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Timothy O’Leary’s tenure as OTSL leader highlighted by inclusion, groundbreaking work

Timothy O'Leary concludes ten years of leadership at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Timothy O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, is concluding a 10 year run in St. Louis as head of the city’s premier opera theater company.

“I’m getting very nostalgic about St. Louis and how much I love it here,” O’Leary told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh on Tuesday.

O’Leary is heading east to lead the Washington National Opera, an organization that’s part of the Kennedy Center and that enjoys more than twice the budget of OTSL.

“It’s a new adventure and I’m excited about it,” O’Leary said, as the season in St. Louis ends June 24.

Chief among his accomplishments at OTSL is the collaboration with Jazz St. Louis that brought “Champion” to the stage. "Champion" is the true story of boxer Emile Griffith, a young gay man from the Virgin Islands who wants to design hats, but is persuaded by a fast-talking New Yorker in the hat trade that he has the potential to be a champion prize fighter. Griffith became the Welterweight Champion of the World.

In recent years, Opera Theatre of St. Louis also gained attention with a production of the controversial “The Death of Klinghoffer” and debuted a new abbreviated version of “Grapes of Wrath.” World premieres of “27” and “Shalimar the Clown” also took place during O’Leary’s tenure.

Other collaborations O’Leary trumpets are ones OTSL maintains with the Diversity Awareness Partnership, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and the Interfaith Partnership of Greater St. Louis. The collaborations, especially the one that resulted in “Champion,” have brought new and diverse audiences to the opera.

“Champion,” O’Leary said, “became a sellout world premier and [brought] by far the most diverse audience to OTSL.”

“It begins with what you produce on stage,” he said, noting that opera largely has a 400 year history of Western European creations. “Now we’re in 21st century America and opera is increasingly a 21st century American art form.

“A lot of the greats of opera creation today – composers and librettists – are the Americans.”

Further, O’Leary talked about the organization’s efforts to distance itself from stereotypes that opera is elitist. “Opera is about how it connects to people’s lives,” he said.

In a 2015 interview, O’Leary expounded on the misconceptions of opera, noting that “it’s nothing like all those sort of ridiculous stereotypes.” New attendees, he said, find the combination of music and theater, linked by powerful human voices, strangely familiar.

Taking over as general director at OTSL will be Andrew Jorgensen, who coincidentally comes from the Washington National Opera where he directs artistic planning and operations.

“[Jorgensen is] one of the people I’ve most enjoyed working with in the opera world,” O’Leary said of his successor. “We’ve been downloading all the information we can to one another about both companies for the past several months.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie HemphillLara Hamdan and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.