© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

O'Leary wants to spread his love of opera

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 8, 2009 - Ever since a transformational evening when he was 17, Timothy O'Leary has had a passion for opera. He's eager to share his joy.

His opera evangelism is one reason the former New York City Opera administrator was chosen the new general director for Opera Theatre of St. Louis. That title includes the duties of CEO, executive producer and, especially in the stressful days before opening nights, chief soother.

On a recent Sunday night, he kicked off what likely will be called the O'Leary era by warmly welcoming to St. Louis the new cast and production staff to the first rehearsal of Richard Strauss' "Salome."

Standing before more than 125 people gathered in the Sally S. Levy Opera Center, O'Leary introduced each cast member and the music and stage directors, set and costume designer and backstage support team by name. As the "Salome" crew met each other, the cast of "La Boheme" was rehearsing across the hall.

O'Leary, who looks like a sleek Harry Potter, has a beguiling off-hand manner and an infectious smile. He projects self-confidence. His encyclopedic knowledge of opera is graciously delivered in an unpretentious manner. His favorite words seem to be "thank you," opera staffers said.

As he lauded the cast and crew of "Salome," O'Leary made a modest request, "Please be nice, it's my first year," he begged with a toss of his straight brown hair and a twinkle in his hazel eyes.

The cast laughed nervously, as if uppermost in their own thoughts had been wanting the company management team to be nice to them.

'I Loved Opera'

"The best, most immediate musical and theatrical experience is opera," O'Leary told the Beacon.

"I've always believed that people's real obstacle to loving opera is that they have never been to ... really great opera like we do it here."

Too many people overlook opera because of cartoons, silly stereotypes, he said.

"If people experience an opera that is immediate, intimate, totally committed to combining all the art forms: artistic sets, music, drama and words, and, if the singers (are) cast in roles for which they look appropriate, as well as sound appropriate that is total theater. It's irresistible."

His own resistance collapsed at 17 when he sang in the chorus of "The Magic Flute" at Yale Opera, not far from his family home in Trumbull, Conn. When his choir director said Yale Opera needed tenors, the teen raced to join. How cool to get to drive to New Haven at night, hang out with college kids and be on stage.

"I was 17," he said laughing. "There I am surrounded by this fantastic Mozart music on a daily basis, and I started to get it -- started to realize that ("The Magic Flute") was full of comedy. Not that it was supposed to be funny, but that it actually is funny. These characters are very real in a world of fantasy," he said. "I realized I liked opera. I loved opera."

The next year he sang in the Yale chorus of Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," still his favorite opera and one OTSL will produce in 2010.

By his senior year at Dartmouth College, O'Leary, an English major, stage directed roommate Peter Tucker's original opera.

"Peter and Tim worked very hard, had lots of energy," recalled Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec, O'Leary's Dartmouth music professor. (Moravec's first opera, "The Letter," will premiere in July at Santa Fe Opera.)

Luring New Audiences

O'Leary is smitten with St. Louis audience regulars who support the company's openness to world premieres. Part of their passion for new, he reasons, is the company's nationally recognized focus on high-quality opera theater featuring young American actor-singers carrying the story forward in English, backed up with super titles. This works well because the opera company nurtures those singers with guidance from internationally respected directors, set and costume designers and conductors.

"One reason I was hired was to expand the audience base," he said.

O'Leary repeatedly sold out New York City Opera's Lincoln Center with a series called "Opera For All" featuring $25 tickets that included an opera or opera concert and concluded outdoors with nibbles. He smiled when he talked about the surprising expressions on the New Yorkers' faces as they left the opera-highlights concert at Lincoln Center and found singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and a band that plays opera hits in a rock style, the East Village Opera Company.

"Maybe we even could bring that band here," O'Leary said.

He's starting this spring with new marketing ideas to open the company's doors to people who don't know that opera is fun and accessible.

  • On May 12, O'Leary will join others at Left Bank Books' new downtown store, 321 N. 10th Street, and present an abridged stage reading of Oscar Wilde's play "Salome." By presenting what was the text for Richard Strauss' opera, O'Leary hopes to encourage his Left Bank audience to turn up at the Loretto-Hilton Theatre for special events.
  • One of those very special events will be the June 19 "Ghosts of Versailles." During intermission, inventive French cocktails and hors d'oeuvres will be offered to buyers of a special package of tickets and treats.
  • On June 2 -- opening night of the Fox Theatre's "Rent" run -- OTSL singers will perform songs of romantic poor Paris renters from "La Boheme." Fox ticket holders can get a $10 discount coupon for "La Boheme" that night.
  • On June 16, Kelly Kaduce and other OTSL artists will present Opera Theatre Cabaret Night  at the Kranzberg Arts Center in Grand Center. Board member Ken Kranzberg suggested the idea, "but Tim did it," says Donna Wilkinson, immediate past OTSL board chairman. O'Leary hopes Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim lovers will take to a taste of opera.

Young, but Experienced

O'Leary is 34 and only the third general director to lead the St. Louis company. Few at OTSL worry about his youth. Both his predecessors were 33 when they were hired. OTSL founding general director Richard Gaddes was at the helm for a decade before turning the job over to Charles MacKay. After 23 years of continued growth, MacKay left last October.

O'Leary started in January 2008 to shadow MacKay.

"From the minute he came to see the company, (he) was far and away the No. 1 choice for Charles MacKay's successor," said OTSL music director Stephen Lord, a 28-year company veteran who's been called one of opera's top conductors. "Tim has a vast experience for such a young man: he knows music, has lived in Italy, has directed opera and is now producing it. In addition, his business skills are comprehensive."

