Opera for All – Part Two

With its first-of-its-kind New Works Collective, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis brings representation and previously unsung stories to the stage.

Culture

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By Jennifer Silverberg, Once Films

This past December, on an overcast, unseasonably warm afternoon, Roe stood at the head of the room inside Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ Webster Groves practice space. Flanked by her exasperated teacher on one side and her equally frustrated mother on the other, the neurodivergent fifth-grader’s inability to feel seen was palpable to everyone in the audience who’d gathered to see her story. Granted, Roe’s journey was fictional — depicted in the new 20-minute opera Mechanisms and performed brilliantly by adult opera singer Helen Zhibing Huang — but for those five or so minutes when she was center stage, the audience who’d gathered to get a sneak peek of Mechanisms sat utterly enthralled, invested in what was to become of this young girl who seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. 

In the traditional opera world, Roe’s story — that of a neurodivergent child struggling to keep up in math class because of her unique way of seeing numbers — would not have been told. Its composer, J.E. Hernandez, would have likely never had his beautiful music heard, and its librettist (the writers of librettos, or the text of an opera), Marianna Mott Newirth, may have never had her words heard by an audience. However, as part of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ New Works Collective, Roe and the work of those who are bringing her to life are an integral part of the company’s 2024 season and, just as importantly, a fresh new way for St. Louisans of all backgrounds and experiences to connect with the art form.

Inaugurated as part of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ 2023 season, the New Works Collective is the company’s groundbreaking effort to bring new voices into the world of opera, as well as to connect new audience members with the art form by exploring characters and stories that embody the full spectrum of modern life. A completely fresh approach to commissioning new operas, this first-of-its-kind program upends the form’s traditional model in favor of empowering composers and librettists who may feel that they do not have a place in opera and giving members of the community the chance to see themselves in the stories being performed. It’s an approach that New Works Collective conductor Darwin Aquino feels is vital for keeping opera resonant in today’s society. 

Darwin Aquino, New Works Collective member and conductor at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and Anh Le, Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

“The New Works Collective is about telling stories that don’t get the opportunity to be told in a setting that is very special,” Aquino says. “The beauty of it is that when we think of opera, we think of the traditional works — Rossini, Puccini. These are great works, but we also need to open the door to new stories and new things so we can relate to what is happening nowadays. The New Works Collective is about the stories that really feel like they are a part of society right now, and it also gives opportunities to composers and librettists who don’t necessarily have that opportunity to write and produce opera.”

Unlike the traditional way of producing opera, wherein a company decides to commission a new work and goes to its existing network of composers and librettists to see what they come up with, the New Works Collective invites any and all prospective composers and librettists to submit their ideas to the company through a nationwide open call. There are no experience requirements, and ideas do not have to be fully developed to be considered. A panel of community members from all walks of life then reviews submissions and selects which ones the company will produce. As Anh Le, director of marketing and public relations for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, explains, it’s a way of doing things that takes the power out of the hands of the company and established players and puts it in the hands of those who may have otherwise been traditionally shut out of the process.

“Traditionally, most companies are only contacting a couple of composers they already have in their rolodex; amazing works have been built this way, but it’s inherently a limited pool of people,” Le explains. “If you don’t have representation and experience in the opera industry, there is no way you wind up on the radar of most companies. We wanted to know what it would look like if we disrupted this model, and we came up with the idea of divesting the decision-making power out of the company and into the community. It’s a completely inverted model, and I don’t know of any other company that is working with a process like this.”

Darwin Aquino, New Works Collective member and conductor at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, conducts a preview of the 2024 New Works Collective season in December 2023.

Those selected to have their works produced as part of the New Works Collective spend an entire year working with the program and receive vital mentorship, networking opportunities, and resources to help bring their stories to life. This year, in addition to Mechanisms, two other operas will premiere as part of the collective. Unbroken, composed by Ronald Maurice and written by J. Mae Barizo, tells the story of a single mother who is nearing the end of her life and preparing her sons, in particular her eldest, to carry on her legacy. In On My Mind, composed by Jasmine Barnes and written by Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton, two women with shared experiences meet and form a deep, lasting friendship. The three operas, which will be shown together March 14 through 16, show the community that opera is a living, breathing art form that can help them make sense of life as it is experienced today.

“All three stories are beautiful and touching, and you don’t get to see them in a traditional opera,” Aquino says. “Art has always been a way to communicate with society. What the artist does brings feelings out in the audience, who then takes those feelings and sends them back again. This communication of energy and feelings and thought makes art something that is alive and right here. For many years classical music has been just repeating the same pieces and repertoire. That is great. Who doesn’t want to hear Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart? But we also need to connect with creators nowadays, reflect what is happening and do our own thing in terms of art so that we are not just reproducing the same thing all over again.”

Already, Aquino, Le, and their colleagues have seen this approach resonate with audiences. Last year’s New Works Collective performances brought in new faces to the theater and created a joyous atmosphere that, as Le notes, harkens back to the roots of opera as an art form of the people. She and Aquino attribute this to the fact that the stories were chosen by members of the St. Louis community for the St. Louis community — and when audience members can see themselves in what’s presented on stage, it lends to a more festive environment where everyone feels included and valued. 

From top to bottom, left to right: Photos from the 2023 New Works Collective, including "Cook Shack" by composer Del'Shawn Taylor and librettist Samiya Bashir and "Slanted: An American Rock Opera" by co-composers/co-librettists Simon Tam and Joe X. Jiang. The two photos on bottom are from "Madison Lodge" by composer/librettist Tre'von Griffith. Photos by Philip Hamer courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

“It is important to us that in our city that is majority non-white, our audience better reflects the diversity of our region,” Le says. “The New Works Collective saw a more diverse and younger audience — one that doesn’t always feel comfortable in opera houses or coming to see traditional works. The response was tremendous. People were laughing and talking back. There were kids and students, so much celebration and a palpable sense of joy at the end of each night. And it wasn’t just because of the stories but because of the role the community panel plays in the process. They bring friends, and their friends know they are part of the experience. That was a beautiful thing to see, and we are really hoping that a lot of the people who were new to opera come back and that there is this sense of community celebration that continues to radiate through the works this year.”

Aquino certainly hopes this is the case, and he sees the New Works Collective not as a standalone initiative, but one of the many ways in which Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is staying true to its founding mission: to make opera accessible to all. Like Le, he understands that there can be a preconception of the form as something that is elite, inaccessible to the people, and out of touch with contemporary society. But he also believes it doesn’t have to be that way — that it shouldn’t be that way. Opera, after all, is storytelling. It just has to be intentional about what and whose stories it chooses to tell. 

“I think classical music needs to continue finding ways to connect with society,” Aquino says. “If in classical music — by which I mean opera, symphony, chamber music — we fail to do that, then it is not going to have a place in the future. I believe that the New Works Collective is reaching out to new audiences and making them feel that they are part of the story and able to see themselves represented on the stage through characters and stories so that they can relate in a direct way. It’s a perfect example of reclaiming that place and saying, ‘Here we are. We want to connect with you. We want you to be part of this.’”

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two stories dedicated to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Find our first story, focused on Opera Theatre’s history and spring and summer festival season, including a preview of the 2024 programming, here.

Opera singers performing a preview of the New Works Collective 2024 season in December 2023.

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