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Arts United STL Brings Heavy Hitters Together For A Virtual Showstopper

Andrea Purnell will host the event from an otherwise empty Powell Hall. [5/17/20]
Regional Arts Commission

When was the last time you saw the St. Louis metro’s most prestigious arts organizations all sharing the same bill? If you can’t remember, you may want to tune in Sunday. 

That evening, more than a dozen local organizations including the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Muny and Repertory Theatre St. Louis will perform a telethon-style benefit concert under some very unusual circumstances — not limited to the event’s host, actress Andrea Purnell, performing her role from a near-empty Powell Hall. Other participants stitched together their pieces virtually, editing submissions by individual performers to create ensemble pieces. 

The Arts United STL benefit was spearheaded by Opera Theatre of St. Louis to benefit the Regional Arts Commission's Artist Relief Fund. And on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Opera Theatre General Director Andrew Jorgensen explained the impetus for the show, which he described as “an old-school, variety-show telethon,” albeit one sans the manic energy of Jerry Lewis. 

“Despite the challenges of the pandemic and our inability to gather, using technology and social distancing, each of these organizations has come up with a brilliant, creative performance to share with our audience,” he said. “And of course it is to raise important funds for an important cause, which is to support our local artists, who are all totally out of work right now and suffering really terrible consequences because of the pandemic, which has of course affected everybody.” 

The relief fund offers emergency grants of $500 and $1,000 to local artists with rent, groceries and other urgent needs; to date, it’s given out more than 130, but “demand has far outpaced the supply,” Jorgensen said.

He noted that the ongoing ban on large gatherings across most of the U.S. makes experiences like theater, opera and concerts an impossibility even as some sectors of the economy reopen.

“Artists and arts organizations were among the first to lose their work when all of this started, and they’ll be among the last to get back to work,” he said.


Jorgensen discussed some of the complications of bringing together performances when groups of people can’t even be in the same room. In some cases, performers emailed tracks to each other; in others, small groups were in the same room at the same time, standing far apart. One performance even features social-distanced dancing, Jorgensen said.

“It was a challenge,” he acknowledged. “But people were excited, and excited to get it right.”

Jorgensen also explained the resonance of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ contribution to the benefit concert, a rendition of “Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s operetta “Candide.” The song espouses Voltaire’s idea that we should “cultivate our garden” no matter the violence and horrors around us — as the lyrics go, “While we are neither pure nor wise nor good/We'll do the best we know/We'll build our house and chop our wood/And make our garden grow.”

Said Jorgensen, “We’re living in a time when all of us are caught in the same storm. Everybody has been impacted by this pandemic, and I think artists of all stripes, all varieties, whether they're playing in clubs or on the stage of Powell Hall, or working back stage or on stage, their work has been shut down. 

“Artists are one of the things that make St. Louis such a vibrant and vital city. We have this amazing arts and culture sector. … And this effort is about looking after the entirety of that ecosystem, because we’re all stuck in the same storm.” 

Related Event

What: Arts United STL

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, May 31, 2020

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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