Recoil at the diabolical pie maker, laugh at the mischief of suitors-indisguise, be dazzled by the chaotic adventures of a young English girl, and follow a fiery gypsy to her tragic end. Beginning in May, characters of every age and motivation will captivate audiences at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL), with the production of Sweeney Todd, Così fan tutte, Alice in Wonderland and Carmen. “The upcoming season should be dynamite!” promises general director Timothy O’Leary.
The range of operas is designed to balance the popular and classic, like Carmen, with what O’Leary describes as “the new, unusual and funky,” like Alice in Wonderland. “This will be the American premiere of Alice. It was written by acclaimed young Korean composer, Unsuk Chin, and the libretto is by Pulitzer-prize winner David Henry Hwang. Musically it’s just wild and exciting!”
Presenting a premiere is challenging, but O’Leary says it also is rewarding. “If you think about what has to happen theatrically in Lewis Carroll’s story, and you think about the size of our stage, it’s not about tons of scenery. Our team has devised a really spectacular way of creating visual magic, using video projection technology that doesn’t overwhelm the story.” After seeing renderings of the set, O’Leary says it was easier to visualize. “When you picture it in the abstract, you think How are they going to do this on stage? But just wait—it’s going to be beautiful!”
The season opens with Bizet’s Carmen, featuring St. Louis native Kendall Gladen in the title role. “As a 16-year-old student at Roosevelt High School, Kendall participated in Opera Theatre’s education program for young singers, and that was the thing that launched her,” O’Leary explains. “After college, she won a scholarship to the San Francisco Opera, where she also was an Adler Fellow, and now she is an international star!” At her audition in New York City, O’Leary says that he and music director Stephen Lord were familiar with Gladen, but artistic director Jim Robinson was not. “After she sang both arias and knocked it out of the park, Jim turned to us and said, Where did we find her? Kendall is really an incredible story!”
O’Leary says the company casts principal singers and chorus members from all over the country and beyond. “It’s an extremely desirable gig for a singer because the audience in St. Louis is so wonderful, and also because we have critics traveling in from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. We specialize in singers who are stars on the rise, so audiences and critics get to see and hear them in St. Louis first.” The quality and originality of the repertoire has drawn international acclaim, as well, with The Sunday Times of London describing OTSL as “one of the few American companies worth the transatlantic fare.”
For a great introduction to the season and opera in general, O’Leary recommends Spotlight on Opera, a series of four panel discussions at the Ethical Society. “These are fun and fascinating! In addition to the panel members from Opera Theatre, we also have young singers from our chorus who perform excerpts from the opera, so music is part of the evening,” he notes. “And I always invite someone from outside of the opera world to add to the mix. For example, for Mozart’s Così fan tutte, we’re calling the discussion The Art & Science of Attraction, because Così fan tutte is sort of like ‘Mozart meets A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Washington University professor Eric Neutzel is our guest speaker and he’ll lead the discussion about what we know about the brain and attraction, and then we’ll talk about the opera as it relates to those ideas.” The discussions last about 90 minutes, he adds. “Opera is just a powerful way of telling stories, and this is a fine introduction to the ideas that make opera matter.”