O'Leary has done most everything in opera companies except conduct the orchestra, fit wigs and park cars. He has sung in opera choruses and as Tony in his high school production of "West Side Story," run an off-off-Broadway storefront theater, directed operas at a half dozen companies including New York City Opera.

His first job out of college was as a fundraiser; at City Opera he negotiated union contracts and oversaw other crunching of its $40 million budget. (Since he left, the New York company's 2009 budget shrank to $25 million and its 2009 main season was cancelled.).

Partnering and Renting

To run Opera Theatre St. Louis at its usually high artistic intensity during a time of economic downturn and to continue the company's history of never having had a deficit is a challenge, board members said.

So far, Opera Theatre has not laid off staff, but early this winter salaries were frozen. O'Leary and his staff persuaded artists with progressive fee scales in their contracts to freeze the progressions. From now until July 1, about 275 people are on OTSL's payroll. After the season's end, a skeleton staff is kept on salary.

O'Leary must diplomatically balance fiscal constraints agains the needs, wishes and especially last-minute brilliant ideas of artists, musicians, directors, scene designers, costume designers, singing actors, vocal coaches, costume stitchers, painters and others. He has a Greek chorus of marketing experts, tickets sellers, grant writers, fund raisers and a board of directors to caution him.

"One of Tim's great gifts is that he can be a bridge between artists and administration," said Jane Gullong, New York City Opera's executive director from 2004 to 2008 and now president of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. "He has a deep knowledge and respect for the artists. He knows voices and repertory. ... He knows the substance of his field. He understands both roles and that's missing in many large companies."

O'Leary is full of ideas on how to maintain the company's international reputation for quality while paying the bills.

Partnering and renting are his key survival words. For example, the OTSL "Salome" production concept was developed here and its sets and costumes were built in Webster Groves with materials mostly bought in St. Louis. They are being shared with San Francisco Opera and likely Toronto Opera. Sharing lowers production costs for all companies.

O'Leary, Lord or other staffers are having conversations about sharing whole productions with opera companies in Toronto; Paris; London; Cardiff, Wales; Houston; and New York. OTSL has never partnered with companies this large before. Partnering is also a highlight of a strategic five-year plan approved last month by the OTSL board.

Opera Theatre has presented 21 world premieres, a higher percentage than any other American opera company. Of those, the company commissioned all but two.

In the long run, commissioning operas offers paybacks, not just artistically but financially. Other companies pay OTSL royalties for OTSL-commissioned operas. This season, opera buffs will be flying to St. Louis for a world premiere of a new, tighter edition of American composer John Corigliano's 1991 "Ghosts of Versailles." New York's Metropolitan Opera commissioned the opera for its huge chorus, large orchestra and vast stage. OTSL's trimmer "Ghosts" edition is for medium-sized theaters with a chorus of under 30 and a chamber orchestra. After the St. Louis premiere, this "Ghosts" production with sets and costumes will go to Ireland's Wexford Festival and Vancouver Opera. Other companies are considering the production in future seasons.

O'Leary is excited that, in June 2010, OTSL will presents a world premiere of American composer Peter Ash's "The Golden Ticket" based on Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." A number of opera companies want to share in a production that will give companies what he calls a sophisticated but family-friendly opera.

Reaching Out

Exposing the young to top quality opera is enriching for them, he said. The company is a national leader in educational outreach programs and has seven programs, most free, for the community from grade school to those in retirement homes. Annually OTSL education programs reach 9,000 students and 6,000 adults.

OTSL has long offered educators reduced ticket rates, but many teachers haven't heard. Under O'Leary, the company is spreading the word to these tastemakers of the next generation.

"Tim eats, sleeps and breathes opera education as the epicenter of opera audiences today," OTSL education director Allison Felter said.

In the 2008 opera season O'Leary roamed among pre-show picnickers on the Loretto-Hilton Theatre lawn and randomly started conversations. He can sit next to anyone at a picnic and talk about a wide range of topics beyond opera, Wilkinson said.

This summer he will be leading some new St. Louis friends in fund-raising trips to Santa Fe Opera Festival and to Wexford Opera Festival, not far from County Cork where three generations ago his own O'Leary ancestors lived.

For the first time this fall OTSL is presenting opera -- a new opera showcasing St. Louis gifted singers -- at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Colin Graham was thrilled with Touhill's acoustics and elegant opera hall configuration. He was eager to do opera there.

For the 2010 season O'Leary hopes to find funding for a festival opening concert featuring musical highlights of that season. The doors would be opened wide with cheap seats or, with the right sponsorship, free.

"I like to get funding for something splashy either at here (the Loretto Hilton Center) or a larger venue like Forest Park," he said.

St. Louis Home

As an English major, his college thesis focused on two kings in Shakespeare's history plays: Richard II and Henry V. The power of language determined both men's outcomes, he wrote. He loves profound opera stories that express truths and ideals. For example behind the rollicking "The Marriage of Figaro" is the theme of the need for forgiveness. The world could use more of that, he said.

He's been looking forward to this month not only because of opera but because his wife Kara Graziano O'Leary is moving permanently to St. Louis. For 16 months, she's commuted between St. Louis and their Brooklyn apartment to complete clinical psychology course work for her Ph.D. at Long Island University. She will write her thesis in the house he bought this winter on Flora Place, near the Missouri Botanical Garden.

The O'Learys met when both sang in his high school's production of "Carousel." She was in eighth grade he was a sophomore. Nearly a decade later, after both had graduated from college, they began dating. Their wedding recessional music was Papageno's air from the opera that transformed his life "Mozart's Magic Flute." Ever since opera has given his life a magical quality, he said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has long covered religion and opera.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.