaddes, brought it to life, working magic with a lot of nerve and a bankroll of $135,000 in the inaugural year. A bright, ambitious staff and talented, young American singers put things over the top. Before long, Opera Theatre was a success, attracting attention from across the United States and abroad.

The first show, on May 22, 1976, was Gaetano Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale,” part of a season of 10 performances that also included Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Medium,” W.A. Mozart’s “The Impresario” and Benjamin Britten’s “Albert Herring.” The shows were hits or at least warmly received. The company was a hit too, the talk of the town, especially among the opera deprived.

On Saturday, Opera Theatre commences its music-drama miracle-making again, fresh and youthful in its vigorous middle age. Its home is the same opera house where magic was summoned first; the same basic scheme of four or five shows continues to inform the shape of the repertory. All operas are sung in English. Many of the faithful from 1976, among them donors who keep the corks popping and the company toiling, will take their anticipatory places in the intimate house, along with newcomers, some experiencing their first operas, ready to experience whatever General Director Tim O'Leary and company have in store.

Indeed, this year all season subscribers and those single ticket buyers who choose the opera "Shalimar the Clown" will experience world première performances of this fresh, new opera. The celestial byline attached to it is that of its author, SalmanRushdie, who not so long ago was a prime target of religious zealots hell-bent on a murderous fatwah. Now, either tolerance or the passage of time or common sense have made Rushdie safe for public appearances and for bringing his art to new audience

Generally, what audiences can expect from most Opera Theatre seasons is love and loss, human failure on a near-cosmic scale, the exotic and the comical — and bold, unapologetic gumption and fearlessness.

Here is a quick preview of the 41st season: 

Love and Loss: La bohème

Season after season, a sure-fire, box-office winner is brought to the stage. Although decisions about risk-free favorites have summoned squawking turkeys to the stage, usually longtime favorites draw crowds. Its opening performance at 8 p.mSaturday likely will be no exception. 

A man and woman embracing behind the words La boheme, the title of an opera to be performed by Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Credit Courtesy Opera Theatre of St. Louis

The first performances by the company of this opera — a Latin-Quarter tale of art, love, loss and final tragedy in Paris — took place in 1978. Four have since been scheduled, including this year's production. The company took “La bohème” on a regional tour in 2002.

This season, Hai Ji Chang portrays the frail seamstress Mimi, who loves and loses, and her true love, the poet Rodolfo (Andrew Haji). They are the bright stars of this sad and moving story. Meanwhile, orbiting around Mimi and Rodolfo are the fractious and funny Musetta (Lauren Michelle) and her sometime swain, Marcello (Anthony Clark Evans). As they duke it out, they reveal their nobility and loyalty.

Human failure and a moving forest

As long as Macbeth, now King of Scotland, maintains his sense of certainty, along with his sanity, he is safe. The prophesy given him long ago was he would live as long as Birnim Wood kept its distance from the high hill of Dunsinane. How could a woods move to a hill? When it did move, the prophesy was neutralized, fate went awry completely — and Macbeth was undone.

“Macbeth” — Macbetto in the original language of the show — was the first of Shakespeare’s dramatic, revolutionary tragedies to be transformed and brought to opera stages. This is Opera Theatre’s first go at “Macbeth.” Nevertheless, if history bears one out, opera-goers should anticipate a bloody beautiful evening in the opera house through the agency of a masterwork of misery, greedy misery. Those themes will be set to some of the world’s most glorious music and most rapturous poetry. One famous example, long learned by schoolchildren, embraced by William Faulkner and spoken first by the doomed Macbeth, is here in an excerpt:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing

Spoken or sung, and with regicide, homicide, raving madness and a fog of moral darkness oozing through damp castle walls and carpeting the landscape outside this story, the “Macbeths” of Shakespeare and Verdi, are catechisms of evil. They provide not only evenings of chilling drama but cautionary lessons as applicable now as they were more than 400 years ago when Shakespeare wrote the play or 170 years ago when the opera premièred. Greed and ambition are at “Macbeth’s” heart. 

