This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Act one, scene one: The young woman, 18, with dark hair pulled into a loose ponytail, leaves her high school and heads for the theater. Soon, she finds herself sitting in the dark, fifth row from the stage, off to the side.
The lights go down. The opera begins. Clayton High School senior Sumi Garg waits to take the stage during the Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ rehearsal of “The Tales of Hoffmann.”
It’s a small part, her first in opera. It’s her first time even seeing an opera.
But Sumi is young and, in this role, rather inspiring.
“Basically, she just has to, you know, stand …” said Sumi’s mother, Sunita Garg.
“Kind of like inspiring what’s happening, I guess,” Sumi explained.
Over the past few months, however, as Sumi has learned about the opera and her role as muse, the inspiration has gone both ways, opening a new art form to a young woman who always sings and dances, who has performed in high school shows and seen many musicals but had never been to the opera.
Drawing a Younger Audience
The 2008 season of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis begins with Sumi, painted in gold for her role as the muse of dance, in act one, scene one in “The Tales of Hoffmann.”
“It’s very rarely performed,” said Maggie Stearns, director of communications. “It’s gonna be very funny, very light. It’s like Mozart.”
The season runs through June 29, and while young people aren’t generally the audience drawn to opera, the Opera Theatre has many programs to change that.
These include bringing professional opera singers to St. Louis schools, an opera camp and study guides giving context to the stories on stage, which are all performed in English.
“We need very much to reach out to young audiences and make them realize what an incredible art form this is,” Stearns said.
For Sumi, that happened with her role as a supernumerary -- basically, an extra in the opera world. It’s a rare spot for a high school student, Stearns said. But one of the women in charge of finding the supers, who is friends with Sumi’s parents, knew Sumi had been in voice lessons for a while, and that she also danced and acted. And so she suggested to Sumi and her family that Sumi become a super and take the stage as a muse.
The experience isn’t just a first for Sumi, but for her family, who plans to attend. It’s required long hours from the former cheerleader and member of the marketing club, but also lots of learning. “They’re all really funny,” Sumi said of opera, nothing like the formal stereotypes she was familiar with.
And therein lies the challenge the opera faces with young audiences. The music is powerful, Stearns said, and appealing.
“So it’s getting them into the theater to begin with.”
Will Opera Stick?
In the fall, Sumi will begin at Washington University. She isn’t sure yet what she’ll study. But for someone who’s always been told her voice is more operatic, a future in the opera may await her. “It just seems a lot more possible for something like this to actually happen,” Sumi said.
As a super, she’s worked to keep up with the fast pace and seen what the lives of the professionals are like.
“She comes home and she’s singing,” Mrs. Garg said.
And when “Tales of Hoffmann” ends, don’t be surprised to see Sumi sitting in the audience for other operas. She plans to return. “Yeah. Definitely,” she said. “Most definitely.”
End scene, continue newfound appreciation for the opera.
Kristen Hare, a freelance writer, lives in Lake St. Louis.
To see the show
The 2008 season of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis begins Saturday, May 24, with “The Tales of Hoffman.” The season runs through June 29. Other operas performed in repertory include “Madame Butterfly,” “Una Cosa Rara,” and “Troilus and Cressida.” Single tickets cost between $25 and $110, depending on the seating and the time of the performance.
All performances are at 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis, MO 63119.