Opera for All – Part One

A national and international jewel, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis brings world-class opera to the metro in welcoming and accessible ways.

Culture

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By Jennifer Silverberg, Once Films

In some ways, Andrew Jorgensen believes that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is hiding in plain sight — at least in its hometown. 

Regarded on the national and international stages as one of the jewels of the art form, the company, based in Webster Groves, is considered a major incubator of talent. Its artists go on to earn contracts with the Washington National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. It plays with a Grammy Award-winning symphony orchestra. It’s presented 37 world premiere operas — one of the highest, if not the highest percentage of new works presented by any U.S. company. It consistently leads the industry in finding innovative ways to empower new voices.

The opera world certainly knows Opera Theatre and its trailblazing work. Yet whether or not the broader St. Louis metro area knows about the world-class company is a question Jorgensen and his team at Opera Theatre regularly ask themselves — and getting to the “why” is the organizing principle that animates their work. 

“I think St. Louisans know that they have a world-class zoo and that they have a world-class botanical garden and a world-class art museum and a world-class symphony orchestra, but I’m not always sure that St. Louisans know that they have an internationally known opera company,” Jorgensen says. “The rest of the opera world is paying attention to what happens at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.” 

Andrew Jorgensen, General Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, speaks at a New Works Collective performance in December 2023.

Jorgensen, who has been Opera Theatre’s General Director since 2018, understands that, over time, opera has developed an image as an elite art form — one of wealthy individuals, mostly white, dressed in finery and settled into expensive seats while listening to works performed in a different language than the one they speak. He hopes to shatter that perception, just as Opera Theatre’s founding general director, Richard Gaddes, hoped to shatter it when he brought to life the organization in the spring of 1976.

Gaddes knew that the expected thing to do would be to build a company that would adhere to the standard playbook of performing classics in the languages they were originally written in for a niche audience of well-heeled opera-philes. Instead, he made it his mission and the guiding mission of Opera Theatre to eschew business as usual in favor of making opera accessible to every member of the St. Louis community. By performing works in English, making subtitles a part of the production, and focusing on new and emerging talent in a festival season format, Gaddes balanced the importance of the form’s tradition with making it relevant and resonant for contemporary audiences. 

“Opera Theatre was founded on this mission that opera can be accessible and that this company was going to be about what the future of opera can be,” Jorgensen says. “We were founded on the same principles that we continue to follow today.”

Anh Le, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Anh Le, Opera Theatre’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, sees the vision that Gaddes set out for the company as much a return to the roots of the art form as it is a forward looking approach. 

“I think that Opera Theatre is not reinventing as much as it is connecting back to the roots of opera,” Le says. “For the last 100 years, it’s been seen as exclusive, where high-income fans dress up, walk down a red carpet, and listen in a language they don’t understand. Nothing about that sounds accessible. The reality is that when opera was invented, it was essentially broadway entertainment for the masses — an art form that included heckling and throwing fruit at the stage and at each other. There are wild stories of people forming cults around their favorite opera singers and having fist fights in the streets over which leading lady was best. It was always sung in the language of the audience; it was the only way everyone could understand.”

In its 49 seasons — of which its central programming consists of a spring and summer festival season — Opera Theatre has embraced this return to the community aspect that defined the genre, according to Jorgensen and Le, from its inception to around the late 19th century. Although there are no flying tomatoes and heckling at an Opera Theatre performance, attendees can expect to engage with the works in English and projected subtitles so that they are better able to understand the words being sung. The company also provides large print and Braille programs, audio descriptions and American Sign Language at its performances to help people with a range of abilities be better able to access opera.

This commitment to accessibility and inclusion happens off the stage as well; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis makes sure that financial circumstances are not a barrier to opera through its Phyllis’ Seats, a program that provides 50 free seats, available on a first-come, first-served basis, to every performance. Paid seats begin at $25. 

Pictured from top to bottom, left to right: Photos from the 2023 Opera Theatre festival season, including Treemonisha, Tosca, Così fan tutte, and Susannah. Photos from Treemonisha, Susannah, and Così fan tutte by Eric Woolsey courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Photo from Tosca by Jessica Flanigan courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

“Opera at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is not a black tie occasion,” Jorgensen says. “We try to reject that caricature of opera. When you come to us, we want it to be a festive night out. That means come with friends and family, enjoy a picnic in the garden before the performance. Afterward, enjoy a toast with members of the cast and company. This is the only company in the world where you don’t have to be a donor to interact with the artists. We are giving a refreshed intensity to our desire that this art form should be broadly accessible to audiences and the artists who come to work with us.”

