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With "Tales of Hoffmann," Jennifer Johnson's star is born

Jennifer Johnson mezzo soprano 300 pxls 2008
Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis | St. Louis Beacon archive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The sensation of a young singer stepping in for an established star -- a "Star is Born" moment -- is adding excitement to Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production of Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann."

On Sat. night, May 24, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson, 23, steps into the dazzling role of Nicklausse, Hoffmann's great companion and muse in "The Tales of Hoffmann." In February she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council's annual auditions and for the next six weeks she is subbing for a resting mezzo soprano. The role has some of the opera's most beautiful arias.

The production opens Opera Theatre's festival season at the Loretto-Hilton Theatre at Webster University. "Hoffmann" continues in rotation with three operas through June 28. 

Many who heard Johnson in Tuesday's first dress rehearsals were enthralled. The conductor and director predict she'll be a big star.

"We are going to be talking about seeing her in this production for years," said OTSL music director Stephen Lord and conductor of "Hoffmann."

The replaced mezzo, Patricia Risley, and her husband Keith Phares are blissful about expecting twins at summer's end.

One of OTSL's consistent draws since its 1976 founding season has been the chance to see gifted, young American singers  move to stage center. Of course, these "overnight" sensations come after years of conservatory training, private vocal coaching, and apprenticeships with small opera companies. 

A star-is-born magic happened in OTSL's first season in 1976 when Sheri Greenawald, Vinson Cole and Ashley Putnam sang at Opera Theatre and has continued over the past three decades, especially with Christine Brewer, who made her opera debut in 1982 in OTSL's "A Beggar's Opera" and continues to return.

Opera director Renaud Doucet, like Offenbach a French citizen, has set out to offer Offenbach's beautiful music in a splendid, cohesive story, which too often is muddled on stage. Offenbach died years before its premiere at the Paris Opera Comique in February 1881 and left a huge but uncompleted opera."When they leave this opera we hope no one will consider Offenbach a minor composer any longer," Doucet said.

Jacob Offenbach, a gifted cello player, was the son of a German Jewish cantor. The father sent two teenage sons from Cologne to Paris for music conservatory studies. Jacob studied, changed his name to Jacques, and made and lost fortunes writing operettas for a Paris comic theaters.

Ailyn Perez as Olympia and Garrett Sorenson as Hoffmann in "The Tales of Hoffmann," which opens May 24 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. 2008 300 pxls
Credit Ken Howard | Opera Theatre of St. Louis | St. Louis Beacon archive
Ailyn Perez as Olympia and Garrett Sorenson as Hoffmann in "The Tales of Hoffmann," which opens May 24 at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Offenbach longed to write a serious opera. E. T. W. Hoffmann's dark, psychological tales were the rage of Paris in the mid-19th century. Offenbach took four of those tales and spent years weaving an opera about lost love and being true to one's calling. Offenbach worked and reworked his opera until there were so many unfinished versions and so much music that some music was only discovered in the 1970s. Several times in the OTSL production, singers litter the stage with papers to remind the listeners of all the versions.

As he labored over the opera, Offenbach feared if he actually finished it, he would die, Doucet said. After his death, his son got others to prepare the opera for the stage. Paris' Opera-Comique gave the premiere in 1881. It was a hit. Wagner recommended it, writing: "Look at Offenbach. He writes like the divine Mozart."

For more than a century conductors and directors have cut and pasted and polished it up. The music is lush and melodic, but the opera productions can be disorganized and murky.

"If we used all of Offenbach's music that has been found for the opera it would last five hours," said music director Stephen Lord, but the OTSL version is three and 10 minutes.

The opera is about a night in a tavern with story teller Hoffmann who shares his fantasies about three women that he loved and lost. In fact, all three women are just facets of an opera diva who that night is singing in the opera house next door.

All four women -- a mechanical doll Olympia, the innocent singer Antonia and the courtesan Guiletta -- are sung by the same soprano (Ailyn Perez). Offenbach wanted to stress that each is a facet of the singer Stella, Hoffmann's real love.

