After a year without live productions, Opera Theatre of St. Louis returns with a reimagined 2021 festival season — in-person, outdoors and socially distanced.
The festival runs May 22 through June 20 and includes four new productions, the ever-popular “Center Stage” showcase, a new free-seat initiative and a new Juneteenth concert in partnership with the Missouri Historical Society.
OTSL canceled its 2020 festival season, instead presenting a lineup of virtual offerings.
“I’m thrilled to be getting back to what we do best, which is live performance and bringing people together through the power and beauty of opera,” general director Andrew Jorgensen says.
Operas will be presented on a covered stage on the parking lot adjacent to the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, OTSL’s usual home venue on the Webster University campus. Singers and musicians — competing with noise from passing cars and overhead planes — will be amplified.
Pairs of audience members will be seated in distanced pods, and concessions will be available for guests to enjoy before the performance.
Acclimating productions to the outdoors and traversing COVID safety protocols has been challenging, “but also an opportunity to stretch our creative muscles,” Jorgensen says.
The new challenges affected all aspects of the company’s work.
“How do you design lighting for an opera outdoors that starts before the sun has fully set? How do we account for weather? How do we get supertitles to our audience members? The list of items to prepare for seemed endless, but thankfully our staff never gives up on finding solutions,” he says.
“The arts are reemerging from the pandemic, and we are feeling more creative, determined and hopeful than ever before.”
In addition to moving outdoors, OTSL is launching a free-seat initiative called “Phyllis Seats,” in honor of board member and donor Phyllis Brissenden, who died in December 2019. The program provides 30 free tickets for each performance, reserved online or by phone beginning two days before every show. The program is a first for any major American opera company.
Another first for OTSL is the Juneteenth Concert, “I Dream a World,” presented at the Missouri History Museum.
“The murders of so many people of color, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, weighed very heavily on us,” Jorgensen says, “and we spent a lot of time as a staff looking more deeply at what equity and diversity means to OTSL. We’ve long championed telling diverse stories by diverse composers and having a diverse group of singers onstage, but how else could we recommit ourselves to fostering a truly inclusive company? How could we commit to our city in a new way?
“I’m proud of how we’ve grown as an organization, and we can’t wait to welcome audiences and artists back to our festival gardens.”
Storytelling is as relevant as ever — even more so in light of pandemic fatigue.
“Opera tells stories that people can relate to, whether it’s about family, romance, loss or tackling hard issues like racial equity,” Jorgensen says. “When you go to an opera, you hear stories that help us understand the human condition.”
With the exception of “I Dream a World,” this season’s performances are 90 minutes or less with no intermission and take place on the outdoor stage.
OTSL encourages patrons to dress comfortably and prepare for the weather. A performance may continue during light rain but may also be paused or canceled. Information about cancellations and other policies can be found at experienceopera.org or by calling 314-668-7111.
About the operas
When 8 p.m. May 22, May 26, May 28, June 2, June 6, June 11 • Where Outdoor stage, Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves • How much $39; free tickets available • More info 314-961-0644; experienceopera.org
The festival starts with Giacomo Puccini’s comic opera in one act, “Gianni Schicchi,” a replacement for the originally scheduled “Harvey Milk,” which has been moved to the 2022 festival season. “Gianni Schicchi” is the third in a trilogy of one-act operas titled “Il trittico (The Triptych).” The opera takes place in 13th-century Florence and depicts an event from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The Donati family mourns the loss of its patriarch, Buoso, but after learning that he has left his fortune to a monastery, they enlist the help of the upstart Gianni Schicchi to rework the will — with several unexpected results. Seán Curran serves as the stage director, and St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate Leonard Slatkin will be at the podium. The cast includes Levi Hernandez, Joshua Blue, Elena Villalón, La’Shelle Allen, Jermaine Smith, Meghan Kasanders and Nathan Stark.
‘Highway 1, U.S.A.’
When 8 p.m. May 29, June 4, June 9, June 13, June 17 • Where Outdoor stage, Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves • How much $39; free tickets available • More info 314-961-0644; experienceopera.org
The season includes “Highway 1, U.S.A.” by William Grant Still, the “dean” of African American composers. Leonard Slatkin (St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conductor laureate) conducts, and Ron Himes (Black Rep founder and producing director) serves as stage director. The opera tells the story of a married couple, Bob and Mary, who help Bob’s younger brother, Nate, through college. Tensions build as Mary realizes Nate needs more time to “establish himself.” The score blends elements of Romanticism, blues and musical theater. The cast includes Nicole Cabell, Rehanna Thelwell, Christian Mark Gibbs and Will Liverman.
‘La Voix Humaine’
When 8 p.m. June 5, June 14, June 20 • Where Outdoor stage, Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves • How much $39; free tickets available • More info 314-961-0644; experienceopera.org
Francis Poulenc’s “La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice)” is a one-act “lyric tragedy” that eavesdrops on the phone conversation of a woman as her lover breaks off the relationship and she tries to win him back. This one-woman opera features soprano Patricia Racette in a self-directed marathon performance, with Sunny Yoon on piano.
‘New Works, Bold Voices’
When 8 p.m. June 10, June 12, June 16, June 18 • Where Outdoor stage, Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves • How much $39; free tickets available • More info 314-961-0644; experienceopera.org
This production features the world premiere of three 20-minute operas — “The Tongue & the Lash” by Damien Sneed and Karen Chilton; “On the Edge” by Laura Karpman and Taura Stinson; “Moon Tea” by Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert — performed as one suite of works. The stories focus on parenting during a pandemic, reimagined histories, and an imagined conversation between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. after their famous 1964 debate.
‘I Dream a World’
When 6 p.m. June 15 • Where Missouri History Museum north lawn, 5700 Lindell Boulevard, Forest Park • How much Free with registration • More info mohistory.org/events/i-dream-a-world
In partnership with the Missouri History Museum, OTSL presents its inaugural concert celebrating Juneteenth, “I Dream a World.” The event is curated by baritone Will Liverman and soprano Nicole Cabell, with music direction by Kevin Miller. The program includes opera, jazz, spoken word, spirituals and more.
When 8 p.m. June 19, 1 p.m. June 20 • Where Outdoor stage, Webster University, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves • How much $39; free tickets available • More info 314-961-0644; experienceopera.org
The annual young artist showcase features members of OTSL’s Gerdine Young Artist Program. Singers perform a variety of music from opera’s greatest hits. Center Stage is curated by Patricia Racette, artistic director of Young Artist Programs, and James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre.