Winter Opera grows into new theater, new offices
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 17, 2012 - It's opera time in St. Louis, again. Winter is opera season in much of the Western world, but until 2008, no St. Louis company regularly offered opera between August and mid-May.
Winter Opera St. Louis, now in its fifth season, has ratcheted up its administrative strengths including holding New York auditions and opening a storefront office with regular box office hours as it prepares for "Ariadne Auf Naxos." Its first opera of the year opens Jan. 27 with two performances that weekend. Like all Winter Opera productions, it will be sung in the original language with supertitles.
Thanks to St. Louis native, soprano Gina Galati, the region has three opera companies (including Union Avenue Opera) offering opera nearly year round, with seasons running from May until August, then from November until March.
Some St. Louis opera-goers who once trekked in winter to Chicago, New York and Europe have become Winter Opera fans. Last season's intimate production of "La Traviata" in the ballroom of the St. Louis Woman's Club sold out.
"I don't think that in Verdi's time any Italian production of 'Traviata' could have been better than (Winter Opera's) 'Traviata'," John Lesser of University City said. "Gina has a really lovely voice and is multi-talented. She has the gift of acting so convincingly that even if you know the person, you can forget them as they inhabit the character for two hours. I don't think I've ever seen a better Violetta."
Lesser has heard many singers in the role here and elsewhere. Since Opera Theatre of St. Louis' opening night in May 1976, he has seen nearly 1,000 OTSL performances, not just every production but every performance of every production. He attended New Opera St. Louis' opening night in February 2008 at St. Ambrose Church and has been going ever since. New Opera was the original name of Winter Opera.
Galati, Winter Opera founder, artistic director and leading soprano in at least one opera each season, spoke to the Beacon recently at the company's new office across Marconi Avenue from St. Ambrose Church on the Hill. She talked about the many improvements the company has made recently.
Beautiful New Venue
The biggest news this season is two new homes: a beautiful sparkling new theater and a cozy office. This March and for most future productions Winter Opera will perform in the larger of the two theaters in the new Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School.
"Chaminade's Viragh Center has a beautiful theater, we are so happy with it," Galati said. The larger theater seats 730 downstairs. If demand is strong, 270 balcony seats can be opened. The 80,000-square-foot center was built with a $28 million donation to the school from the estate of alumnus Viragh.
Because the center's construction deadlines were close to the hour Winter Opera would have begun rehearsals for a November production, she decided against staging a complete opera then. Instead, the company gave its first-ever, Broadway-style, musical review: Rodgers and Hammerstein's "A Grand Night For Singing" in late November.
"Chaminade has been wonderful to work with," Galati said. While Chaminade does not have a vocal program, it presents an annual musical and has 10 instrumental ensembles, including jazz and concert bands. She's casting student brass players for the "La Boheme" Christmas Eve parade scene, she said. Up to 1,000 students from Chaminade and other high schools will be invited to final dress rehearsals, she said.
Winter Opera ticket buyers' zip codes show that the Lindbergh location is convenient for its core fans who live in the central corridor from the Hill and the Central West End to West County. In previous years, the company has used several venues. "People would ask where we were going to be and how to get there," said Galati. "It confused people. Now it's wonderful to have a main venue."
Auditioning in New York
Winter Opera won't just have a bigger theater with good acoustics; it hopes the singing will be better, too since they auditioned more widely. Last April in casting for this season, Galati and Kansas City Opera's associate conductor Steven Jarvi, in his second year as Winter Opera music director, auditioned 60 singers in New York and about as many in St. Louis.
American Meredith Hoffmann-Thomson is flying in from her home in Salzburg this month to sing the "Ariadne" title role.
After his New York audition, baritone Trevor Scheunemann was signed to sing Marcello in "La Boheme." Scheunemann has sung "Boheme" at the Metropolitan Opera in the role of the musician Schaunard and was eager to try the role of painter Marcello, Galati said. Getting a Met singer to St. Louis in winter will no doubt stir interest of opera lovers. Galati will sing Mimi to Gary Seydell's Rodolfo in the production. Robert McNichols Jr. will sing Schaunard.
After four seasons of Italian and French operas, the company is producing its first German language opera "Ariadne." That opera's sometimes satirical story is about a production of a serious opera at a festive party of a wealthy Viennese. As the opera within the opera is prepared, there is tension to offer some low-brow comedy. Richard Strauss wove all its bits together with sublime music that singers long to sing.