Doucet, Lord and Canadian set and costume designer Andre Barbe are so committed to honoring Offenbach that they have the bronze statue of Offenbach on his tomb come to life and walk through the story. The bronzed composer plays a cello, conducts with baton, serves as a butler, a bordello's customer and a ventriloquist.

Barbe's sets evoke the 19th-century Paris train station that now serves as the Musée d'Orsay. His giant puppet and dancing Industrial Age gizmos might steal the show.

Like Brewer, Johnson is home grown

Johnson, from Fenton, first worked at OTSL as an usher so she could see operas night after night. She is a Webster University graduate and now is studying for a master's degree in voice at Rice University in Houston. Three years ago she was chosen from hundreds to spend the past two seasons in Opera Theatre's apprentice program -- the Gerdine Young Artist program -- singing in its chorus and small roles. Last season, Johnson shone in the minor role of Emma Jones in Kurt Weil's "Street Scene."

Her apprenticeship impressed Lord, OTSL general director Charles MacKay, artistic administrator Paul Kilmer and other staff. They signed her to sing here again this spring, in the pivotal but minor role of Kate Pinkerton in "Madame Butterfly," the second production of this season.

In February at the Met contest -- something like the Olympic tryouts for young singers -- the conductor was Lord, music director at OTSL since 1992.

With wit and a smile, Lord takes full credit for the cast switch and even a partial credit for the twins. He played matchmaker with Risley and Phares when both were singing in the 2001 OTSL production of "Miss Haversham's Fire."

"I remember thinking that they would be great together," he said so he planted Cupid's bow.

In April doctors told Risley that ultrasound images showed that she was carrying twins due the end of August or early September. The parents-to-be and their matchmaker worried about the babies.

"The muse is a very active role, a lot of jumping, running, pushing, even being flat on the floor sliding through legs," Lord said. "For the babies' sake it was best that Patricia not risk it. After all, this is only an opera. But having a baby is really real, one of the most important things you can do in life. That truly is creating your true legacy."

When Risley bowed out, Lord had to find a mezzo-soprano who could quickly learn and sing the muse's lush wonderful melodies. The muse begins and ends the opera and is key to storytelling in all three acts. She sings the opera's most famous song "The Barcarole," now on elevator play lists. She ties up the whole story at the end telling Hoffmann that he is no longer a "mere man but a poet" and that "love has made you strong."

No one wanted an average singer

Two weeks before first rehearsal when all agreed that Risley would rest, Lord, MacKay and opera director Renaud Doucet had to decide immediately on a new muse.

Johnson's voice was still ringing in Lord's ears from her win at the Met. He remembered how she lifted her head, framed by her wavy red hair, gracefully walked onto the stage and sung her heart out. She looked ravishing and sang beautifully with confidence, he said.

"She came out as a star, was a star that day," he said.

Lord held his breathe hoping that she was a quick study and might learn her role in two weeks. Other cast members had up to a year to prepare with their own vocal coaches. He phoned and offered Johnson the role.

"She said yes in a heartbeat," he said. "When she was a little nervous, I just said, 'Stop it, just do it.' "

When Johnson arrived for the first rehearsal Lord was blown away by her preparation. She'd learned the muse role in two weeks.

"She is doing a fantastic job in rehearsals working with singers who have 10 years experience on her," he said. "She is a full fledged singer. We are very proud of her."

Doucet gets breathless about her acting and singing.

"She is going to be a very, very big star," he said to a couple of hundred opera buffs Monday night at the company's "Spotlight on Opera" panel. Johnson and others in the cast quietly sat in the audience near the back of the Winifred Moore Hall. At the mention of her name, others in the production cheered, whooped and energetically pointed at her.

Some St. Louis opera buffs literally hitch their vacation wagons to a star. In 10 years, when St. Louis music lovers hurry into London's Covent Garden Royal Opera House, the program might might very well say mezzo Jennifer Johnson. If that's true, they certainly will say, "Remember Jennifer that magic night at Opera Theatre St. Louis?"

Patricia Rice, a free lance journalist, covered Opera Theatre St. Louis for many years.

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