To make a career in opera accessible to all artists and those who work behind the scenes, Opera Theatre has committed to pay equity and competitive working conditions and offers housing to artists so that they can do their work irrespective of their economic circumstances. This, according to Jorgensen, broadens how the company screens applications, assesses auditions, and provides access to jobs, all of which get to its core value of being an incubator of new talent. 

“Don’t get me wrong — we have plenty of work we need to continue to do,” Jorgensen says. “We are all on a journey and there is a lot we need to do to make sure we are as inclusive as this company and this art form needs to be.”

Part of that work is thoughtful consideration of the content of the operas themselves. Last year, Opera Theatre launched the New Works Collective, a bold new way of commissioning stories that completely upends the traditional process. Instead of the company itself commissioning new operas, the New Works Collective invites composers and librettists (writers of librettos, or the text of an opera), regardless of experience or background in classical music, to submit outline ideas for 20-minute operas. The applications are then assessed by a group of St. Louis community members, who choose three ideas to be produced as operas. Composers and librettists selected receive a stipend, housing, and invaluable workshopping, mentorship, and production support from Opera Theatre. It’s a one-of-a-kind program that is helping to amplify underrepresented voices in opera so that both artists and the audience can see themselves in the stories being told. 

Darwin Aquino, New Works Collective member and conductor at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, reviews a piece of music at Opera Theatre headquarters.

“The goal is to allow any artist in this country interested in experimenting with opera a chance to do so and also to allow our community to know that we are producing works that speak to them and are chosen by them,” Le says. “Opera needs that in order to remain relevant in the community.”

That emphasis on resonance is the driving force of what Opera Theatre chooses to showcase during its festival season as well. This season, which runs from late May through late June, includes four operas from the classic canon that are meant to connect the audience with issues that are as vital to think through today as they were when they were written. Opening the season is The Barber of Seville, which runs May 25 through June 29, an opera Jorgensen describes as a genuine comedy with some of the greatest tunes ever written for the opera stage. 

“Who amongst us hasn’t seen any of the Bugs Bunny night at the opera cartoons?” Jorgensen says. “That’s where so many of us learned about opera. People will love it and laugh; you can bring the entire family. If you’re never been to an opera, this is a great way to get into it.”

Jorgensen is also excited about Puccini’s La bohème, running June 1 through 30, a production he notes is one of the most tragic, famous love stories ever written for the opera stage and offers a wonderful entry point for those who want to immerse themselves in the art form. 

The third and fourth operas of the season, Julius Caesar and Galileo Galilei, may be lesser known than the first two, but Jorgensen believes they offer a poignant opportunity to understand where we find ourselves as a society at this particular moment in time.  

Andrew Jorgensen, General Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, speaks at a New Works Collective performance in December 2023.

“If you think Julius Caesar is ‘not for me’ but you liked Succession and Game of Thrones, I tell you, this is the original.”

As for Galileo Galilei, Jorgensen believes it offers a profound window into current discussions about truth and the importance of science.

“It’s beautiful music, a rarely performed opera, and a timeless story,” Jorgensen says. It’s not didactic and overly political but explores the conflict that can occur when people aren’t believing in science and gets to how we define truth and how we make progress in those ways. It’s timely and thought provoking, but also, many people may not know this work and story. It’s important in terms of the conversations it will convene, and it’s also an important work that people will want to see.”

Jorgensen views St. Louis’ fellow arts institutions as being vital contributors to this conversation as well. An east coast transplant who moved to St. Louis to work for Opera Theatre, Jorgensen is consistently impressed with not only the quality of the arts and cultural landscape in his adopted town, but also the desire of our world-class institutions to partner with one another, weaving the individual perspectives and talents each organization offers into a vibrant tapestry that tells the story of who we are — that this story resonates and is reflective of the community that experiences it is not only his north star, it’s the reason he and his fellow artists do this work.

“I love collaborating with my artistic and cultural institution partners,” Jorgensen says. “We have an incredibly rich cultural world here in St. Louis. I think Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is one of the great international jewels of the opera world and in St. Louis’ cultural crown, but I am always so proud we get to partner with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, The Sheldon, Jazz St. Louis, Big Muddy Dance Company, and on and on. We have such an incredibly rich cultural life here. It’s very powerful. There is a lot of synergy that comes from engagement with one another that only strengthens our work. We want St. Louisans to know and be proud of the incredible cultural and arts community we have here, and we want to encourage them to participate in it.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two stories dedicated to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Read our second story, focused on Opera Theatre’s New Works Collective, including a preview of its 2024 season, here.

Anh Le, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

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