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Commentary: St. Louisans have many opportunities to enjoy opera

Nancy Kranzberg

When I googled the word "opera," Wikipedia says, "Opera is a key part of Western Classical Music tradition. It started in Italy at the end of the 16th century and soon spread through the rest of Europe." The article goes on to discuss the history of opera up to the present time, but our own Timothy O'Leary, General Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Chairman of Opera America, has words to describe opera best.

O'Leary says, "In 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson published the most complete dictionary of the English language to yet exist. It was a giant book, but he spent only five words on the entry for ‘opera,’ which he defined as ‘An exotic and irrational entertainment.’ Dr. Johnson did not mean this as a compliment."

He goes on to say, "But for people who fall in love with opera, the fact that it is a little crazy is part of what we love. Opera is just a combination art form--it combines words with the power of music. For good measure, every other art form is added simultaneously-acting, poetry, dance design, you name it. This is absurd--and I always think it's important to point out that we who create or love opera know it is absurd. A lot of art forms, like theater or movies, ask for ‘suspension of disbelief’ from the audience. Opera just asks for more suspension because all the characters sing their thoughts and feelings, and they sing them in a style that was invented before microphones. That's why opera singers sound the way they do. They use their breath and their bodies to create sound of enormous resonance, so it can be heard over an orchestra that can be as big as 100 players--all without microphones." 

As a festival company, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has several qualities that make it unique among American opera companies: programming a wide mix of classics and new works, singing entirely in English, performing on an intimate thrust stage and developing the talents of America's finest young singers --all within a six-week season, with the show onstage changing every night. 

As of 2017, Opera Theatre has introduced audiences to 26 world premieres and 27 American premieres which may be among the highest percentages of new work for any U.S. company.

And St. Louis is full of other opportunities to enjoy opera. Scott Schoonover, Artistic Director and Conductor of Union Avenue Opera says, "When Union Avenue Opera joined the opera scene as a fledgling company back in 1995, it was just UAO and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It's been such a thrill to see several other companies spring up since then, and to see interest in the art form and more importantly, the number of passionate patrons grow over the past 23 years."

This past summer UAO presented three wonderful operas. The first, "Albert Herring" starring St. Louis's own internationally famous soprano, Christine Brewer, was incredible, followed by Rogers and Hammerstein's, "Carousel," a Broadway show, and directed by our own Ken Page, and finally Humperdinck’s, "Hansel and Gretel" which too was way above par.

And then we have Gina Galati's Winter Opera with main stage performances at the beautiful Skip Viragh Center at Chaminade College Prep School on Lindbergh. Winter Opera is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide St. Louis with world-class operatic performances during the winter months. Their works features nationally and internationally known artists, performing classic operas in their original languages, with English subtitles. They also highlight local performers and strengthen the local artist community.

Winter Opera also features special Opera Dinners where one can dine in the elegance of a beautiful atmosphere and be in the middle of opera singers singing thrilling arias.

All three of these groups have wonderful educational opportunities for all ages and some of our universities provide musical training for opera singers. Tim O'Leary reminded me that Jennifer Cano trained at Webster University. 

Jennifer will sing the leading role in Opera Theater's production of "Orfeo" by Gluck next season. She is a native St. Louisan and has now sung major roles at the Metropolitan Opera, sung at Carnegie Hall and has had other roles all around the world. She started as an usher at OTSL and eventually became an apprentice opera singer in the famous Leigh Gerdine Young Artist Program and even met her husband at Opera Theatre!!

And Stella Markou, Director of Vocal Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has her students explore the dramatic and colorful world of the classical stage at UMSL's Opera Theater which provides students with the opportunity to take part in a grand tradition of musical excellence. Productions have included numerous multi-lingual scene programs and complete operatic works.

Washington University has an excellent music department and just recently presented the world premiere of Harold Blumenfeld's “Borgia Infami: an opera in English in two acts” at Edison Theatre.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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