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‘It packs an emotional wallop’: Union Avenue Opera takes on apartheid-era ‘Lost in the Stars'

Tazewell Thompson, at left, is a trustee with the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. He has served as a mentor to Shaun Patrick Tubbs, the stage director for the production that opens Friday.
Union Avenue Opera

Contrary to any stuffy misconceptions, opera isn’t something one simply observes or sits through – especially not an opera like “Lost in the Stars.” That’s according to American theater director Tazewell Thompson, who is guiding Union Avenue Opera’s upcoming production of the still-timely masterwork.

“Opera in general, and this opera in particular, is a living, breathing organism, and … it packs an emotional wallop,” Thompson said this week on St. Louis on the Air. “And I think the audience will walk away transformed and changed … they’ll find that this is an opera of great hope – reconciliation, man’s capacity for change, man’s capacity to forgive. And the music will not be washed over the audience. The music will actually penetrate the hearts of those who watch ‘Lost in the Stars.’”

Based on Alan Paton’s 1948 novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” “Lost in the Stars” was Kurt Weill’s final stage composition before his death in 1950. It’s set in South Africa during the apartheid era and tells the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest, and his son Absalom, who takes part in a robbery with two friends that results in the death of a white man, Arthur Jarvis, who is Kumalo’s friend.

“Absalom confesses and is sentenced to hang, while his friends lie about their involvement and get off,” Thompson told host Don Marsh. “And in the end, Stephen Kumalo is reconciled with Arthur Jarvis’ father, James, who realizes that they have both lost sons and that they are both, in a sense, lost in the stars.”

Joining Marsh and Thompson for the conversation was stage director Shaun Patrick Tubbs, who described the production as a story of separation, loss and pain that all audience members can relate to.

Tubbs added that the opera feels relevant because “we have spent our entire lives trying to understand each other – the races, genders, economic, social.”

“And I believe we’ve gotten better [at that understanding],” he said. “But obviously, with what’s gone on in our news and in our society and what continues to go on in our country today and become a lot more prevalent with our social and political temperature that we’re at right now, I think that a piece like this is a reminder that we still have a long way to go – but that there is hope. The fact that I’m even here to direct it as a young black man to do this piece is significant.”

With words by Maxwell Anderson accompanying Weill’s classic score, the production that opens in St. Louis on Friday is a uniquely powerful one, Tubbs said.

“What I find so striking about opera or operatic singing is that it’s so visceral – not that you don’t get that in other genres of music,” he explained. “But I consider a lot of opera singers [like] another instrument. So they’re not – the music isn’t just to support them – they work in conjunction with the music.

“I feel that they have the opportunity to express something much deeper than we can with just language alone by the pitch and the tone. It’s not something you can hide behind – you have to embrace it, you have to ride it, you have to let the emotion pour over the music, which I love.”

Listen to the full discussion:

Related Event
What: Union Avenue Opera Presents "Lost in the Stars" by Kurt Weill
When: 8 p.m. August 17, 18, 24 and 25, 2018
Where: Union Avenue Christian Church (733 N. Union Blvd., St. Louis, MO, 63108)

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Caitlin Lally give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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