"Ariadne," which premiered 100 years ago in Stuttgart, Germany, will be presented in the upstairs ballroom of the St. Louis Woman's Club. Tickets are selling at a fast pace.
"The club's ballroom is perfect for this opera since the story is about an opera that takes place in the grand house of a very rich Viennese man," she said. "The upstairs ballroom is beautiful." Adding gloss to the evening, guests have an option of purchasing a dinner package so they can dine on the club's first floor before the Friday evening performance or after the Sunday matinee performance.
Many have been impressed by Galati's entrepreneurial energy.
"Not only does Gina have a very beautiful, fantastic lyric soprano voice that can do coloratura work, but she's a very successful young entrepreneur," said soprano Mary Pillsbury of Wildwood, who once was the headline singer at New York's Pierre Hotel. She now runs her eponymous jewelry store in Frontenac. "I don't know how she keeps (training) her voice and runs an opera company, a very difficult thing."
The cast for both operas this season includes singing actors and musicians who have performed at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Baltimore Lyric Opera, Dell' Arte Opera Ensemble of New York, Opera Omaha, Mississippi Opera, Indianapolis Opera, Syracuse Opera, Toledo Opera, Stockton Opera, Opera Neue Eutiner Festspiele in Eutin, Germany, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Union Avenue Opera here.
The company pays the singers' airfare here and provides housing in donors' guest rooms. All have access to kitchens.
"No one has complained about our donors' homes," she said. "When I stay in hotels, I really miss kitchens. It's expensive going out to eat every day and you can't at all hours."
As in most Winter Opera productions, St. Louis singers will fill the comprimario, or secondary roles, and form its chorus. Many sing in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, St. Louis Chamber Chorus, the Bach Society and the St. Louis Women's Chorale, the Union Avenue chorus or are graduate students in music. Winter Opera's union orchestra includes players on call as subs at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
The company also is opening its first office. Galati moved records from her own home on the Hill to a cheerful storefront at 2105 Marconi Ave. Ticket buyers can easily park and stop at its box office, open weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Adding more professional polish, Winter Opera hired its first administrative director, Caetlyn Van Buren, who also sings in the company chorus. She's a member of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and has a master's in voice performance from Washington University. "We are all singers here," Van Buren said with a merry trill. During its first four seasons, another company singer Holley Sherwood did the gritty detail work as Galati's part time administrative assistant, Galati said.
"I couldn't have done it without Holley," she said.
Another measure of the company growth spurt is the addition of warehouse space. A donor is providing 10,000-square-feet in Earth City. Van Buren carefully and systematically sees that the company's 400 costumes, accessories and props are stored there.
"We hope to be able add income by renting them," Galati said of the costumes.
"I do all the fund raising," Galati said. Only 40 percent of the company's expenses are met by ticket sales. The only corporate gifts beyond a few Hill companies have been matching employee gifts. Since its first season, the company has held benefit dinner concerts at Dominic's restaurants.
Winter Opera has a minimal board and no one to write grants. So it has not chased after arts grants. She'd love to have grant money to pay singers to give recitals and master classes in more schools, seniors' residences and other community sites.
The generosity of its most ardent supporters delights and sometimes surprises her. The company is encouraging fans to make donations of $2,500 by starting an Impresario Club with a pack of benefits. Twelve have joined so far. Each donor, or donor couple, gets a concert in their home and a silver pin designed by Mary Pillsbury. Donor support helps keep the cheap seats at around $30.
"From the beginning, we wanted to make opera affordable to more St. Louisans," Galati said.
Start an Opera Company? Who Me?
Galati didn't mean to start an opera company when in 2007 she organized what became the company's opening night.
As a college student she began preparing for a business degree. Both her parents Jackie and Giovanni Galati have beautiful voices, she said. Her childhood home on the Hill was filled with singing and wonderful recordings. Her mother preferred singing pop music while her dad preferred traditional Italian music. She sometimes helped out at her parents' restaurants, Dominic's on the Hill and in Clayton and now Gio's downtown.
After her graduation from St. Joseph Academy, she went to Saint Louis University to prepare for a business career but got bogged down when she flunked a tough economics class. Her mother suggested that she switch her major and study what she loved -- music.
