If it’s June, it must be time for opera. Or at least that is how it usually works in St. Louis. In 1976, a group of passionate advocates for the artform got together and decided it was time for the city to have its own company.
Their first foray was a success, and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has been thriving ever since. Housed at Webster University in the suburb of Webster Groves, the company presents around four productions a season, hires almost exclusively American talent, boasts an outstanding young artist program, and presents operas in English. More on that a bit later.
Three years after its founding, when I was beginning my tenure as music director of the SLSO, I was asked to do a production of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. At that point, my own experience with opera was quite limited, and I had never worked with a professional company. But with my own orchestra as the pit band, it seemed like a perfect match and a good opportunity to make as many connections with the artistic community as possible.
It was indeed. We had a wonderful cast, the work was one I could sink my teeth into, and the Glyndebourne-like atmosphere of the surroundings made it a most pleasant experience. The auditorium, called the Loretto-Hilton, seated about 700 people, and the stage was in the center of the building, making it a kind of opera-in-the-round situation. In 1979, surtitles were not yet in use, and opera in English was flourishing.
In a return visit about 10 years later, I led The Barber of Seville, a delightful production and the only Rossini opera I have ever conducted. At first, I saw the somewhat limited size of the pit as a drawback because it restricted the company to works that only required around 30 musicians, unless they employed orchestral reductions. But a reduced ensemble is quite common with smaller companies. If the orchestrator is clever, it can work very well, which is just what occurred with the two operas I led this past month.
How they came to be chosen is one of those stories that will become part of the COVID legacy.
Having settled in as a returning resident of the city, I wanted to be a part of the cultural scene, both as an observer as well as a performer. The opera company was going through some changes in administration, and the new head, Andrew Jorgensen, reached out to me about working together on a regular basis. We made all kinds of plans in conjunction with Artistic Director Jim Robinson.
Then everything went up in a viral flash. Large-scale operas could not be presented, and it became clear that performing in the theater would probably not be viable. Instead of an evening-long work, the opera team decided to pivot to a double bill of one-act productions. At first it seemed feasible to consider the scenario of these works being performed together, but as the pandemic dragged on, that possibility also disappeared. Rather than just do one of the works, they decided to program both but stagger the performances on separate nights.
In the meantime, a stage was constructed on the site of one of the campus parking lots. Roughly 300 people could attend each outdoor performance, and a separate area was set aside for distanced socializing.
The preliminary rehearsals took place in the opera center’s indoor spaces with everyone wearing masks. This is not so easy, as understanding how all the voices blend with each other is virtually impossible. After rehearsing for an hour and a half, we would take a half-hour break so that the room could be sanitized. Despite the obstacles, it all worked, and there were really no problems putting the various elements together.
The two works on the docket were Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and William Grant Still’s Highway 1, U.S.A. Puccini’s comic opera about the Donati family was the perfect choice for a fun, uplifting return to live performance. Directed by Seán Curran, it had all the humor, great singing, and entertainment value one could hope for. Although a couple rehearsals got rained out, we were so far ahead of schedule in preparations that there was no need to worry.
William Grant Still was one of the most important composers on the scene in 1940s America. His works were widely performed, and he was the first African American to conduct major orchestras in this country. It would take another lengthy column to explain what happened to him, but a reassessment of his music is certainly in order. It is worth reading about him and understanding why he fell out of favor so quickly. It was not about his music.
Highway 1 is a short work that deals with a domestic situation in a small rural town. The music draws from Gershwin, Weill, and others. A successful production depends on the quality of the singing, and we had tremendous artists for all the roles, including the six-voice choir. The production was directed by Ron Himes, the founder of the Saint Louis Black Repertory Company. He captured the tender side of the piece as well as its somewhat violent dénouement.
So, about this opera-in-English thing. Theoretically, the reason for performing in the language of the country where the work is performed is that opera is supposed to be understood by the majority of the audience. But that is rarely the case, no matter where you are in the world. And once two or more characters are singing at the same time, it is often impossible to discern the words.
You would think that surtitles might have changed the way we see and hear opera, but for some, the idea of keeping the language local means a great deal. Yet even with the works in English, surtitles are still projected. We don’t do this for musical theater, so why in this case?
I do not remember the last time I saw a foreign movie in a dubbed version. We always want to hear what the actors sound like, and most of us can read. Even though composers sanctioned the presentation of their works in other languages, they conceived the vocal lines in very specific ways, and these lines get interrupted when changes to the text cause accents on the wrong musical syllables and alter the meaning of the words.
There is another compelling reason to return to the original language. When Opera Theatre of Saint Louis was founded, there were no surtitles. The audience had to either read the synopsis or know the libretto. It worked well enough for the singers when there were a number of opera companies that performed in English. However, these are few and far between these days. It strikes me that we should better prepare our young voices in the way that they will be heard in other opera houses.
For Schicchi, I suggested several changes that seemed to make sense. Our production was set in the 1940s, and therefore certain lines of text became anachronistic. For example, when it came to doling out the money that the family would receive, we had to change from florins to lire. My calculator came in handy here. All the cities were sung with their Italian names, including Firenze, as Florence just does not have the poetic flow intended by Puccini. There were several other alterations as well, and no one seemed to mind.
But that one quibble aside (and I know that there are many who want to keep the opera-in-English tradition alive), the whole experience was a pleasure. It was a fine example of everyone coming together and making the most of a difficult situation. Perhaps this al fresco set of presentations will continue in some form when the pandemic is behind us.
With another three weeks of performances, we can only hope for the weather to cooperate and for Buoso to continue in his role on The Walking Dead.
See you next month,