Union Avenue Opera (UAO) is heating up the summer with two emotive classics: Puccini’s heart-wrenching Madama Butterfly and Wagner’s embattled Die Walküre. Artistic director and conductor Scott Schoonover recently spoke with LN about the productions and also gave us a glimpse into next year’s 20th anniversary season.

Describe the UAO experience.

We perform in a church that is converted into a theater for the summer. It’s a very come-as-you-are experience, with a laid-back, intimate feel. You can experience everything that the performers are onstage, whether you are sitting in the back or front row. There is the physical sense of feeling their voice in a very acoustically live building, so the singers and orchestra really fill the hall and people really feel it. There is real acting and storytelling going. It’s also interesting for the singers—because they can really feel the audience and they want to communicate with them. And if people are afraid of foreign languages, we project the English supertitles so the audience can keep up with the story.

What is the challenge in putting together each season?

We are trying to do something out-of-the-box each year, and we also want something that will appeal to everyone. We strive for the widest variety possible. We look at languages and musical styles, from Baroque and contemporary to classic and beloved.

How do you select your opera stars?

We have auditions each year in St. Louis, Chicago and New York, and we hire the best people who come through the door.

Tell us about your upcoming production of Madama Butterfly (July 12, 13, 19, 20).

We performed Madama Butterfly 10 years ago. For this one, we brought back tenor Mathew Edwardsen to play (American Naval Lieutenant) Pinkerton—the bad-guy love interest—and Ann Hoyt, who has been with our opera for years, to play Madama Butterfly. Both are favorites of our audience. Hoyt (based in New York) sang for our first opera in 1995, and she has never sung this before. Madama Butterfly is a wonderful story with some of Puccini’s best, most heartfelt music. You really feel for Madama Butterfly and what she’s going through. The chorus includes Butterfly’s aunt and cousin, and we have a talented cast that is able to bring that out and make the audience really care about everyone onstage. It’s magical.

We understand UAO is presenting the four chapters of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Last year, the opera performed the first installment, Das Rheingold. Talk about this year’s production of Die Walküre, the next show in the series.

Die Walküre (Aug.16, 17, 23, 24) is what everyone thinks of when they think of opera: It has the most famous music, Ride of the Valkyries, and the stereotypical women in metal chest plates and helmets. We will perform it in its original German language, with English supertitles. We are using the same set for each of the four years, but we are adding components each year. Last year, we had the platform with screens—now it has a ring arching over the top, which adds another element of interest. This chapter ends with Brunnhilde encased in a ring of fire. It’s your only chance to see this in St Louis, so you don’t want to miss it.

Describe how special effects will amp up the production.

Since this production is usually done on a grand scale, we have two large screens and three projectors to show an original CGI video by Michael Perkins that runs through the whole show. It’s all timed with the music, so there is a real sense of fantasy. We are not able to build and change sets easily, so this gives us all sorts of possibilities. The video is realistic, and it was really magical last year.

As you look toward your 20th anniversary season, what will be in store for the celebration?

We are gearing up for next year’s 20th season with more exciting, new things. For example, we are starting the Young Artists Program. It will be open to local university students, and we are going to be reaching out in the fall to get them involved. As far as next year’s shows, we are presenting the classic La Traviata, which people are excited about, as well as A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams. With Williams being a local person, I think there will be a lot of interest in that production, too.

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