She took her mom's advice and ran with it -- to the Washington U. vocal music department where she got a bachelor of arts and sciences in music.
Later, she earned a master of opera at Kansas University and an artist diploma from the Academia Verdiana in Bussetto, Italy. She spent the 1998 and 1999 season singing in northern Italy, including in Parma and Florence. She sang in opera houses, concert halls and churches.
While building an American career at smaller regional opera houses, she also returned to Italy to sing in 2003. In St. Louis she has sung solo parts with the Bach Society and with the 17-year-old Union Avenue Opera during its July-August season, most recently last July as Clorinda in "La Cenerentola."
She sang Mussetta in "La Boheme" with Wichita Grand Opera, Gilda in "Rigoletto" at Miami Lyric and Brooklyn Opera, Nedda in "I Pagliacci" and Norina in "Don Pasquale" with the Atlantic Coast Opera Festival in Philadelphia. She was so pleased with a 2007 Philly production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" that she wanted to transport it to St. Louis. And she did.
Following the Italian tradition of performing operas in churches, in the summer of '07 she approached her own parish, St. Ambrose, and to her joy, the church opened its doors to her production. Conductor Scott Schoonover, founder and artistic director of the Union Avenue Opera, agreed to conduct. She laughed recently when she talked about the behind the scenes "chaos" to produce it. The audience never noticed.
"It was a beautiful night, a beautiful opera," Joanne Arpiani, recalled of that "Rigoletto." Arpiani, now 94, presides with grace behind the counter as doyenne of her family-owned Missouri Bakery before Christmas and other busy seasons.
"I was actually surprised at how many people attended that first night at St. Ambrose. And they were very enthusiastic. Since then, I've noticed many of the same people at the (Winter Opera) performances. St. Louis needed Grand Opera in the winter. It's good for St. Louis."
Lesser, who also attended opening night, recalled the audience on its feet and cheering happily. The warm reception inspired Galati to do more.
"Our 'Rigoletto' was such a success, I thought let's do another opera next year," Galati said. It slowly occurred to her that she was founding an opera company. The next season she rushed in with three full operas -- Saint Saens' "Samson & Delilah," Leoncavallo's "I Pagliacci" and Donizetti's "Don Pasquale" -- never suspecting that the country would dip into a great recession. It was frightening, but she presented three more operas the next year.
Schoonover who also runs the Union Avenue Christian Church music program as well as the St. Louis Women's Chorale stood at her side conducting Winter Opera's three initial years until she hired Jarvi as official music director.
"Scott and I are friends; we don't see each other's companies as competition," she said. "Winter Opera is careful to have a different schedule than Union Avenue. More opera is good for all of us."
So, one season at a time she and her supporters have planned three productions: one in mid-November and two in winter.
Galati tries to be realistic, even conservative in planning future seasons. The growing strength of Winter Opera comes when other cities are losing often-bankrupt companies. Even the once-renowned New York City Opera, overwhelmed by fiscal woes, has left its longtime Lincoln Center home to wander about its city offering a diminished schedule.
Still opera itself has a strong American following, far more than stereotypes suggest. Nearly 5 percent of the nation listens to live opera broadcasts or recordings. In 2008, 11 million adults viewed, or listened to, an opera broadcast or recording, according to a National Endowment of the Arts 2008 survey.
She and Jarvi have ideas about which three operas to produce next season but until they have this season's figures and have held auditions they won't firm up next season.
"I don't ever want to repeat the challenges of (the economic turndown of) '09," she said. The excitement of doing a full opera at the new Viragh Center had her arms waving until she almost seemed to dance.
"We are really pleased to have this wonderful Chaminade Viragh Center," she said. "It's so beautiful, such opportunity for us to grow and bring opera to more St. Louisans. It's very exciting."
Strauss' "Ariadne Auf Naxos"
When: Jan. 27 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 29 at 3 p.m.
Where: St. Louis Woman's Club, 4600 Lindell Blvd. 63108
Puccini's "La Boheme"
When: March 2 at 8 p.m. and March 4 at 3 p.m.
Where: Skip Viragh Center for the Arts, Chaminade College Preparatory School, 425 S. Lindbergh Blvd., Creve Coeur
Costs: $31 and up
Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has regularly written about opera.