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Opera Theatre of St. Louis asks diverse panel to pick new works by artists of color

Eric Woolsey
Opera Theatre of St. Louis
The ensemble of "Highway 1, U.S.A." performs at Opera Theatre of St. Louis last year. The production was supported by a fund dedicated to artists of color.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis will use a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to solicit proposals for new operas written by artists who have often been excluded from a field where decision-makers are predominantly white.

A 10-member panel composed largely of St. Louis artists of color who do not work in the world of opera will commission three 20-minute operas in each of the next three years as part of the New Works Collective. At least one creative team each year will be made up of St. Louis residents.

Opera Theatre has commissioned many new operas in its history, including a few by artists of color. But General Director Andrew Jorgensen said the program marks an important shift because it takes the decision-making away from organizational leaders and puts it in the hands of interested community members, most of whom are artists of color.

“I think the company will make different choices through a fundamentally different process that brings a broader and a different group of stakeholders to the table,” Jorgensen said. “So often, who you invite to commission an opera is just, it’s who’s already in your network. It’s who we know. It’s who had access to reach out to us. And so I think we’ve been constrained by the network we’re living inside of.”

In deciding which works to commission, the New Works Collective will reach beyond a predominantly white network of opera professionals to find artists with other ethnic backgrounds and professional experiences.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Television producer and author Lyah Beth LeFlore-Ituen said she'd like to see proposals that incorporate musical styles not often heard in opera.

Members of the commissioning panel include Darwin Aquino, music director for the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra; neo-soul artist Be.Be Brown; activist and political consultant Caroline Fan; Ron Himes, founder of the Black Rep; and singer-songwriter-producer Paige Alyssa.

Composers and writers without opera experience are encouraged to submit proposals.

Members of the collective hope to support projects that incorporate styles from outside the usual terrain of opera.

“I love that this is an opportunity to also tap into the genres of hip hop, jazz, gospel, soul —and blending that with traditional opera,” said television producer and author Lyah Beth LeFlore-Ituen, another member of the decision-making panel. “We’re going to hold everybody's feet to the fire and pick some dynamic things, and it will not be the status quo.”

'We haven't always shown up'

Opera Theatre’s senior leaders, Jorgensen and Artistic Director James Robinson, are white men. Last year, 80% of its board members were white, including Chairperson Noémi K. Neidorff. Jorgensen has described the organization’s administrative staff as “almost entirely white.”

The lack of racial diversity is in line with nationwide trends in the field of European classical music. A 2016 report published by the League of American Orchestras found that orchestra members, conductors, organizational staff and board members are disproportionately white and male. The study examined organizations that present classical music in general, not just opera producers. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is Opera Theatre’s resident orchestra.

Last year, “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” a 2019 Opera Theatre of St. Louis commission by acclaimed jazz trumpeter and composer Terrence Blanchard and film director Kasi Lemmons, became the first opera by a Black composer ever to be performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The New Works Collective is Opera Theatre’s latest effort to “connect in communities where we haven’t always shown up,” Jorgensen said.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Jeremy Denis and Davóne Tines perform in "Fire Shut Up In My Bones," a 2019 Opera Theatre of St. Louis commission that last year became the first opera by a Black composer to be performed by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

It comes in the second year of the theater’s Clayco Future Leaders Fellowship, which provides paid training to arts administrators of color. All three members of the inaugural cohort have since found employment at arts organizations, an Opera Theatre representative said.

The theater also created the Voices Fund to support projects by artists of color with $750,000 that had been donated for its 2020 gala, canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fund supported last year’s production of “Highway 1, U.S.A.,” a seldom-performed opera from the 1940s by William Grant Still and Verna Avrey performed by an all-Black cast.

Proposals for New Works Collective commissions are due April 15.

“My eyes will be open to capture new and authentic voices that tell things that will touch you in your heart,” LeFlore-Ituen said. “And that will kick you in the gut and wake you up and make you shout and dance and twirl around — and cry, if you need to.”

Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incomplete title for "Highway 1, U.S.A."

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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

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