In 1994, 23-year-old Scott Schoonover auditioned to become the new music director at Union Avenue Christian Church.
Then a recent graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University, where he majored in piano, Schoonover had an idea that set him apart from the competition: He wanted to start an opera company.
Twenty-five years later, Union Avenue Opera is a going, thriving concern.
"I wanted conducting experience," he says. (He since has spent two school years studying in Italy.) "I had worked a lot with (playing in) opera scenes, I loved working with singers, and I had a lot of singer friends."
Union Avenue Christian Chuch has a nave that resembles an auditorium, complete with theater seats and a sanctuary that lends itself to serving as a stage. "They thought it was a great idea," he says.
Schoonover was hired, and planning for a one-opera season and some concerts began under the auspices of a church group called Arts Group of Union Avenue. As a separate entity, AGUA was able to apply for grants.
"That first year, I didn't really it think would go on for 25 years," he says. "We started out very small."
Only 17 people showed up for the first auditions, for Henry Purcell’s one-act opera "Dido and Aeneas," presented in August 1995. Schoonover brought in the leads from out of town; the orchestra was a string quartet.
"We had a very minimal set that everyone worked on," Schoonover says. "We had really terrible costumes. The entire budget was like $5,000. It was still a show that I was really proud of musically."
But the Post-Dispatch and Riverfront Times reviewed it, and the company got its first Regional Arts Commission grant. The fledgling company did one opera and some concerts each year for the first three years. As the years passed, it did more, expanding the season and its horizons to include everything from contemporary opera to classic Broadway musicals to an abbreviated version of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, performing in original languages.
"Somewhere along the line it became obvious that it was viable," Schoonover says. "We kept receiving more support, grants, donations. I feel like this was a grassroots company that sprung up filling a need in St. Louis. As we got more support, we were able to do more."
And that continues today, he says. "We continue to expand what we're doing, how we approach productions. As we get more resources, we continue to do more with them, with more productions, concerts and educational outreach programs. We're able to hire more people; we can reach out to people like Christine Brewer as special guests."
Not everything the company tried was successful, including Halloween and spring productions. ("We have found that it works better for us, the artists and our patrons, to do everything in summer.") But other things have worked out well: a new house concert series introduced last year sold out. That three-concert series returns this fall, with an October recital by soprano Mary Dunleavy.
Nowadays, UAO holds auditions in New York, St. Louis and Los Angeles, hearing about 400 singers each year. There's always a waiting list. Unlike some companies, UAO holds open auditions; singers need not have an agent.
In 2007, a capital campaign resulted in some major construction work, including an expansion of the stage and the digging — by volunteers — of an orchestra pit. The physical plant has been greatly improved over the years.
For a long time, Schoonover was the company's only employee. For the last several years, Emily DePauw Stolarski has been the full-time administrative director. "That's made all the difference," Schoonover says, allowing UAO to go after more grants; it's planning to add a part-time office worker as well.
What does the future hold? At 48, he says, "I definitely have more years in me. I'm sure there'll come a day when I'll want to do something else and have a summer free for the first time in my life. But Union Avenue Opera will continue after me."
With a strong board and supportive patrons, St. Louis will have opera all summer long.