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Union Avenue Opera started with a job interview

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 6, 2010 - Union Avenue may the only opera company that started as a side benefit in a job interview. When Scott Schoonover had just graduated from Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, Ill., he interviewed for the music director-organist post at Union Avenue Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ Church.

He was 22 and mentioned that one of his life goals was to conduct opera. The amazing response from the church staff was that an opera was possible since the church allowed the West End Players to use its building and considered artistic expression a gift from God. The congregation’s many community social justice and arts projects are part of what some members call its “Radical Hospitality” mission.

Once on the job he discovered the church’s fine acoustics as he directed the church choir and played its organ. So, that summer of 1994, with some money from the church’s Arts Group of Union Avenue, he produced and conducted Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas.” Two of his fellow Wesleyan music major alums sang the lead. A few of the 17 singers who auditioned filled the other parts wearing borrowed costumes on sets he and his pals made. A string quartet played. Fifty were in the audience. It got reviewed. He strode boldly into his second season and produced three operas, still making costumes and sets. Raising money was tough so, for several years, they cut back to one production.

“People didn’t want to give money if they didn’t think it was going to continue,” Schoonover said. He and his company insisted that prices be affordable to a diverse audience. After about three years, the company got more businesslike. Since then, it has expanded a bit each year.

In 1998 its single production was “The Marriage of Figaro,” which won wide acclaim and got the attention of singers nationwide. Getting public grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, the Arts and Education Council as well as private foundations is a quick way for non-resident singers to recognize the opera company’s professionalism. Having a reputation for treating singers very well is a big plus, singers said. It now auditions 400 singers but still relies on volunteers to help keep the books, handle box office, ushers, mailings and other tasks.

St. Louis singers make up the chorus, and many smaller roles and sometimes a major one. Last December, the company did its first holiday opera: Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which it will reprise next Christmas.

Each year the company has at least two summer choruses since the mid-July opera’s rehearsal schedule starts before the company’s first production ends. The second opera overlaps the third show’s rehearsals. Between early seasons, Schoonover has studied opera conducting and Italian at the Accademia Filarmonia in Bologna and Rome, Italy. Now in winter -- in addition to his church duties -- he has conducted the Bel Canto Chorus of St. Louis, the Gateway Men’s Chorus, St. Louis Winter Opera and is the conductor of the St. Louis Women’s Chorale.

The company continues a good relationship with the church, he said. Many company volunteers are church members. The church’s senior pastor, Rev. Suzanne Webb, sits on the opera company board.

“She good about protecting the relationship between the church and the company,” he said.

The company now pays the church rent, which includes office and storage space for its 1,500 costumes and props.

Those in that first audience of 50 have bragging rights. The company draws twice that many in last minute walk-ins at most performances, he said. Over the years, when permanent seats for the hall sold out for “Carmen,” “Turandot” and “Porgy and Bess,” the company added exactly 50 chairs in open spaces expanding to seating for 675.

In 2011, Union Avenue Opera is taking “another big stretch,” Schoonover said. It will present Jack Hegge’s “Dead Man Walking” based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book about her relationship with death row convict Joseph De Rocher. Sister Helen, a Sister of St. Joseph, was de Rocher's spiritual director as he prepared for his execution at Angola, La. San Francisco Opera commissioned the opera for its 2000 season.

Unlike so many contemporary operas, the thoughtful examination of forgiveness and the death penalty has legs. It’s been given by many opera companies over the decade. Schoonover is excited that “Dead Man Walking” will be have a regional premiere. It’s the first time that Union Avenue Opera has put on an opera by a living composer.

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This year any company's “stretching” is with the budget, Schoonover said. Advance ticket sales are down, he said, like so many cultural and entertainment venues. Union Avenue Opera received a federal stimulus grant of $15,000 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that kept it from cutting its year round staff of two during the economic downturn. He grinned with gratefulness as he talked about the company’s loyal orchestra players who have volunteered to play three rehearsals and a late October company gala benefit concert for free.

Music lovers are not surprised that musicians are willing to help out. He has heavy administration duties, but he continues his real love, conducting, and this season conducts “Pirates” and “Queen of Spades.” Schoonover’s hard work and optimism inspire many in the arts community.

“Some people come to St. Louis and complain about what we don’t have,” said accompanist Parkin. “Scott came and started this company and conducts the St. Louis Women’s Chorale.”

Patricia Rice has written about opera and classical music for many years.

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.

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