With a loyal local following and rave reviews from The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis continues to draw adoring audiences from throughout the world. And its new season is set to be no exception. General director Tim O’Leary recently filled us in on the company’s worldwide impact and its four new shows, to feature classic and modern opera, jazz, romance and comedy.
Talk about Opera Theatre’s presence, locally and internationally.
Opera Theatre has a national profile and always has specialized in discovering major star singers when they are about to be household names in the opera world. Last season, audiences came from 43 states and 12 foreign countries. In order to draw that, you have to have something truly unique.
Tell us about this year’s opening show.
The Pirates of Penzance (May 25 to June 29) is beautiful, tuneful and hilarious. Gilbert and Sullivan were sort of the Monty Python of their time, so it’s just a beloved classic about pirates who are not good at being pirates because they are too tender-hearted. Starring as Mabel, Deanna Breiwick (Johanna in Sweeney Todd last year) is recently out of Julliard and just joined the Metropolitan Opera. She is incredibly charismatic, which is perfect for the character, so it is just fireworks.
What can audiences expect from your other classic production this season?
Il Tabarro and Pagliacci (June 1 to 29) is a blood-and-guts Italian opera, where there is a fake audience watching the fake show of a murderous love triangle--but the fake show turns out to actually be happening. The fake audience doesn’t know, but the real audience does, so it is just a dynamite show. It stars Kelly Kaduce, one of the greatest singing actresses alive. People get grabbed by the throat, and it is unforgettable.
Describe the new work the company will be performing this season.
We thought it would be great to have a new jazz opera. Champion (June 15 to 30) is co-commissioned by Jazz St. Louis. It is co-written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer and jazz composer Terrence Blanchard, the son of an opera singer—so he has opera in blood. It follows the life of Emile Griffith, former world welterweight champion, but it is ultimately about any person who goes through a lot of pain, and then redemption.
How does Opera Theatre impact performers’ careers?
Corinne Winters, who stars in The Kiss (June 16 to 28), is the perfect poster child for what Opera Theatre does. Her first opera job in 2009 was in the chorus, and she has been back ever since in increasingly prominent positions. Then, we awarded her a $10,000 prize to help support her budding career, and she used that to go to Europe to audition for La Traviata—and got the lead! It opened in February in London, and the headline in the London Evening Standard was: Corinne Winters Steals the Show as Violetta.
Tell us about the international arts conference you recently attended.
The Chief Executive Program run by National Art Strategies assembled 100 international art CEOs—from museums, theaters, zoos and more. I was one of three opera representatives. One meeting was at Harvard Business School, where we had this think-tank role to discuss what the future of arts and culture will be in a world that is changing rapidly. The main message is to recognize the rate of change in today’s world. We are driven by things like the Internet and a vast amount of competition that exists for consumers really means that cultural organizations must be relevant in offering value. I always say it is not our job to talk about how we’re valuable, it’s to be valuable to the community.
What is unique about attending an Opera Theatre production?
We’ve had an incredibly loyal base of subscribers since the company began. People get addicted to it because the experience is so immediate—with 987 seats, a small theater by opera standards—the performer is communicating directly with the audience. Even for people who don’t think they like opera, a lot of them are converted here. We perform in the English language because opera is meant to be understood, so that means things that are unbearably, tragically beautiful are much more so because the audience is hanging on every word…and things that are funny are actually funny.
Beyond the stage, describe the atmosphere before and after the shows.
When I moved to St. Louis, I couldn’t believe how welcoming a company it is. The artists feel like they have a home here, and the whole vibe before and after a show is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the country. There is a relaxed and informal picnic in the garden beforehand; and after, people stay and have drinks in the tents and the cast always come out to mingle with the audience.