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Artists of color expand opera’s view with 3 new works at Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dayo, played by Flora Hawk, looks at herself in the mirror while embraced by dancer Ka Thomas on Tuesday during a dress rehearsal of “Cook Shack” at COCA’s Berges Theatre in University City.

When an Asian American rock band from Oregon sought to trademark the name the Slants, the U.S. government refused. The musicians were seeking to reappropriate a racial slur but were told they couldn’t trademark an offensive term.

The musicians took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won.

But as band member Simon Tam sat in the courtroom, he still felt powerless.

“I felt invisible, as if it didn't matter if I was in the room or not. You had a bunch of attorneys all arguing about what's offensive to Asian people, but the only Asian people in the room are not allowed to say a thing,” he said. “That process can feel incredibly degrading and disempowering.”

The group’s story is one of three included in the inaugural performance of the New Works Collective, an initiative by Opera Theatre of St. Louis to bring new voices into American opera — particularly artists of color who’ve been excluded from predominantly white opera institutions in the past.

Each work is about 20 minutes long. The program includes “Slanted: An American Rock Opera,” “Cook Shack” and “Madison Lodge.” Opera Theatre will present it at the Center of Creative Arts for three nights beginning Thursday. The director for all three is Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Director Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj and composer/librettist Simon Tam watch a dress rehearsal of Tam’s “Slanted: An American Rock Opera” on Tuesday at COCA’s Berges Theatre in University City.
'St. Louis on the Air': OTSL presents three short operas, all by artists of color

Opera Theatre leaders empowered an outside panel of community members — mostly artists of color who primarily work outside the opera world — to choose the three works. The program is funded by a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that covers three commissions a year for three years.

Tam wrote “Slanted” with fellow band member Joe X. Jiang. They were initially skeptical about wading into writing an opera.

“But once we talked it through — ‘Hey, can we actually bring our own style of music to this thing? Can we have control over the story?’ — we thought it would be a really fun experiment,” Tam said, “and hopefully create more roles for Asian Americans onstage.”

The piece highlights some comments Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made that were sympathetic to the Slants’ position. Rooted in the actual case filings and oral arguments, the rock opera has summoned some painful memories.

“It’s extremely emotional,” Tam said. “It’s like I’m reliving those moments in so many ways, because a lot of the lines that are sung by the character based on me are things I’ve actually said. “

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dorothy Gal plays the role of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “Slanted: An American Rock Opera” on Tuesday during a dress rehearsal at COCA’s Berges Theatre in University City.

Not all of the short operas are based on real-life incidents.

“Cook Shack” imagines a museum visit by a young Black girl in St. Louis, in which successful Black women of the past come back to share their stories.

Composer Del’Shawn Taylor and librettist Samiya Bashir, an accomplished poet who lives in Harlem, wrote the piece. Though it has a magical-realist element, it delves into the historical record to cite the accomplishments of Annie Turnbo Malone, Marie Van Brittan Brown and Dr. Patricia E. Bath.

“There are not many stories that highlight the Black experience, particularly the female Black experience, that are not rooted in trauma,” said Taylor, who has found success as a vocalist and composer.If Black girls of color do not know that they have this historical legacy in entrepreneurship, in science, in invention, they don't know that they can do those things too.”

“Cook Shack” depicts an 11-year-old girl named Dayo, who goes on a school trip to a museum that includes dioramas with life-size representations of Malone, Brown and Bath. The women come to life after observing Dayo’s distress at being bullied.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kimwana Doner plays the role of inventor and nurse Marie Van Brittan Brown while singing to Dayo, played by Flora Hawk, on Tuesday during a dress rehearsal of “Cook Shack” at COCA’s Berges Theatre in University City.

Taylor’s score incorporates different musical styles pioneered by African American artists.

Bullies who torment Dayo do so to hip-hop beats. Ragtime accompanies the story of Malone, who became the first Black, female millionaire in the early 20th century after developing hair care products for Black customers. Brown, a nurse and inventor of the first home security system, sings the blues. Dr. Bath, who invented a laser treatment for cataracts, tells her story with the help of some funk.

“To have the opportunity to diversify the canon and produce a work that is about Black women and Black female inventors that the world doesn't know enough about,” said Taylor, “is very important to me, as a Black male who comes from a lineage of very strong women, that I do my part in that.”

“Madison Lodge” also includes various musical styles, interpolated into an operatic context.

“This sounds like jazz. It sounds like Black joy. It sounds like blues. And it sounds like me,” said Griffith, who wrote the music and libretto.

Griffith also performs under the name Tre G and co-founded WerQfest, a St. Louis celebration of Black, queer culture. His first opera explores an under-discussed facet of the Harlem Renaissance, when Black artists flourished there in the early-to-mid 20th century: the roots of Black, queer ballroom culture.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Patricia E. Bath, an ophthalmologist (played by Olivia Johnson), Dayo (played by Flora Hawk), inventor and philanthropist Annie Turnbo Malone (played by Ardeen Pierre), and nurse and inventor Marie Van Brittan Brown (played by Kimwana Doner), on Tuesday during a dress rehearsal of “Cook Shack” at COCA’s Berges Theatre in University City.

A character known as X leaves home in the South and moves to Harlem, where they discover that their sister found a safe haven — a club called Madison Lodge — to dress in drag and congregate with other queer people.

Though its patrons gather under the threat of a police raid, they dance joyfully in a costume ball.

“You get to see them in their true, authentic selves. A lot of times you see these [kinds of] characters being stereotyped, depending on who’s writing it. So I want people to see the humanity in these characters,” Griffith said.

Dance is particularly important to the story, and choreographer Kirvin Douthit-Boyd included moves from the opera’s time period.

“It shows you references to dances that were derived from there. I’ll say, ‘Oh, that move actually looks similar to a dance we do now,’” Griffith said. “It’s really cool to see how our art form has derived from that time and progressed.”

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

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