Roland Wood stars as Macbeth, who was promised so much and kept nothing; Julie Makerov is Lady Macbeth, the ambition and blood-drenched wife. The play opens at 8 p.m. May 28.

Exotic fun transported from Vienna to the sunny Cyclades

Getting Richard Strauss’ opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” into an opera house in Vienna early in the 20th century might have been as complex as presenting Ulysses’s meanderings in “The Odyssey.”

And yet, finally this revised, tinkered with and peripatetic opera — hilarious at times, a bit sad at others — found its way to Vienna and later to us. Strauss’ show has received attention in St. Louis before: Opera Theatre staged performances in 1979 and again 1991, with Christine Brewer in the title role. Between Strauss’ transcendent music and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, I’d say “Ariadne” is heavenly, but that gives too much away.

The principal characters are Ariadne (Marjorie Owens), Bacchus ( AJ Glueckert), Zerbinetta (So Young Park) and the composer (Cecelia Hall). “Ariadne” opens June 5. (Please note for all operas with Sunday evening performances, curtains rise at 7 p.m. Matinee performances begin at 1 p.m.)

A woman looks off in the distance along with the watermarked image of a man in the foreground behind the text Shalimar The Clown, the title of an opera to be performed by Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Credit Courtesy Opera Theatre of St. Louis

A dark and cautionary voice

This is the world première of “Shalimar the Clown,” a work by composer Jack Perla and librettist Rajiv Joseph, who based the opera on Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same name. It stars Andriana Chuchman (Boonyi Caul), Sean Pannikar (Shalimar the Clown), Gregory Dahl (Max Ophuls) and Aubrey Allicock (Bulbul Fakh). Opera Theatre’s uncharacteristic and screechingly tacky promotional announcement for “Shalimar” might lead one to believe this show is some sort of Near Eastern bodice ripper; it is not. In fact, on a 1-to-10 serious scale, it gets a 10. Same goes for the risk-measuring device. Again, 10 is easily hit.

Such a pedigree and such attributes should guarantee a hit in box office terms. The Washington Post’s chief art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott, writing in the most recent issue of Opera News, provides reasons for its being an enormously critical and artistic success — a work well beyond simple celebrity.

Kennicott, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, recently cited Opera Theatre’s brave, new approach to addressing social justice — a brand of institutional risk that has little to do with the courage to schedule a demanding opera by Berg or Schoenberg.

O'Leary stages operas that speak to injustices. He has demonstrated that if rational and sympathetic opportunities for understanding are provided, the opera audience here is receptive to provocative works of art.

To prepare for a work that might be regarded as troubling or even offensive, the company offers public panels and social mixers, Kennicott writes, “all with an eye to creating awareness and sympathy for the opera’s message before its première.” Kennicott also says there is a strong moral element in Rushdie’s novel, along with sentiments of outrage and impatience. "It is a book with villains, and those villains carry over into the opera.” 

The final paragraph of his article not only spools out “Shalimar” but also exalts in the nature of the medium of opera, and compares "Shalimar's" essence to the operas of the great maestro Verdi.

“Verdi,” Kennicott writes, “insisted that the essence of an operatic subject was strongly defined characters and intense, violent conflicts. ‘Shalimar’ provides both. But the word ‘operatic’ has become lazy shorthand for anything that strikes contemporary audiences as melodramatic. And Shalimar is decidedly not that. It belongs to a new and evolving meaning of 'operatic' that encompasses works such as 'The Death of Klinghoffer,' and Steve Reich’s ‘Cave.’

“And now, one can add Blanchard’s ‘Champion’ and Perla’s ‘Shalimar.’ Kennicott wrote, "Operatic, in this sense, is more than drama on the boil; it is drama with a purpose — drama that can function only through the multivalent, polyphonic possibilities of music.”

More information on the 41st Opera Theatre of St. Louis season — opera schedules, curtain times, tickets and ticket availability, picnic suppers, parking, directions to the theater, the Pavilion on the Green and other details is available on the website.

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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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